Al-Shabaab: five key questions about Nairobi mall terrorists
Brutal Westgate assault suggests hardline jihadist agenda of group's leader is coming to fore
AL-SHABAAB, the Somali militant group claiming responsibility for the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, is less well known than some jihadist organisations. In recent years it has been ousted from the towns in southern and central Somalia it once controlled, but remains a "potent threat", says the BBC. Here are five key questions about the group whose name means ‘The Youth' in Arabic.
When did it emerge? Al-Shabaab began life as the "radical youth wing" of al-Ittihad al-Islami, one of many extremist groups formed in Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s, says The Atlantic. When a group called the Islamic Courts Union established a "modicum of central authority" in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, Al-Shabaab became its military wing. In 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and ousted the Islamic Courts Union from power, prompting Al-Shabaab to begin an insurgency.
Who leads Al-Shabaab? The group's leader is Ahmed Abdi Godane. He took control when his predecessor, Moalim Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed in a US airstrike in 2008. Godane consolidated his grip on the organisation in June by staging an internal coup in which four senior Al-Shabaab commanders were executed. The Guardian's Simon Tisdall says the Westgate attack appears to be a "chilling statement of intent" from Godane, who is keen to cement his authority. It was Godane who ordered the 2010 suicide bomb attack on a screening of the World Cup final in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 people. He is also believed to be behind the 2011 decision to affiliate with al-Qaida and adopt its "global jihadist outlook".
How many fighters does it have? No one knows for sure, but the group is believed to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters. "Some of the insurgents' foreign fighters are from the Middle East with experience in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts," reports the Daily Telegraph. "Others are young, raw recruits from Somali communities in the United States and Europe." There are reports that the influx of foreign fighters has caused Al-Shabaab to "fracture". The outsiders are supportive of the decision to affiliate with al-Qaida and develop a regional strategy, while the group's Somali members believe its struggle should focus on their homeland.
How much of Somalia do they control? Al-Shabaab had control of Mogadishu and "large swathes" of central and southern Somalia until 2011. They were pushed out of the capital that year by a United Nations-backed force from the African Union, including soldiers from neighboring Kenya and Uganda. The militants lost the vital port of Kismayo the following year, 2012. Al-Shabaab still controls some rural areas of Somalia, however, where it has imposed strict Sharia law. Women accused of adultery have been stoned to death and thieves have had their hands amputated.
What does the future hold? Al-Shabaab is under pressure on a number of fronts. The group's only ally in the region is Eritrea which allegedly supplies the group with arms and uses it as a proxy against Kenya. Al-Shabaab has lost popular support inside Somalia by ejecting Western aid agencies trying to help victims of the country's famine. It has also alienated Sufis – the more moderate strain of Islam followed by the majority of Somalis – by destroying Sufi shrines. Somalia's first elected government in more than two decades won power a year ago and has "a window of opportunity to fundamentally change Somalia's trajectory," the US State Department says. ·