Al Shabaab and the New Threat We Face

November 5, 2013 Topic: CounterinsurgencyTerrorismSecurity Region: KenyaSomalia

Al Shabaab and the New Threat We Face

Forget fancy planes and the Chinese threat—it's still terror and insurgency we'll be fighting.


The shocked and terrified faces of the survivors standing in a smoke-filled mall in Nairobi’s upscale shopping complex dramatized the high emotion in a shaken nation. Women clutched small children as gunshots had broken out. Some were crying. The perplexed expression of a boy, perhaps ten years old, resting in the arms of his stunned father, shocked by the mayhem, defined the reaction of Kenya and the world to the murderous September 2013 attack. The sixty-seven victims included President Uhuru Kenyatta’s nephew and Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, shot dead in his car while preparing to leave.

A well-trained, disciplined, heavily armed team of Al Shabaab assailants sporting black bandanas with Arabic script showed discretion. Shouting, as Guardian reporter Daniel Howden has recounted, “Muslims, get out of here;” the terrorists targeted Christians. Howden exposed Kenya’s dysfunctional command-and-control structure, whose infighting between military and police prolonged the attack. Kenyans later learned the terrorists weren’t the only blight: store owners accused Kenya’s military of looting.


Al Shabaab’s attack came even as some had argued that African Union forces supported by four thousand Kenyan troops had the terrorist group on the run. French intelligence reportedly helped to interdict Somali crossborder incursions into Kenya. But the Westgate attackers were not all Somalis. That challenges optimists to reassess.

Al Shabaab suffered setbacks. In dislodging the group from the southern port city of Kismayo, Kenya’s military deprived it an important source of funding. One important diplomat in Africa said that this has left Al Shabaab desperate for funds and that may account for new intensity in the slaughter of African elephants and rhinos—a tragedy that U.S. Government neither comprehends nor shows sufficient will to stop. Criminal-terrorist networks are funding it to raise money through the sale of tusks and horns.

Plus internal strife has divided Al Shabaab. A dangerous extremist with close ties to Al Qaeda, Ahmed Abdi Godane, aka Sheik Mukhtar “Abu Zubeir,” has put himself in charge through his control of the Amniyat, Al Shabaab’s intelligence wing, commanded by a thug nicknamed Karate. Godane used it to jail Hassan Dahir Aweys (who escaped), and murder internal Al Shabaab rivals, including Ibraham Haji Jama al Afghani and Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansur al Amriki. Hammami gained international visibility in messaging to Western audiences through his YouTube rap music videos conducted in English. Godane advocates global jihad. In February 2012, Godane had the group declare itself an affiliate to Al Qaeda and pledged formal allegiance to Ayman Zawahiri.

Godane, a poetry enthusiast, is impaired by cultural handicaps in Somalia. He lacks clan and tribal ties integral to flourishing in that society. For Westgate, he compensated by tapping into Al Qaeda networks for well-trained foreign fighters, including a Norwegian and possibly Britons. Kenyan authorities believe the attack was planned in Norway and Somalia. The organizational discipline was impressive. It indicated training, sound bases within Kenya, and local aiding and abetting.

Westgate yielded important lessons. First, global partnerships matter in defeating evolving terror networks. Besting the assailants required support from thirty or so vigilantes of Indian extraction who rushed to the scene from the surrounding neighborhood, British SAS, and Israeli commandos. Western myopia may dismiss groups like Al Shabaab as marginal. Ask how marginal its victims view its sting.

And Islamists are hardly the only actors who should worry us. The Mexican drug wars have taken perhaps 80,000 Mexican civilian lives since 2006. Former General Barry McCaffery has rightly called this a general war, as prior distinctions between terror and criminal networks blur and grow obsolete.

These developments suggest profound implications for the U.S., now conducting its latest Quadrennial Defense Review to define the requirements and capabilities for our military. As stated by David Barno and Nora Bensahel: “Given the 2014 QDR’s charter to look out 20 years, how should the United States balance investments in military capabilities today to position the nation to fully deal with less clear threats of tomorrow.” The White House must integrate the conclusions this review reaches into a holistic approach towards confronting the engagements and conflicts that pose the most significant global risks anticipated in the next two decades. The U.S. cross-government effort being mounted in countering terrorist and transnational crime offers a promising illustration of a smart approach, despite a too narrow focus on law enforcement where special operations may prove sometimes more appropriate.

For now, Al Shabaab has grabbed top visibility for violent Islamic criminals. Yes, criminals is the correct term. Terming them political actors elevates them to an unmerited status. And despite ties to Al Qaeda, it operates on its own, making its own decisions, pursuing its own agenda. It is not Al Qaeda. Al Shabaab presents a global, not merely regional African risk.

Godane is infusing his ranks with a new generation of volunteers from around the world. Al Shabaab has produced glossy videos to recruit American and Brits. NBC News reports that Al Shabaab has more Americans than any other Al Qaeda offshoot. Godane is threatening strikes against Britain and other Western targets. No one can dismiss the possibility that he’ll send Western militants home to wreak more violence.

Second, Westgate is a poster child for the kind of engagements and conflicts we should anticipate seeing over the next 20 years. We’re unlikely to see another Waterloo, Desert Storm (1991) or Iraqi Freedom (2003). These conflicts postured opposing traditional armies against one another on defined battlefields.

Retired British General Sir Rupert Smith rightly terms likely future engagements and conflicts as “war amongst the people.” In the new battle-space, combatants operate among noncombatants. Political, diplomatic, military and law enforcement personnel must operate as one team. Not all threats lead to armed fighting. As Chinese Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui acutely observed in their book, Unrestricted Warfare, financial, trade, psychological, cyber and other forms of unrestricted warfare will more likely provide the currency of confrontation.

The new global risk environment requires new thinking. That applies to corporations operating globally as well as to the U.S. government. Aircraft carriers costing $13 billion and $300 million dollar fighter jets are not the answer. Champions of these over-priced luxuries worry about a war with China. They can relax. China is too busy looting our technology and acquiring companies and energy resources all over the world to bog itself down in a shooting war.

The new global risks mandate, to use Christian Whiton’s term in his excellent new book, Smart Power, is just that—smart power. The U.S. must develop and enhance key core capabilities like Special Operations Forces and rethink plans to reduce the size of rather than make the U.S. Marines a more robust strike force. (Actually, what makes more sense is making the Marines more robust, with all the firepower and support that it needs as a strike force.) The challenge demands vastly enhanced cyber capabilities for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance; maneuver, command and control (at Westgate, all sides used Twitter to message); influencing opinion and other variables that may determine success or failure. It requires a multinational approach and globally integrated capabilities. It requires emphasizing political or diplomatic over kinetic tactics where appropriate, and the ability to mesh these seamlessly.

The new global risk requires enabling rapid responses to unexpected crises where deployment of general purpose forces or heavy firepower is the wrong strategy. Recent examples include potential operations to eliminate or control Syrian WMDs, the Benghazi tragedy, and the kidnapping of Americans off the coast of Nigeria, which somehow caught shipowners unprepared despite piracy off of East Africa that got choked off only once ships began to carry properly trained and armed guards.

Bottom line: Westgate was a wake-up call. Expect future attacks, in the West and places from aligned terror/criminal networks. Effective response requires well-resourced, highly trained professionals and the will to do what it takes to prevail. We won’t eliminate such threats. But we can manage them. Let’s put our resources to the best use, giving priority to what it takes to address the risks that truly threaten our security and prosperity.

James Farwell is a national security expert and author of THE PAKISTAN CAULDRON: CONSPIRACY, ASSASSINATION & INSTABILITY (Washington: Potomac Books, 2011) and PERSUASION & POWER (Washington: Georgetown University press, 2012). Darby Arakelian is a former CIA Officer and national security expert. The views expressed are their own and do not represent that of the U.S. Government, its departments, agencies, or COCOM.