In Depth

Who are al-Shabaab and what do they want?

Somali militant group claims responsibility for Nairobi hotel attack that has left at least 15 dead

The death toll from Tuesday’s terrorist attack on a hotel and office complex in Nairobi has reached 15, according to authorities.

After a near eight-hour gunfight between police and the attackers, Kenya’s interior minister Fred Matiangi said at about 11pm local time that the “situation is under control” and that all affected buildings had been cleared.

However, the BBC reports that explosions were heard early on Wednesday and a security operation is ongoing.

Responsibility for the attack has been claimed by Somalia-based Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, which also orchestrated an attack at the nearby Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013 that left 67 people dead.

Two years later, the group carried out its deadliest ever assault in Kenya, shooting dead almost 150 people at Garissa University, before a truck bombing killed more than 500 people in Mogadishu, in October 2017, the deadliest attack in Somalia.

The group has been active in the area for more than a decade, and The Guardian reports that intelligence services in Kenya were “warned that al-Shabaab was planning terrorist attacks on high-profile targets in the east African country around Christmas and the new year”.

Anonymous officials told the newspaper that they had been “frustrated” not to see a greater response from Kenyan authorities, and that Kenya’s failure to act on the warnings will “embarrass” authorities in the country, which is seen as a “key local counter-terrorist player by the US, UK and other western powers”.

Al-Shabaab continues to pose a significant threat in east Africa, but what does the militant organisation want and how did they become such a prominent force in the region?

What is al-Shabaab?

In 1991, following the ousting of military dictator Siad Barre, a power vacuum formed in Somalia, prompting the outbreak of a full-scale civil war between factions, clans, warlords, militias and the UN-backed government in Mogadishu. 

In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a loose coalition of sharia courts, briefly gained control of the capital and its surrounding districts, which had largely being ruled by warlords for many years. 

Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Arabic for “mujahideen youth movement” or  “movement of striving youth”), commonly shortened to al-Shabaab, is a Somali militant insurgent group that was, according to Newsweek, “spawned by the ICU”.

As the ICU’s militant wing, al-Shabaab rose to prominence after taking a pivotal role in gaining control of Mogadishu, but within months US-backed Ethiopian troops invaded and drove the ICU out of the city.

The coalition was crushed and soon disbanded, but al-Shabaab launched an anti-government insurgency that has continued ever since.

Two years later, the US designated al-Shabaab as a foreign terrorist organisation. In 2012, the group formalised ties with al-Qa’eda, becoming the international militant group’s wing in the Horn of Africa and turning their back on al-Qa’eda rival Islamic State.

What do they want?

Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for a large number of deadly terrorist attacks since 2007, including bombings and massacres across both Somalia and neighbouring nations. Yet their aim is not entirely clear.

Many commentators speculate that the group’s ultimate goal is to transform Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state, with shariah law enacted at a government level.

Al-Shabaab is inspired by the Saudi Arabian Wahabi version of Islam, writes USA Today, although the majority of Somalis belong to the more moderate Sufi branch of the religion. “While they initially won popularity with Somalis by promising security and stability after years of lawlessness and violence,” says the newspaper, “al-Shabab’s destruction of Sufi shrines has cost them much support among locals.”

However, unlike atrocities committed by rival faction Islamic State, which have been described as “indiscriminate”, al-Shabaab’s killings appear to be focused on furthering a doctrine of religious purity.

During some of al-Shabaab’s more high-profile attacks - such as the Garissa University attack, which left 148 dead, and the Westgate shopping mall shooting, in which 67 died - eyewitnesses have spoken of militants separating Muslim civilians from their other captives and allowing them to leave, before executing the non-Muslims.

The Islamists are also alleged to have stormed public transport, forcing passengers to recite verses from the Quran. Those who failed were executed.

Unusually, the group also appears to be concerned with environmental issues, and in July 2018 it explicitly banned single-use plastic bags due to the “serious” threat they pose to both humans and livestock.

What are governments doing to combat them?

For Kenya, some say the best course of action is obvious: Kenya should withdraw its forces currently deployed in Somalia as part of multinational efforts to fight al-Shabaab.

But Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based expert on al-Shabaab with the NGO International Crisis Group, told The Guardian that while Kenyans withdrawing from Somalia would “remove a big reason why al-Shabaab like to strike Kenya”, the group “would still find another reason”.

“They see Nairobi with its big western presence as a bastion of the west,” Abdi added.

Furthermore, corruption at the Somali-Kenya border remains a significant problem, with The East African news website reporting that police officers let five al-Shabaab suicide bombers into the country in February 2018 after receiving bribes.

According to a UN report from early last year, Kenyan security forces routinely accept cash bribes from as low as 2,000 Kenyan shillings (£15) from militants to wave them through.

The BBC reports that military operations by the African Union (AU) in Somalia are “weakening” al-Shabaab, but adds that the group is still able to carry out suicide attacks and has regained control of some towns.

The broadcaster also reports that the AU has reduced its troop presence in the country by around 2,000 over the past year following “a cut in funding by the European Union (EU), amid allegations of corruption within the AU force”, made up of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Despite allegations that the remaining Somali soldiers are “poorly trained and equipped” to defeat the group, the Somali government insists al-Shabaab are fading fast and currently suffers from a lack of funds and manpower.

According to The Guardian, this has forced the group to impose unpopular taxes on local communities that fall under its de facto control.

But a recent National Terrorist Financing Risk Assessment by the US government also found that some US-based al-Shabaab fundraisers have continued to pour money into the group by “explicitly solicit[ing] funds for al-Shabaab’s terrorist activities”, while others have “used false charitable pretenses and then diverted the funds to al-Shabaab”.


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