After Setbacks at Home, Islamic State and Al Shabab Terrorize Abroad
What the radical Islamist groups have — and don't have — in common
Among the horror of the Paris attacks, a curious social media dynamic unfolded. Somehow, attention turned to a seven-month-old BBC article about a terror attack in Kenya, on a college campus in a town called Garissa.
Perhaps assuming that the attack happened recently, readers widely recirculated the story, which received almost four times as many clicks as when it was published originally. Parallels were drawn between the 147 dead, mostly students, in Garissa and the 129 victims in Paris.
The Garissa attacks were of course not committed by Islamic State, but by the Somali Islamist group Al Shabab. Apart from Boko Haram in Nigeria, of which some factions have sworn allegiance to Islamic State, Al Shabab is Africa’s most active and perhaps most influential terrorist organization.
Despite completely distinct origins, the two groups share some surprising similarities, but also important differences.
While the online hype around Garissa is a bit silly, given that when the attack actually happened basically nobody in the West really noticed or cared.
“It’s evidence of how little attention was paid to the attack in the first place, another example of how little attention is paid to attacks that happen outside of the West, or selective outrage as some have called it,” Lily Kuo wrote at Quartz. “Readers assumed the story was new because it was the first time they had heard of it.”
But both Garissa and Paris were the result of similar dynamics. They were the highest profile attacks abroad for the two groups, but they were by no means the first. Islamic State is linked to at least 16 successful or planned attacks outside its main area of operations in Iraq and Syria.
Most recently, Islamic State has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Lebanon, Turkey and the destruction of a Russian plane over Egypt. More than 400 people were killed in these sprees, with hundreds more injured.
Al Shabab has a longer history of international operations, reaching back to the July 2010 Kampala bombings. Al Shabab-sponsored suicide bombers targeted crowds watching the World Cup in the Ugandan capital, killing at least 74. In 2013, Al Shabab fighters slaughtered civilians inside the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Sixty-seven people including the terrorists were killed.
The method of all these attacks are quite similar — individual or small groups of attackers armed with explosives and assault rifles target locations known for large civilian crowds. These targets, like bars, concert venues and shopping centers are often not adequately protected against such attacks, because they can’t be.
While Western commentators — and the terrorists themselves — usually find ways to link these locations as symbolic of a “western lifestyle,” operational concerns seem to outweigh symbolism in the choice of targets. The terrorists literally shoot for the highest possible body counts, not necessarily the highest symbolic value.
There are some indications that Al Shabab and the Islamic State both turn to attacks abroad when they are under military pressure at home. In justifying the Paris attacks, Islamic State made specific references to France’s involvement in the bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. Turkey, Russia and Libya have all participated in military activities against Islamic State.
While not sufficient to defeat Islamic State, the air campaign has degraded some of the group’s capabilities. Kurdish forces have also made territorial gains, recently capturing the strategic town of Sinjar in northern Iraq.
The same is true for Uganda and Kenya in the case of Al Shabab. Both countries participate in the African Union Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, and are actively involved in fighting Al Shabab on the ground. Similarly, both the Kampala bombings and the Garissa attacks came at a point when Al Shabab was struggling to prove its continued relevance after significant territorial losses.
But tactical similarities between the two groups should not cloud the differences in history, strategy and ideology. Al Shabab shares no operational resources with Islamic State whatsoever and there are no proven links between the groups.
While Al Shabab belongs to the Al Qaeda network, Islamic State has broken away from Al Qaeda over the question if the group should attempt to use the territorial control it had in Iraq to declare the Caliphate.
Al Shabab, while brutal, is also acting much less than a conqueror than a defender of its constituencies. The group leans heavily on a nationalistic discourse, claiming to defend Somalia and its Muslim population against outside invaders. That all countries currently intervening in Somalia are Christian only supports this rhetoric.
Al Shabab is adept at playing local politics, expertly balancing the complicated interests and conflicts of Somalia’s various clans, striking compromises where necessary. This is only possible because the group never relied substantially on foreign fighters, with the exception of ethnic Somalis from Kenya.
In contrast, Islamic State is far less compromising. Foreign fighters make up a substantial part of its army, potentially contributing to its greater brutality against every perceived enemy. Where Al Shabab clearly tries to lay the foundations of its long-term political dominance, a goal it wants to achieve at least partly through co-opting local actors, Islamic State is arguably preparing for the apocalypse.
Both groups nominally subscribe to a global vision of Islamism, which will in their view culminate in a reborn Caliphate. But where Islamic State is actively pushing for this vision to become reality, including establishing “provinces” in Libya and Nigeria, Al Shabab has more limited international objectives.
Due to decades of civil war, a substantial number of Somalis live abroad, many in Western countries. Only a fraction of these are even sympathizers of Al Shabab, and much fewer still would be willing to participate in actual attacks.
Instead, Al Shabab concentrates on generating money from sympathizers in the West and from taxing remittances. This is a lucrative business, which would be undermined if it would use the same networks to stage attacks. That clearly shows its priorities — political and military control in Somalia first, everything else a distant second.
For Islamic State, this is almost completely the other way round. Heavily publicized beheadings of hostages and social media campaigns designed to entice foreign fighters are almost guaranteed to attract foreign attention.
Al Shabab, on the other hand, essentially wants to be left alone to establish its version of a theocratic state at home. Attacks such as Garissa and Kampala are designed to contribute to this goal, dissuading foreign intervention.
In contrast, Islamic State really wants to fight the whole world, but has to attract recruits at the same time. With beheading videos losing their charm even for some hardcore supporters, attacks like those in Paris could well be part of a new public relations strategy, aimed both at potential enemies and friends.