Another horrible attack by al-Shabaab. But how strong is this group nowadays?

Al-Shabab militants attacked dormitories at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya killing 147 people, mainly students. Al-Shabaab has showed that they are still capable of preparing really horrible attack on the soft target. But how strong do you find al-Shabaab, many people argue that al-Shabaab is in decline, do you agree or not, and why? Read few comments.

Abdi Samatar, Professor and Chair, Department of Geography, University of Minnesota

Al Shabaab has been critically weakened as a conventional military force, but it still has a lot of muscle when it comes to engaging in such horrendous terrorist acts. Part of its strength in the regard is the mindless policies of the Kenyan Government and the corrupt and incompetent Somali government. The Kenyan Government wants to continue to meddle in Somali affairs through its military occupation of Jubaland while professing to fight terrorism. In addition, Kenya is deeply invested in the continued fragmentation of Somalia into regional fiefdoms, thus weakening the government in Somalia.

But make no mistake Al Shabaab targets vulnerable people be they in Somalia (last week they killed they maimed a grandmother despite that she was one) or as they have done now with students in Kenya. TO defeat al-Shabaab will take a different national and international strategy. At the hear of such strategy must a unified Somalia and the development and support of professional and well resourced Somali security forces.

Stig Jarle Hansen, Associate Professor, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Author of the Book: Al-Shabaab in Somalia 

They are definitely in decline in Somalia, but have been strengthening in Kenya. Kenya has a strong army which means that they cannot control territories like they still do in Somalia, but they can contribute to launching terror attacks.

Shabaab are also able to survive for a long time in the Somali countryside , since neither AMISOM or the Somali army are able to fully secure it. AMISOM are to few, while the Somali army is too clan based and inefficient. Also keep in Mind that Shabaab controls territories in Somalia still , especially parts of Galguduud and the Middle Juba province.

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

Yes, I think that Al-Shabab are definitely in decline when compared to their “golden age” from roughly 2009-2010. However, the group is far from being removed as a player on the ground in Somalia or as a potent spoiler, particularly if the Somali federal government and other actors on the ground continue to be unable to rebuild a viable state and economy. Al-Shabab, since the summer of 2011, has come under increasing battlefield pressures from the AMISOM, Somali government, Kenyan, Ethiopian, and allied militia forces, in addition to the U.S. military through drone strikes on key insurgent leaders such as the former Al-Shabab amir, Ahmed Godane. Al-Shabab has also suffered from some internal schisms/dissent and defections. Its enemies also have far more military firepower and technology at their disposal than the insurgents do. As a result of all of this, Al-Shabab is unable to challenge its enemies in the open and has, since 2011, relied more and more on asymmetric warfare, that is guerilla tactics (IEDs, targeted assassinations, attacking checkpoints and soft targets such as hotels, the Westgate Mall, and, yesterday, Garissa University College).

The latter targets (mainly civilian targets), although they have little military value, have a lot of potential media value to Al-Shabab’s information operations campaign because they both humiliate the group’s enemies (in the case of Westgate and the university, the Kenyan state) and also allow the insurgents to attract a wave of news media attention; this attention often results in the group being seen as “increasingly” deadly and adept at carrying out such attacks when in reality it is facing severe pressures on the military, political, and social/societal fronts. In short, these types of attacks usually lead to media events that allow Al-Shabab to control, to some degree, the media narrative about itself and Somalia.

To sum up, yes, I agree that Al-Shabab is in decline, but this does not mean that the group is impotent or unable to steer events on the ground through guerilla warfare and attacks such as the one we saw yesterday in Garissa. Indeed, Al-Shabab has steadily increased the numbers of Kenyan foreign fighters in its ranks and the persecution (real and self-perceived) of many Kenyan Muslims has also steadily moved to the forefront of the group’s information operations campaign. The Kenyan state’s abuses, such as the brazen extrajudicial murders carried out by elements of the anti-terrorism police, further enable Al-Shabab and its Kenyan allies to push forward a narrative of civilizational conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims.

James J.F. Forest, Professor, Director of the Security Studies Graduate Degree Program, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Yes, I believe that al-Shabaab is in decline. They still have the ability to cause death and destruction, as their recent operations and tactics demonstrate, but these soft target attacks in Kenya have virtually no strategic benefit towards helping al-Shabaab achieve their overall goals. Rather, these kinds of attacks are vengeful acts of desperation by a group trying to delay their inevitable defeat. Every year fewer people – both Somalis and foreigners – are answering al-Shabaab’s call to come join them, and attacks like these will not change that trend.

Anneli BothaSenior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, Institute for Security Studies

There is a massive difference between an organisation’s ability to engage in an insurgency and its ability to execute acts of terrorism – the latter does not require a large organisation as again demonstrated in this attack.

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