Al-Shabab Crosses the Rubicon

With its horrific attack on a Kenyan university, the Somali militant group has given up all pretense of governing — and has joined the depths of global jihadi depravity.

Al-Qaeda linked al-shabab recruits walk
Al-Qaeda linked al-shabab recruits walk down a street on March 5, 2012 in the Deniile district of Somalian capital, Mogadishu, following their graduation. The walls of the former Shebab base in Baidoa, Somalia, are littered with rudimentary drawings of machine guns and tanks, a note reading "Fear God, don't write on these walls" and a sketch of an Al-Qaeda flag, homage to the rebel group's international allies. The crumbling building is now occupied by Ethiopian troops who nearly two weeks ago forced Shebab rebels out of Baidoa, their former Shebab stronghold and Somalia's third-largest city. AFP PHOTO/Mohamed ABDIWAHAB (Photo credit should read Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images)

Early on the morning of April 2, gunmen from the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab attacked Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya. After launching several hand grenades, gunmen moved door to door inside the campus dorms, separating Christians and Muslims. Reportedly, Christians were shot on the spot, and some victims were beheaded. Hostages were taken, and Kenyan authorities report that at least 147 people, including four attackers, have been killed. Many others are injured or still missing.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta quickly condemned the attack, and the government put out a bounty of 20 million shillings ($215,000) for information on the incident’s alleged mastermind, Mohamed Mohamud (known as “Dulyadin”).

The violence in Garissa marks the bloodiest terrorist attack on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and is al-Shabab’s most high-profile violence in the country since the 2013 attack on the Westgate mall. It also represents a final point in al Shabab’s long evolution from a populist resistance movement into a full-blown, international terrorist organization. The execution of students has special significance for al-Shabab: The high-profile bombing of a graduation ceremony for newly minted doctors in Mogadishu in 2009 was one of the group’s most embarrassing political blunders, and it has largely refrained from direct attacks on students since then. Its willingness to claim this latest incident marks a visible shift in strategy.

More worryingly, the attack on a secular school, the hunt for Christian students, and the effort to take hostages are all hallmarks of Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group infamous for its kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014. Assuming that the evocation of Boko Haram is deliberate, the Garissa assault could signal an intention to realign al-Shabab, long linked to al Qaeda, with the Islamic State. (Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in March.) If so, al-Shabab should be expected to use ever more flamboyantly violent tactics in the future, as it seeks to compete with other Islamic State affiliates for notoriety and for relevance in the global jihad.

* * *

Created more than a decade ago, al-Shabab has struggled throughout its existence to manage two competing impulses: the desire to govern Somalia and the desire to draw the attention and support of al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. The aspiration to govern has essentially been an angel sitting on al-Shabab’s right shoulder: It produced goals of maintaining control of territory, coexisting with Somalia’s clans, and cooperating with humanitarian relief efforts — all in order to achieve a significant degree of political legitimacy. At the same time, there has always been a devil on al-Shabab’s left shoulder, encouraging it to nurture a hunger for the money, technical skills, and infamy offered by participation in the global jihad. This has inclined al-Shabab not only to accept parasitic foreign fighters, but also to esteem them over Somali ones.

Al-Shabab’s early ambitions were limited to overthrowing an unpopular, Western-backed Somali government and kicking peacekeepers out of Somalia. The harsh brand of Islam that it imposed repelled most Somalis, but it was widely tolerated because where al-Shabab gained control, the group brought law and order to crime-ridden communities. Even Western aid workers considered al-Shabab a less corrupt and more capable partner than its government rival, which was infamous for its theft of development and humanitarian funds. The government was also brutal: From 2007 until 2011 — admittedly due to al-Shabab’s goading — government and African Union peacekeepers killed thousands of innocent civilians by indiscriminately launching mortars into marketplaces and residential neighborhoods. This, in turn, gave life and strength to al-Shabab’s insurgency.

Al-Shabab alternated between populist and terrorist tendencies during this period, but populism often won out. Even when the group committed violence, al-Shabab sometimes wavered in claiming it. This was true in the aftermath of the December 2009 suicide bombing of the medical school graduation ceremony, when there was enormous public backlash against al-Shabab. Several villages took down the group’s black flag, and hundreds of students took to the streets of Mogadishu. The demonstrations were the first known protests against al-Shabab and were one of the very few times that the Somali public ever spoke out against the group’s rule.

But by 2011, al-Shabab was losing ground. Strategic and ideological disputes within its ranks were coming to a head. It was forced to abandon Mogadishu that July. The same month, the worst famine in decades struck Somalia, and al-Shabab — which had deforested much of the country through its charcoal trade — was rightly blamed for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed. By the time the famine ended, al-Shabab was universally reviled. Politically, it was dead.

Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in October 2011 might have provided al-Shabab with a chance to revive itself as a governing force. Analysts even feared that Kenya’s capture of a key port city, Kismayo, in September 2012, and its subsequent creation of a puppet government there would allow al-Shabab to rally Somalis to the populist cause of defeating the Kenyan “invaders.” But al-Shabab’s emir, Ahmed Godane, chose a different path, narrowing the group’s members to extremists and rooting its vision firmly in terrorism.

In June 2013, Godane conducted a violent purge. Vital clan allies, including Mukhtar Robow and Hassan Dahir Aweys, fled for their lives, and several foreign fighters who had objected to Godane’s use of violence against fellow Muslims were also killed. This left al-Shabab — what remained of it — unencumbered by administrative or populist concerns.

Three months later, the attack on the Westgate mall occurred. It killed 67 people, including some foreigners, and footage of the carnage shocked the world. The event also shocked many Somalia experts, who had believed that the likely political backlash would prevent al-Shabab from launching a signature terrorist strike on Nairobi, a vital business hub for the Somali diaspora and a key source of remittances. Circumstances, clearly, had changed.

* * *

If the Westgate attack proved that Godane — who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in September 2014 — was willing to burn bridges in Somalia, the attack on Garissa University College signals that al-Shabab’s new leader, Ahmad Umar, is willing to build them with emerging powers in the global jihad. Over the past several months, the group has hit multiple targets in northern Kenya. In November 2014, attackers boarded a bus and executed those who could not recite the Muslim profession of faith. In December, the group executed 36 mostly Christian quarry workers in Mandera County. The Garissa attack is the largest assault to date, and it seems rife with symbolism: namely, the targeting of secular students in a manner that is unmistakably evocative of Boko Haram.

Al-Shabab’s likely future trajectory is grim. For starters, it can expect to benefit from the brutal response of government forces, as it has in the past. Following the Westgate attack, for example, police launched a crackdown on Kenya’s Somali population, imprisoning thousands of people in illegal dragnets. On Kenya’s Muslim-majority coast, efforts by military, intelligence, and police officers have been even severer, leaving local communities terrified of sharing information with the authorities and local leaders complaining that law enforcement is actively reinforcing al-Shabab recruiters’ radical message: that Kenya and its Western backers are only interested in abusing and marginalizing Muslims. And indeed, al-Shabab excels at exploiting poorly disciplined security forces, as well as the anger and alienation of Muslim communities, especially their young men.

However, as it pivots toward the tactics of Boko Haram and, ultimately, the ideology and guidance of the Islamic State, al-Shabab is likely to prey more and more on local populations, engaging in robberies, kidnappings, and other criminal enterprises. Its objective will be to provoke terror, not to win the loyalty or support of Muslim allies.

But it may do more still. In contrast to Boko Haram, al-Shabab could prove a powerful international asset to the Islamic State. While Boko Haram has unleashed violence across parts of northern Nigeria and across a couple of the country’s porous northern borders, it has not yet signaled the ability to attack a neighboring capital. Al-Shabab, however, has already planned or executed attacks in Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and, of course, Kenya. (It is suspected of maintaining sleeper cells as far afield as South Africa.) If it takes on the Islamic State’s mantle, there will likely be few limits on what al-Shabab might dare to do next.

The attack on Garissa University College is a clear signal of just how far al-Shabab’s terrible evolution has gone. This transformation has been mostly hurried (and certainly not hindered) by the misguided efforts of Western and regional governments to counter Somalia’s militants. Repairing the damage done will require a complete overhaul of Kenyan security forces and a willingness on the part of political leaders to engage in good faith on areas of Muslim, Somali, and youth concern.

Policymakers everywhere — not just in Kenya, but in Europe and the United States as well — should see the Garissa massacre as an announcement from al-Shabab that it is willing to join the race to the very bottom depths of the global jihad’s depravity. The longer it takes to implement reform, the more likely it is that even more horrible events will follow.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Bronwyn Bruton is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @BronwynBruton

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