Al-Shabaab follows ISIS’ deadly playbook

Al-Shabab,Qaeda-linked militant group. Photo courtesy www.cfr.org
Al-Shabab,Qaeda-linked militant group.
Photo courtesy www.cfr.org

By Sandile Lukhele

Somalia’s al-Shabaab is in no position to carry out threatened attacks in Canada, the UK and the US, but may inspire North American and British jihadists. However, the publicity garnered by a propaganda video and another mass murder represents successful manipulations of Western media and American Islamophobia.

Skilful propaganda and a deadly university attack may raise recruits and financial sponsorship

Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, or al-Shabaab as the group is commonly known, faced a dilemma in February 2015 following continuing battlefield defeats from the African Union (AU) Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Of paramount concern to the jihadist group whose goal is to transform Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state was the group’s diminishing control of the country due to AMISOM’s effective counter-insurgency campaign. As in any enterprise, success brings young, new individuals drawn to that success, as well as the financial backing of investors who see a likelihood of results for their sponsorship. Failure in the form of shrinking territory under al-Shabaab’s command and news coverage of its defeats inhibited both the recruitment of new members and the largesse of new sponsors.

One response was to reprise the deadly attack on Kenyan soil, when 67 people were killed in an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013. On 1 April 2015, al-Shabaab gunmen attacked a teaching college, Garissa University College in Garissa Kenya, only 200 km from the Somali border, massacring 147 students. The 15-hour siege of the university received considerable international media coverage in the wake of al-Shabaab’s release on 21 February 2015 of a feature film-length production on social media in which the group threatened to attack shopping malls in Canada and the US. The ploy was successful. Endowing the threat with credibility based on the group’s previous widely-publicised attack on Westgate Shopping Mall, al-Shabaab again garnered worldwide attention, grabbing headlines and the lead slots in broadcast news programmes. A terrorist has success not just by killing, maiming or kidnapping but also by unsettling and discombobulating a vulnerable or simply skittish population.

As unlikely – indeed, as virtually impossible – as it would be for the Somali militants to mount an attack on a North American target, al-Shabaab in its 70-minute video production suggested ways mayhem might be created by indigenous American and Canadian Muslims who might be rallied to answer the jihadist call. Thus, al-Shabaab succeeded in stoking North American’s post-9/11 trepidations about their security as well as their paranoia about the Muslim community in their midst. A June 2014 poll of Americans by Zoby Analytics commissioned by the Washington-based Arab American Institute (AAI) found that only 27% of Americans had a favourable opinion of Muslim Americans, which was down significantly from 36% of Americans, still only one in three, who felt favourably toward Muslim Americans in 2010.

In 2015, when the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was transcendent amongst jihadist organisations, all of which compete for a finite number of recruits and financial sponsors, al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab pulled off a public relations coup d’état as enviable to other terror groups as it was unsettling to threatened North Americans.

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Mall attacks become a ‘brand’ for al-Shabaab to exploit at will

Al-Shabaab originated as the enforcement body for the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which originated in 2004 out of a need to address the lawlessness that engulfed Somalia after the central government collapsed with the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The ICU was comprised of local and clan-based courts, whose decisions required enforcement. The task was assumed by al-Shabaab (the name is an Arabic phrase meaning “the youth”), which was organised as a militia. By 2006, the law enforcers had become a law unto themselves as they virtually controlled Mogadishu while also taking control of most of southern Somalia. Adept at guerrilla warfare and the execution of terror incidents, the group took effective aim at its principal enemy, the Somalia Federal Government (SFG). However, the group’s principal weakness is its decentralised authority which made the jihadists vulnerable to both the centralised SFG and the organised opposition of AMISOM and forces from Ethiopia aligned with AMISOM against al-Shabaab. As counter-insurgency efforts were taking a toll in 2013, al-Shabaab’s structural weaknesses were becoming apparent. The divergent Somali clans who comprise al-Shabaab are united under a goal of creating an Islamic caliphate out of the historically-conflicted country. However, rather than follow a central authority, the group members tend to take orders from clan leaders who are torn asunder by rivalries and were taken aback when al-Shabaab leadership aligned with al-Qaeda in February 2012 when the direction of the conflict seemed to change. Rather than a local affair for control over their immediate homelands, they had entered into al-Qaeda’s global battle for which they were not prepared and had no real enthusiasm. The warlords and clan leaders may have proclaimed a desire for an Islamic State but in fact, desired a confederation of many small Somali fiefdoms in which each leader would rule independently.

The al-Qaeda linkage reflected al-Shabaab’s need for international allies, as well as the expansion at that time of its fight for national control beyond Somalia’s borders. Left on its own, al-Shabaab would be content to direct all its energies toward the destruction of the SFG. However, the international community was desirous of a stable Somalia, and worked jointly to assist the country to rise from its “failed state” status. Security for sea lanes around the Horn of Africa would be obtained only through the pacification of Somali warlords. An unstable Somalia would create the type of security vacuum into which terror groups rush – as was symptomatic when al-Qaeda joined hands with al-Shabaab.

Against nations which participated in military offences against the jihadist group and which supported the SFC, al-Shabaab began exporting its terror strikes. Seventy people were killed in Kampala when al-Shabaab suicide bombers struck twice in the Ugandan capital in 2010. A June 2013 bombing in Mogadishu had a UN compound as its target, and resulted in 22 fatalities. The September 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi – which caused hundreds of casualties including 60 deaths – was al-Shabaab’s deadly protest against Kenya’s military involvement in the AMISOM operation. Al-Shabaab did not claim responsibility for a June 2014 attack that killed 50 tourists in Mpeketoni, Kenya, but the group is believed to be the culprit.

There may be reason to suspect that al-Shabaab is not seriously considering an attack on North America all by itself, but rather is trading on its Westgate Mall atrocity that was highly publicised in the West as a means to raise the terror threat level in a distant locale where it is logistically impossible to operate. The achievement of the fear and insecurity that are the twin goals of terrorism is thereby obtained without actual killings or property destruction.

Familiar with East African transportation routes and borders, it was and is relatively easy for al-Shabaab operatives to move fighters into and out of Kenya, Uganda and other targets. Weaponry can be delivered separately or obtained at the locations of attacks through local support or contacts. Movement across half the globe to North America is another matter. Air travel is required, as would be passage through a US security system that has listed al-Shabaab as an International Terror Organisation since 2008. The grenades, automatic rifles and other weaponry used to slaughter shoppers at the Westgate Mall might be relatively easy for American gun enthusiasts to obtain due to the growing power of the US gun industry and its customers. However, foreigners, particularly Somali Muslims, would find that duplicating the arsenal used against Westgate Mall to attack Minnesota’s Mall of America would be a daunting challenge.

In place of such an attack in actuality, al-Shabaab used the power of suggestion to induce a terror response. Rather than attempt the attack themselves, al-Shabaab called upon American Muslims to carry out the jihadist work. A mass uprising of militant Muslims in Minnesota will not happen, but the prospect of such an uprising and the threat of Westgate Mall-like carnage on US soil was the basis of paranoia-encouraging propaganda that on its own succeeded as an act of terror – a virtual act but one that proved psychologically real.

American Muslims are smeared by al-Shabaab propaganda

The Mall of America may not have been singled out by al-Shabaab as one site for a terror attack only because the name, which suggests not just the type of shopping complex that has come to exemplify America’s lifestyle but which also declares itself the Mall of America. Nonetheless, symbolism is paramount in propaganda, and the mall’s patriotic if presumptuous name (there are more interesting, attractive and even larger malls elsewhere in the US) must have certainly resonated with al-Shabaab’s propagandists.

Rather, the main goal of the propaganda video was to enflame American concern regarding patriotism and thus security risks posed by Muslim Americans. In all, five shopping malls or districts were named in al-Shabaab’s video, including Oxford Street and two Westfield malls in London, and West Edmonton Mall in Canada. All these centres are within proximity to expatriate Somali populations. As Somalis living in Canada, the UK and the US have not previously engaged in terror attacks against commercial establishments, it may be deduced that given years of opportunity they have no interest in doing so. This, however, is not pertinent to al-Shabaab propagandists, who were not concerned that by calling on Somalis to kill and destroy they were putting Somalis living abroad in predicaments that range from embarrassment to actual risk of reprisals from vigilantes fearful of terror attacks and of security measures that could restrict their lives. Of course, al-Shabaab may be irritated with Somalis living abroad who have failed to attack those of their host countries who are part of an international coalition tasked with the group’s extermination.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb of Bloomington is the site of the Mall of America, where 400 stores and attractions draw up to 40 million visitors annually. Minneapolis and St. Paul, the so-called Twin Cities of the US state of Minnesota, also hosts America’s largest population of people of Somali ancestry. Among these 25,000 Somali Americans are 14,000 who reside in the Cedar-Riverside portion of Minneapolis, which is known as ‘Little Mogadishu’ and is characterised by tantalising ethnic restaurants. The neighbourhood is not known for terrorism incidents. The real danger lies in whether al-Shabaab propaganda succeeds in planting the notion that the residents are susceptible to calls to launch grenades and bullets at Mall of America shoppers.

All successful propaganda is seeded in some reality. A US federal investigation, Operation Rhino, found that some young male Minneapolis residents were apparently travelling to Somalia to meet and perhaps be recruited by al-Shabaab between 2007 – when 20 men visited Somalia – to 2009, by which year 6 more men had made the trip. Tracked by investigators, some Somali Australians who made trips to Somalia, where they were trained to carry out suicide attacks, were arrested upon their return to Australia before they managed to execute such attacks against an army base in Sydney. In the US, Robert Mueller, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said he was concerned – if not certain – that Somali Americans could perform similar attacks on US soil.

Five years later, however, none have performed such attacks in the US, and travel between the US and Somalia remains closely monitored by international security organisations to ensure that potential al-Shabaab recruits and operatives are identified. Nonetheless, the travels of 26 Somali Americans from Minnesota during the last decade provided what little fact is required by conspiracy theorists, and this works to the advantage of al-Shabaab’s propaganda.

This article is extracted from the April 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential 80+ page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

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Facts can counter al-Shabaab propaganda

The US media response to al-Shabaab’s “Muslim uprising against American malls” was shrill and sensational, and fed into the terror group’s desire for attention. It is difficult to quantify the number of new recruits and financial sponsors drawn to al-Shabaab by Western media and authorities who took seriously the group’s propaganda. However, all such attention-seeking when it succeeds manages to attract both new recruits and money.

The antidote against such propaganda would be sensible analysis and statement of facts, such as the unlikelihood of all but a handful of Somali Americans to heed the jihadists call, as was shown in Operation Rhino a decade ago. Even that handful was carefully monitored to mitigate any threat. The internal division of al-Shabaab’s clan-based organisation coupled with the seeming historical ebb of its ally, al-Qaeda, as ISIS becomes the dominant global terror group is leading to a diminishment of al-Shabaab’s influence in Somalia as surely as its territory is being stripped away by international peacekeepers like AMISOM. The Garissa university mass murder served no practical purpose but succeeded in capturing global attention as an antidote to battlefield loses and irrelevancy.

Perhaps threats are all that remain for al-Shabaab. However, the success they found with their call to attack Western shopping malls could be the type of public relations campaign that will be taught in marketing classes for years to come, or probably be replicated by other terror groups who will find it similarly easy to exploit America’s Islamophobia.


(1) Sandile Lukhele is an analyst for ACM and author of political and social commentary for African and international publications.