The Cable

How the United States is Trying to stop al-Shabab

Days after President Obama announced a trip to Nairobi, an al-Shabab attack at a university in Kenya has left at least 70 dead. U.S. efforts to stop the group are falling short.


Just days after President Barack Obama announced a summer trip to Kenya, al-Shabab, the Islamist group that’s been terrorizing East Africa for years, provided a grim reminder that it remains a dangerous force and that U.S. efforts to dismantle it have fallen short.

Early Thursday morning, militants stormed a university in Garissa, a city about 230 miles east of Nairobi. At least 147 are dead while 65 are behind held hostage, separated by their Muslim or Christian religions. Reports indicate Muslim students are being released. Some 500 are still unaccounted for. The Kenyan interior ministry says two of the militants have been killed.

For years, the United States has waged a stealthy campaign against the group. The best known encounter — and the one al-Shabab takes great pride in — came in 2013, when militants turned back Seal Team 6 in Barawe, Somalia, an costal al-Shabab stronghold in Somalia. The failed U.S. raid followed al-Shabab’s siege in September 2013 of the upscale Westgate mall in Nairobi, which left 67 dead. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports since 2007 the United States has conducted between seven and 11 similar covert raids in Somalia, leaving between 23 and 105 militants dead.

The Pentagon also has launched a number of drone strikes in Somalia to take out the group’s leadership. Last month, a U.S. strike targeted Adan Garar, who is believed to have planned the violence at Westgate, and two other senior al-Shabab members. Garar was killed in the strike.

This followed a February 2015 strike against Abdi Nur Mahdi, the group’s chief of external operations. Last September, an American drone attack took out the group’s leader and one of the most wanted men in Africa, Ahmed Abdi Godane. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that since 2007, the Defense Department has conducted between nine and 13 drone strikes in Somalia that have killed between 40 and 141 al-Shabab members.

The Treasury Department is also attempting to financially starve al-Shabab through a series of sanctions against Somalia, the group’s home. Private financial institutions are also cutting off money transfers from the U.S. to Somalia. The Merchants Bank of California, responsible for 60 to 80 percent of the remittances sent to Somalia from the United States and the last big bank still transferring money to Somalia, announced in January it would no longer send money from Somali immigrants back home in an effort to stop American money from ending up in the hands of the group.

But as Thursday’s university attack proves, the group is resilient and killing its leadership has done little to deter it. Last week, al-Shabab militants laid siege to an upscale hotel in Mogadishu, killing at least nine. According to BBC World Service Africa editor Mary Harper, drone strikes could embolden the militants.

Drone attacks give al-Shabab “almost a legitimacy in terms of the kind of group that they are claiming to be,” Harper said in a recent podcast. U.S. strategy makes the group like “a global force to be reckoned with, even though they are in fact just a group of people running around in the Somali bush.”

Photo Credit: Simon Maina/Getty Images

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