The terrorist group behind Nairobi’s recent terror attack recruits young people from many faiths
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- Al-Shabaab Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, more commonly known as al-Shabaab, is a Salafist...[+]
- Al-Qaeda Al-Qaeda is a global militant Islamist organization founded by Osama bin...[+]
The attack has quickly focused attention on the continued risk posed by terrorist groups like al-Shabab, who claimed responsibility for the attack. They released a statement saying the attack was a response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
In the past decade, al-Shabab has plotted some of the deadliest attacks in East Africa, including a 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that killed 71 people, and a massacre at Kenya’s Garissa University in 2015, that killed 148 people.
After last week’s nearly 20-hour siege against the attackers came to an end, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed to swiftly bring the culprits to justice, and make the country “inhospitable to terrorist groups and networks.”
Billions of dollars have been spent on the peace enforcement and counterterrorism efforts of the African Union Mission in Somalia and US Africa Command, and an American drone program that has expanded under US President Donald Trump. Yet, quelling extremist groups like al-Shabab have proven elusive.
Al-Shabab’s main goal has been to establish an Islamic government in Somalia. It is also an affiliate of al-Qaeda who supports an agenda of global jihadism, according to Harun Maruf, a journalist at Voice of America and co-author of “Inside al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally.”
But analysts say extremism is on the rise in East Africa because the group has also been able to exploit local grievances, attracting impoverished recruits across faiths in Kenya who feel the government has failed them.
Most of al-Shabab’s activities are focused within Somalia’s borders, where they jockey with an emerging, pro-ISIS group to extort taxes from businesses. The extortion, often exploiting the Islamic principle of zakat or “charity,” allows al-Shabab to circumvent crushing international sanctions and secure millions of dollars in revenue, while also demonstrating their ability to administer over new swaths of territory using a strict interpretation of Islam.
They have also staged deadly attacks against military and civilian targets in recent years.
According to Maruf, al-Shabab emerged in 2006, when US-backed Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in an effort to support the federal government, destroying their political rival, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), in the process. The ICU had become increasingly powerful, and popular, by promoting an Islamist interpretation of law and governance.
Since ICU’s defeat, al-Shabab has been able to draw local sympathy by appealing to the distrust of ordinary Somalis toward foreign intervention and a desire among some to bring back the Islamic Courts.
“There are people who really believe that Somalia is under attack by foreign powers,” Maruf said.
This month, the Somali government expelled a UN envoy, accusing him of interfering in a regional election that occurred in December, in which a former al-Shabab leader was running for office.
Following the expulsion, Somalia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abukar Dahir Osman, said that his countrymen wanted “Somalia leading international support, not international support leading Somalia.”
At the same time, the group leverages local anxieties about threats to Somalia’s sovereignty to defend their attacks abroad and attach them to a global jihadi response to perceived attacks on Islam.
“They appeal to a lot of Somalis who support them because they believe that al-Shabab wants to establish an Islamic government in Somalia,” Maruf explained.
For years, al-Shabab has benefited from tapping into the grievances and anxieties in which they arose. Now, they are employing foreign recruiters to do the same.