Nairobi attack: Any strategic importance for Al-Shabaab?

Read few comment as Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack in Nairobi, Kenya.


1. How unexpected or maybe expected is in your opinion the fact that Al-Shabaab was able carry out this kind of attack in Nairobi?

2. Would you say that this attack has some strategic importance for Al-Shabaab or not, and why?


Morten BøåsSenior Researcher and Research Director, Fafo – Institute for Applied International Studies

1. We still have to wait and see if it is confirmed beyond doubt that is was al-Shabaab. However, it is not unexpected as Shabaab also has proven in the past that it has the operative capacity to conduct large-scale attacks in neighbouring countries, e.g. the double bomb attacks in Uganda (another country with troops on the ground in Somalia). However, if is Shabaab, this has been planned for quite some time, and it is not very likely that they have the operative capacity to follow-up with an other spectacular attack in the near future.

2. If Shabaab, the strategic importance is clear, it is an attempt to make the Kenyan invasion in Somalia which removed them from Kismayo unpopular among the Kenyan population, thus hoping that this will make the Kenyan war effort unpopular a home. I doubt very much that this will work, but it may lead to more heavy-handed approached from the Kenyan state towards the country’s Somali population (both Somali-Kenyans and the Somali migrants). This may radicalise some of these and lead them on a path to supporting Shabaab. In addition, this will boost Shabaab fighting credentials in Somalia in a time when they need such a boost.

Christopher Anzalone, Ph.D. Student, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University

1. Given Al-Shabab’s loss over the past year and a half to two years of the major urban centers it once controlled, for example Kismayo and Baidoa, the movement has moved back to the countryside and has shifted to a large degree back to the type of rural-based, underground insurgent movement that it was in 2007/2008. Despite having lost these major urban centers, from which it used to draw a significant amount of income from taxation and extortion, Al-Shabab still controls large swaths of central and southern Somalia.

It also has long had an extensive support network in Kenya among segments of that country’s Muslim community, both from the very large Somali diaspora in places such as the Eastleigh neighborhood in Nairobi as well as non-Somali Kenyan Muslims. Given the presence of these networks, which include the pro Al-Shabab militant group the Muslim Youth Center and other Swahili-speaking Kenyan Muslim militant groups, today’s attack in Nairobi is not that surprising. Under pressure from African Union forces inside Somalia, Al-Shabab has threatened to carry out retaliatory attacks inside Kenya since the entry of the Kenyan military into southern Somalia. In the past Al-Shabab has carried out attacks on Kenyan police and other government forces near the Kenya-Somalia border. A large number of non-Somali Kenyans are also fighting in Al-Shabab, including those from the Muslim Youth Center. These Swahili-speaking fighters have been increasingly featured in Al-Shabab’s propaganda videos.

From a strategic perspective, it is not surprising that Al-Shabab’s  embattled leadership decided to launch an attack inside Kenya like that we saw today. It is a way for them to announce that they are still a relevant force as well as to display their continued military capabilities.

2. Having said that, it is doubtful that this attack will prove to be of concrete strategic use in the long term for Al-Shabab since Kenya is unlikely to withdraw its military forces from Somalia. Rather, it is a way for Al-Shabab to show that it cannot be ignored. Yet this is very different from the insurgent movement being able to exercise the type of governing authority and military power that it did between 2008-2011/2012 when it controlled almost all of southern Somalia and large parts of central Somalia. From a media perspective, today’s attack was useful for Al-Shabab but it is unlikely that it will lead to further concrete military objectives.

David ShinnAdjunct Professor of International Affairs, The George Washington University, Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and to Burkina Faso

1. It is not surprising that al-Shabaab was able to carry out this attack against a soft target in neighboring Kenya. Any terrorist organization with minimal organizational skills could implement a suicide attack against an undefended civilian target. This requires little skill or planning. It does require perpetrators who are willing to die for the cause. The only surprise is that it did not happen sooner. There have been a number of relatively small al-Shabaab attacks inside Kenya in the past two years.

2. While this attack puts al-Shabaab back on the front page of the press for a day or two, it has no strategic importance. Al-Shabaab is riven with internal problems. About a week ago it assassinated in southern Somalia two of its former foreign leaders—Omar Hammami also known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki or the American from Daphne, Alabama, and Osama al-Britani, a British national of Pakistani origin. Both of them had renounced their ties to al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda. There has been a debate within al-Shabaab for many months as to the focus of the organization, i.e. international jihad or an emphasis on gaining territory in Somalia. The international jihadists seem to have won the argument in the case of this particular attack.

It is essential to distinguish, however, the difference between attacking unarmed civilians in a shopping mall and taking up arms against the forces of the African Union troops in Somalia, including the Kenyan forces, and Somali Federal Government forces. All this attack proves is that al-Shabaab remains good at suicide attacks against defenseless civilians.

Clint Watts, Senior Fellow, Homeland Security Policy Institute, George Washington University, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

1. I do not see this as surprising. Low level attacks have occurred for years and there have been plenty of warnings with regards to such an attack. Shabaab has support of certain Diaspora communities in Kenya and has threatened to pursue a terrorist attack in Kenya in response to the Kenyan Army intervention into Southern Somalia the past two years.

2. This attack shows that while Shabaab’s territory and control has weakened in Somalia they have shifted to unconventional warfare using terrorist attacks – directly attacking their enemies behind their front lines. While I don’t see Shabaab as being particularly strong because of this, it does show they still have reach throughout the Horn of Africa.

Daveed Gartenstein-RossDirector, Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy 

1. This attack was unexpected — not because I thought Shabaab lacked capabilities to carry out something like this, but because there was no indication they were going to execute such a major operation in one of Nairobi’s preeminent shopping areas. Intelligence agencies certainly didn’t see it coming, nor was this attack a natural evolution from others that Shabaab and its supporters have carried out inside Kenya. Though such attacks have occurred within Kenya since Shabaab lost its last stronghold of Kismayo (a major city on Somalia’s coast), they have largely been small-scale — for example, with grenades.

Thus, this attack was unexpected, but Shabaab’s capability to carry it out was not a surprise. Shabaab wasn’t decisively defeated in 2012: it melted away from a number of major cities, and in doing so, managed to retain its military capabilities. And Shabaab has carried out increasingly complex attacks over the course of this year, thus suggesting that pulling off an attack like this was possible.

2. Yes, it has strategic importance for Shabaab. Similar to its 2010 attack inside Uganda during the World Cup, this attack was designed to impose costs on a country with troops inside Somalia. In that way, Shabaab hopes to create pressure to force other countries out of Somalia militarily.


One Response

  1. […] lot like losing. A group of experts on East Africa and jihadi groups asked about the Nairobi attack almost universally agreed that Shabaab has been severely degraded in recent years. Westgate, the argument goes, is evidence […]

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