Al-Shabab Wants You To Know It’s Alive and Well

The brutal attack in Kenya is designed to show Washington and the world that the terrorist group is still a force to be reckoned with in East Africa.

A man prays at the burial of a friend on January 16, 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya after al-Shabab militants stormed the Dusit hotel complex.
A man prays at the burial of a friend on January 16, 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya after al-Shabab militants stormed the Dusit hotel complex. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

NAIROBI—On Tuesday, just after 3 p.m., Africa’s longest-standing and most effective terrorist group, the al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab, killed at least 21 people in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, bombing and shooting up a posh hotel, office, and shopping complex located in an upscale neighborhood near the city center.

A few hours later, the group claimed responsibility for the attack through one of its news agencies. The next evening, al-Shabab released a statement in Arabic and English saying more than 50 “disbelievers” had been killed in the attack, declaring that the operation, officially code-named “Al-Qudsu Lan Tuhawwad” (“Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized”) was a response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Despite these stated motivations, the attack is largely understood as an effort to put the group in the spotlight as the rival Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) encroaches on its turf and as the United States declares its ramped-up airstrike campaign against the group a success.

ISS entered Somalia via Yemen into the mountains of the semi-autonomous Puntland state in 2015, but it was largely treated as a non-entity. It is only in the past year and a half that ISS has made real headway, establishing itself in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, the site of the deadliest and most consistent al-Shabab assaults. The real sign that ISS made genuine inroads came just last month, when al-Shabab declared war on the gang. An al-Shabab spokesperson, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, accused them of dividing the jihadi efforts and killing its members.

This week’s attack was designed to remind the public that al-Shabab has not gone away. As Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former counterterrorism and security advisor to the current and previous presidents of Somalia and the founder of the Hiraal Institute, pointed out, “The statement came out after they got all the facts on the ground, including the social media hysteria.”

Even though the attack took place in Kenya, the proclamation made no mention of Kenya’s military presence in Somalia, as it has in the past. Nairobi, the economic hub of the region and seat of the headquarters of countless international organizations, was used as a symbol of Western consumerism so al-Shabab could stake its claim as the continental powerhouse, unbowed by the entrance of other extremist actors—namely, ISS—and the increased U.S. assault on it in Somalia.

“They have tended to turn to attacks in Kenya when things aren’t going well for them in Somalia and use those attacks to try to raise their profile in global jihadi circles,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College. Menkhaus was referring to the 2013 attack at the upmarket partly Israeli-owned Westgate Mall that killed 67 people, just a short drive from the site of this week’s attack. The group went through an internal purge in 2013, Menkhaus explained, as the hard-line leader at the time eliminated colleagues.

Mentioning ISS or the U.S. airstrikes would make al-Shabab appear reactive and weak, Sheikh-Ali believes, while making news in the international media of a successful strike against the West allows it to flex its muscles without acknowledging any threats to its dominance.

U.S. strikes targeting al-Shabab in Somalia have more than doubled under the Trump administration. Though analysts have questioned their efficacy, the U.S. Africa Command continues to put out a steady drumbeat of press releases saying the United States is “degrading” al-Shabab. Indeed, in early January NBC reported that the Pentagon had plans to scale back in Somalia, such is the purported success of the increased hits.

The Jan. 15 attack put to rest any notion that al-Shabab has been weakened, and since then the group has attacked foreign forces fighting them at home. The group’s statement redoubled the organization’s commitment to al Qaeda: The operation itself was carried out by a battalion named after an al Qaeda veteran and was conducted “in accordance with the guidelines of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” who replaced Osama bin Laden as the group’s leader.

Katharine Petrich, a researcher with the National Security Affairs department at the Naval Postgraduate School, argues that the obsequious nods might be a bid for funding. Although al-Shabab “generally finances itself through extortion and criminal activity, they have also received ‘angel investor’ funding from al Qaeda,” she said. “Their statement blaming the U.S. decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem may therefore be largely directed at potential fundamentalist Islamist donors in an effort to demonstrate their commitment to a global jihad.” The last known time al-Shabab received funding from al Qaeda was in 2015 when it gently flirted with merging with the Islamic State.

In November 2018, the United Nations Monitoring Group detailed plans of a foiled al-Shabab attack. The blueprint indicated from the weapons discovered last year resembled the rampage earlier this week. Even though Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital just two months before the original attack was quashed, Matt Bryden, the founder of Sahan, a think tank that specializes in the Horn of Africa, told Foreign Policy, “I don’t think the statement reflected the aim of the attack or the choice of target. The reference to Al-Quds [Jerusalem] appears to have been an afterthought for propaganda purposes, and possibly to address a goal of the wider al Qaeda family.”

Ultimately, however, Bryden said that while the specific wording may be different, al-Shabab’s overall messaging has remained “remarkably consistent,” and the group continues to show it can back its language up with violence.

But there appears to be at least one key audience that doesn’t buy the propaganda: Somalis. As a Somali human rights activist in Mogadishu told FP: “These guys have a different agenda. It has nothing to do with Islam. The wording of their statement is part of their propaganda to recruit more fighters. [Al-Shabab] is misusing and misinterpreting Islamic religion to justify their senseless killings.”

Indeed, the message seems to be generating more condemnation than praise among Somalis at home and in Kenya. “If they were playing to a domestic or regional audience,” Menkhaus said, “it’s a huge fail.”


Amanda Sperber is a journalist based in Nairobi and Mogadishu. Twitter: @hysperbole