Al Shabab’s Strategy Is Wanton Murder
Attacking civilians is one of the few things still holding the terror group together
On April 2, at least four gunmen from the Somali terror group Al Shabab turned the campus of Garissa University College into a scene that’s too horrible to contemplate.
The killers attacked a Christian prayer room. They told cowering students to reveal themselves if they wanted to live, and then shot them. They lined people up on the ground and put bullets in their heads.
They killed 147 people — 142 of them students. They targeted Christians, but they killed Muslims, too.
The attack on the college in the northern city of Garissa is the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi.
During the past several years, Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab has massacred people at the Westgate shopping mall, a World Cup watch party and executed Christian miners at a quarry.
There’s a cold and murderous logic to Al Shabab’s attacks. It helps the group stay relevant as Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and Islamic State compete for the attention of ideological fellow-travelers — and foreign fighters — abroad.
It keeps the group’s own internal power structure unified, since Al Shabab can no longer seize and hold territory significant territory inside Somalia. The attacks are also a strategy aimed at turning Kenyans against each other.
Al Shabab emerged during the mid-2000s. The Islamist but comparatively less-awful Islamic Courts Union ruled Somalia until 2006, when an Ethiopian invasion kicked the ICU out of power.
But this created a vacuum — Somalia’s transitional government was in no shape to take power on its own — and Al Shabab filled it.
Like the ICU, Al Shabab had a nationalist bent, and at first focused its efforts on taking power within the country. It fought a guerrilla war with the occupying Ethiopians, and even managed to take over the southern port town of Kismayo.
Then in 2011, Kenya invaded Somalia as part of an African Union contingent. The troops captured Kismayo the following year. In 2014, the A.U. troops launched another offensive into the countryside against Al Shabab.
But the Kenyans’ main goal was to create a quasi-state known as Azania along the Kenyan-Somali border. Kenya installed an Azanian president and legislature to govern this buffer state-within-a-state.
To be sure, Nairobi had long worried about Al Shabab attacking across its border. But Kenya never sent enough troops to keep the terror group contained, either. The border is nearly 700 miles long, and Kenya only has 3,664 troops in Somalia at the moment, part of the 22,126-strong AMISOM force.
“AMISOM can not secure the countryside,” professor Stig Jarle Hansen wrote in his 2013 book Al Shabaab in Somalia. “They are simply not large enough.”
Worse, the invasion crystallized a shift in Al Shabab’s strategy. Instead of trying to seize power, Al Shabab would carry out guerrilla attacks against the foreign invaders, while striking out at Kenya’s civilian population.
It’s not as if Al Shabab had the ability — or domestic support — to regain its lost territory. In 2011, the terror group killed dozens of college students in Mogadishu with a truck bomb. The attack alienated many Somalis from their cause.
Militant leader Ahmed Abdi Godane ordered the bomb attack, which also alienated several of Al Shabab’s constituent clans. A power struggle ensued, and Godane quickly purged his rivals and marginalized the group’s Islamic Shura council. Godane reached out to Al Qaeda and positioned the group as its affiliate in the Horn of Africa.
He was in control. The Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi followed in 2013—and killed 63 people and wounded more than 175.
In September 2014, Godane and several of his bodyguards stopped their vehicle on a road south of Mogadishu for a snack break. They heard drones flying overhead … and ran. The United States — with support from commandos on the ground — fired a barrage of Hellfire missiles and killed Godane.
But little has changed since. Al Shabab’s new leader, Ahmad Umar, was one of Godane’s close associates and espouses the same internationalist and jihadist ideology. He has an affiliate group inside Kenya — known as Al Hijra — at his command.
Al Hijra emerged from the Muslim Youth Center — a preceding radical Islamist group in Kenya. The group renamed itself to Al Hijra in 2012.
“The MYC thrived by generating funds, as well as recruiting and training networks for Al Shabab in Kenyan towns such as Nairobi, Garissa, Mombasa and Eldoret,” noted CTC Sentinel, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s newsletter. “Some of the recruits had their travel facilitated to Somalia, where they would fight for Al Shabab.”
These radicalized fighters could apply their combat experiences in Somalia to attacks inside Kenya.
It’s a horrific but low-cost way to demonstrate that Al Shabab is still relevant. During both the Westgate and Garissa University attacks, four killers armed with light weapons singled out non-Muslims and executed them. They told survivors the attacks were in retaliation for the Kenyan invasion of Somalia.
In both cases, the Kenyan security forces were unprepared.
A secondary goal is to antagonize Kenya’s security forces into harassing and intimidating Kenya’s Muslim minority — which can include extrajudicial killings. Over time, that helps the terror group gain followers.
In interviews with locals and survivors of the attacks, the Washington Post described this dynamic. Al Shabab targets Christians and Muslims, but singles out the Christians. Kenyan Christians — wrongly — blame Kenyan Muslims for the actions of Al Shabab. Finally, the police detain, harass or otherwise mistreat Muslims who had nothing to do with the killings.
Al Shabab benefits.
We don’t know the identities of who carried out the latest attack. They spoke “fluent” Swahili, according to witnesses who spoke to the Kenyan Daily Nation newspaper. This could mean the attackers were radicalized Kenyans, but we don’t know for sure.