We are losing fight against al-Shabaab
September 23rd, 2013
11:23 AM ET

We are losing fight against al-Shabaab

By Katherine Zimmerman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Katherine Zimmerman is a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, and the author of the recently released report The Al Qaeda Network: A New Framework for Defining the Enemy. The views expressed are her own.

The Obama administration counts Somalia as a success story, but the rising death toll from al-Shabaab’s bloody attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall is a tragic reminder that U.S. strategy against al Qaeda, claims of success notwithstanding, is not working.

Al-Shabaab no longer controls vast expanses of territory as it once did, but reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Dismissed too often as a Somali nuisance, al-Shabaab is more than a local militia; it is part of the growing al Qaeda global network.

The Westgate mall attack is the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since al Qaeda’s 1998 truck bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. Reminiscent of the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 164, the militants reportedly conducted a two-pronged assault with grenades and small arms, attacking separate floors. As of this writing, they continue to hold an unknown number of hostages. Among the scores of dead are Canadians, Britons, and Frenchmen. Four Americans have been listed as among the wounded.

More from CNN: How Al-Shabaab works

In addition to the Americans unlucky enough to have been at Westgate mall, the State Department is looking to confirm claims that American nationals may have been among the attackers. Largely made up of Somalis, al-Shabaab has been actively recruiting from the Somali diaspora in the U.S. for years. Just last month, the group released a 40-minute video glorifying the deaths of what is called its “Minnesota Martyrs”. (Minnesota is home to the largest Somali community in the United States).

How did this happen? By 2010, al-Shabaab had taken over much of southern and central Somalia, installing governors, courts and a de facto government in territory under its control. But the group was knocked back by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). It lost significant swathes of territory to Kenyan and Ethiopian troops in fall 2011 and in 2012. The final blow to al-Shabaab – or so it appeared – was the September 2012 fall of the port-city Kismayo, a key source of revenue and power.

Down but not out, the loss of Somali territory appeared to funnel al-Shabaab’s energies back to terrorism and away from governance, a phenomenon typical among al Qaeda groups (see al Qaeda in Iraq etc). Always a source of tension within the group, al-Shabaab’s national interests began to take a back seat to the priorities of the broader terror network. In 2012, al-Shabaab announced a formal affiliation with al Qaeda. And while some among the group objected, a series of assassinations has given the pro-al Qaeda faction the upper hand.

More from GPS: Why we should keep out of Somalia

As the balance within al-Shabaab was tipping, the African Union mission that had so effectively damaged the group was also stagnating. A purported increase to AMISOM’s mandated troop number in 2012 – from 12,000 to 17,731 – only accounted for the incorporation of the Kenyan units already inside Somalia. A key element of U.S. strategy to defeat al-Shabaab in Somalia, AMISOM troops are stretched thin today and the Somali national army is not adequately prepared to take on Somalia’s security.

The Westgate mall attack is part and parcel of al-Shabaab’s efforts to claw back the initiative and take the fight to the enemy – in this case, the Kenyan government that supports AMISOM. But this shocking rampage should come as no surprise; al-Shabaab has been ramping up throughout 2013. In April, an attack on a Somali courthouse killed over 50 people; in June, an attack on the new U.N. mission killed more than 20; and a September attack on a popular restaurant also killed over 20 people. The group has also claimed credit for roadside bombings in Mogadishu, Kismayo, and elsewhere over the past few months.

Targeting, lethality and sophisticated planning demonstrate al-Shabaab’s reach, determination, and capabilities – impressive for an al Qaeda affiliate said to be on the verge of demise. Perhaps Westgate will drive home to the Obama administration that al Qaeda – resurgent in Yemen in the mid-2000s, in Iraq in 2012, and now in Somalia (not to speak of new bases in Sinai and Syria) – is doing very nicely indeed. And we, and our strategy of relying on local proxies and drones to fight it, are losing.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Somalia • Terrorism

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Chukwuemeka

    The group is feeding on the poverty and seeming desperation of somali youths to recruit them as cannon fodder. We have the same scenario in Nigeria were Boko haram is using the same method to recruit fighters. Until economic systems are corrected we would continue to have more like this.

    September 23, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  2. Elke Blinick

    there is the old cold war joke. Khrushchev, Stalin and Lenin on train. train breaks down. Lenin goes to persuade engineers to get train working. Then Stalin goes, shoots the engineers, but train still is not moving. Finally Khrushchev draws the curtains and says: lets pretend it is moving. Let's pretend US politics in Somalia is a success.

    September 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  3. Phelix Unger

    Why would the US have to think they have dealt with these terrorists, they have had little or no imput into dealing with Al shabobalouie, the African continent is dealing with these terrorists as it should, America's foriegn policy is not your foriegn policy. It doesn't seem to matter where you turn on these blogs people always seem to think that these organizations are something the US has to deal with, the US has enough to keep busy without continueing to throw money at problems that money can't fix. The other thing is, where does the author get off making this an American problem, its not and shouldn't be, let the African nations deal with this issue of terrorism on its continent. Somalia was a basket case almost two decades ago and not much has chamged.

    September 24, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Al-Shabab benefits from the political instability in Eastern Africa, especially in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea is its only regional ally, although it denies claims it supplies arms to al-Shabab. Eritrea supports al-Shabab to counter the influence of Ethiopia, its bitter enemy. The two countries had fought a two-year old war between 1998-2000.
    The OAU has been trying to eradicate the Al-Shabab, without much success.

    September 24, 2013 at 10:07 am |
  5. joe

    What an incredibly short sighted article based on the only significant attack in Kenya by this group in 15 years ,and written and published before any real hard facts about WHO was actually involved with this attack has come to light. I guess to sell books you need to make things sound dire indeed.

    September 24, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  6. 100 % ETHIO

    Islamic vs Western issues, has more benefits to Jew.

    For Jew, both Christian and Muslims are their enemies, as we understood their motives.

    Just recently, Sub-Leuitnant Jeffrey Deisle, Canada's top Spy Agent (Jew), has been sentenced for 20 Years on his plea-guilty.
    Jeffrey Deisle got caught Red-Handed, when he tried to handed-in Canada's top Militarily and other US interest secrets to Russia, only for the amount of $70,000.00

    When Jewish committed the crimes, they do it the big one, for big time.

    September 26, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  7. Ali

    Guys don't forget that Obama originally from Kenya. So he doesn't care about what the U.S policy will end up but Obama cares only Kenyans.

    October 6, 2013 at 10:13 am |
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