The Threat of Al-Shabaab: Not an Illusion
The recent terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya, executed by the al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab (AS), has ignited a new debate over the extent to which AS poses a threat to the U.S. Some have described AS as on the verge of defeat and said the Nairobi attack was a last-ditch effort. Still others point to the lack of evidence indicating a current AS plot to attack the U.S.
But if we consider the evidence, we come to realize that the AS threat must be taken seriously. Clearly, U.S. counterterrorism officials agree, as evidenced by the Oct. 5 strike on Al-Shabaab forces in Somalia.
It was only two years ago when the House of Representatives issued this report. It unveils many chilling details about AS, including:
- At least 40 Americans have joined AS, and there is a danger of these fighters returning to the U.S. to attack the homeland.
- AS has an active recruitment and radicalization network inside the U.S., focusing on cities with large Somali-American populations. These cities include Minneapolis; Boston; Columbus, OH; San Diego; Washington, D.C.; and Lewiston, Maine.
- At least 38 AS-related federal indictments were unsealed between 2009-2011 in Minnesota, Ohio, California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Missouri, Alabama, Virginia, and Texas.
Considering that this report is over two years old, we must also analyze significant AS developments in the last two years:
Hundreds of American, European, and Middle Eastern citizens have traveled to Somalia to fight with AS.
- AS has developed an elite suicide bombing unit, has a research and development unit, and has been trying to acquire chemical weapons.
- AS may have established ties between Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based terrorist group, and Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
- AS established formal ties with al-Qaeda. This gives them access to a diverse group of approx. 100,000 AQ-inspired fighters who are willing to fight anywhere around the world.
- AS has also successfully recruited significant numbers of Somali-Canadians.
- AS has established formal ties with Kenyan Islamist group Al-Hijra, developed two terrorist cells in Kenya, and began calling for jihad in Kenya.
- Many Somali-Americans who traveled to Somalia left the country by crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.
As more evidence is revealed from the Nairobi attack, we are beginning to get a more accurate picture of AS's global reach. To this point, the 10-15 suspected attackers have been identified as being from Kenya, Sudan, the U.S., Norway, Finland, Canada, the U.K., and Somalia.
AS Merger With AQAP
Most concerning is that AS has likely allied with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP is currently considered the group most capable of attacking the U.S. homeland. Given the number of AS members who are U.S. citizens, a merger between AQAP and AS would be alarming, as it would combine the group most capable of successfully attacking the U.S. with the group who has the most extensive network within the U.S.
In addition, one of the suspected ringleaders of the Nairobi attack, Abdikadar Mohamed Abdikadad, is described as a "liaison between commanders of ... al-Shabab ... with terrorist cells linked to al-Qaeda in Kenya, Yemen and the Afghanistan-Pakistan area."
Furthermore, AQAP is based in Yemen, which is separated from Somalia only by the Gulf of Aden. There have been several incidents of large shipments of weaponry being seized from ships in the region. And there are growing fears that Yemeni security forces have lost control of many parts of the country. In addition, ships around Somalia always face the threat of being attacked by pirates. Not to mention, the U.S. State Dept. currently advises against travel to nearly every country in the region.
Recent AS Attacks
Since 2007, AS has carried out nearly 550 attacks, with over 200 outside Somalia in 2012.
Other recent AS attacks include:
- April 2013 attack on a Somali court complex. Ironically, this attack was also described as an "act of desperation."
- June 2013 attack on a U.N. compound in Mogadishu, Somalia.
- Sep. 2013 attack on a restaurant in Mogadishu.
- Sep. 2013 attempted assassination on the Somali president.
- Michael Adebolajo, the suspect in the gruesome killing of British soldier Lee Grigsby in May, was reportedly recruited by AS.
- So when we take all this into account, it is clear that AS has the capabilities and the intent to execute attacks worldwide.
New Criteria Needed
In the case with AS, many analysts claim that we have been successful because of the territory gained in Somalia, thus forcing AS underground. More likely, however, the AS fighters simply left Somalia and went to neighboring countries, giving us a false sense of victory. This is also what happened in Afghanistan, and in Mali last summer.
AS doesn't need to have more territory, or more soldiers than the U.S., in order for them to remain a threat. Rather, AQ has remained significant due to its ability to form alliances with regional terrorist groups, such as AS. With this approach, "Al Qaeda can effectively influence any conflict, be the major stakeholder across a variety of regions and represent a diverse range of interests. This allows it to stay in control of the global war[.]"
Instead of analyzing our successes from a traditional military perspective, we need new criteria. The Quilliam Foundation recently developed an index of six indicators that can be used to analyze a terrorist group's effectiveness. Although this index doesn't offer a solution, it does provide us with better criteria on how to judge the effectiveness of AS. And with a better understanding, we can then develop improved solutions.
But before we can agree on particular strategies, we must have a common understanding on the threats we face. AS is one of them.
Matt Ernst is a law enforcement officer and independent national security analyst. Matt writes and manages the blog Straight Talk (http://matthewaernst.wordpress.com/). Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.