East Africa's Emerging Crescent of Militancy

Al Shabaab and its affiliates are building a dangerous regional network with strong growth prospects.

On September 21, al-Shabaab, the Somali-based Al Qaeda affiliate, gained international attention yet again, with the daring and devastating attack on the Westgate Mall in an upscale area of Nairobi. The targets of the attack—Western visitors and affluent Kenyans—were ideal for the group’s intention of sending a bold message. This attack was not the group’s first major terror operation, nor was it the first time al-Shabaab orchestrated an attack far from its home base in southern Somalia. However, this al-Shabaab assault raised the stakes, highlighting the group’s advanced operational capabilities and expanding vision of militancy across the region.

The full significance of the Nairobi attack must be understood within the context of al-Shabaab’s westward trajectory across East Africa. It is this insidious movement and intimate cultivation of ties with ideologically similar groups that allowed the Nairobi attack to happen and could let such a deadly blow happen again.

While the Nairobi attack gained world attention, another al-Shabaab operation at the beginning of July slipped by relatively unnoticed. The July 1 attack on Kangabayi Prison, in the remote city of Beni in North Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) freed 244 inmates. The prisoners were largely affiliated with al-Shabaab’s local partner, the Ugandan militant Islamist group, the Allied Democratic Front (ADF), who helped the Somali group to conduct the World Cup bombings in Kampala in 2010, resulting in over seventy deaths. Local security forces claim that the ADF orchestrated the bold prison break with the help of al-Shabaab.

This operation was in response to a message issued by Al Qaeda’s notorious leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, published at the end of June. In his first audio recording in months, al-Zawahiri pledged to free imprisoned sympathizers everywhere. The result was a string of high-profile prison breaks a month later in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan in which more than one thousand prisoners were freed. These incidents were speculated to have prompted a worldwide travel alert from the United States and its decision to close 21 embassies across the Muslim world.

The al-Shabaab prison break, one other militant incident in a country mired in instability and conflict, did not draw much attention at the time with all eyes focused on higher profile militancy in the Middle East. Yet al-Shabaab’s presence in the DRC, Africa’s volatile heartland, could have major implications in the regional war on terror in the long run.

Just as its mentor, Al Qaeda, has set-up cells throughout the Middle East and North Africa, al-Shabaab has gradually established a string of ideologically affiliated groups throughout East Africa, from the Ugandan ADF to Kenya’s Muslim Youth Center and Mombasa Republic Council, to name a few. Using these groups, al-Shabaab has coordinated attacks from Dar es Salaam to Kampala.

Yet, al-Shabaab differs from Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s current modus operandi dictates centralization of decision but decentralization of action. Thus, localized cell leaders are given responsibility to plan specific details of individual attacks.

Al-Shabaab does not operate this way, which is what could make it a more serious threat in the long run for security forces throughout East Africa. Al-Shabaab’s members directly participate in the execution of attacks. This hands-on approach allows for the more experienced Somali group to control the on-ground situation, ensuring that less skilled local affiliates do not make the careless errors that have hindered so many Al Qaeda operations. Thus, al-Shabaab is able to carry out more advanced attacks in an ever-increasing radius. The group’s geographical spread is a concern because it is posed to attack lucrative and symbolic assets and targets across Africa’s resource-rich middle belt.

Given contiguous bases from Somalia to Uganda, the nascent development of ties in the DRC is one more puzzle piece falling into place in al-Shabaab’s wider agenda. This uninterrupted line of sleeper cells creates a crescent of militancy from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. The trajectory of this crescent could extend north, through the Gulf of Guinea to Nigeria and, eventually, through Mali and the Sahel, to the Maghreb. Thus, the potential exists for a future geographical linkage between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) via a network of al-Shabaab affiliates across Africa’s mid-section.

In the big picture, the DRC is an important stepping-stone in the global terror agenda. Al-Shabaab’s foray into the country is different than previous militant incursions on the periphery in Somalia and Algeria. This is a direct stab at the heart of Africa, just as the Nairobi attack was a direct blow to a continental business center. As al-Shabaab continues to cement its connections across East Africa, the group will be ideally poised to launch attacks like the Westgate one again. Furthermore, al-Shabaab can exploit the DRC’s centralized location on the continent to spread in any direction, establishing connections and coordinating activities with similar militant groups throughout the continent. African security forces need to implement innovative counterinsurgency methods now to confront this emerging crescent, or face the fallout of increasingly advanced and deadly attacks such as the Westgate Mall debacle.

Natalie Spoden is an Africa intelligence analyst and manager at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm based in Tel Aviv.

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