For the first time, Somalia-based terrorist organization al-Shabab has shifted its goals from carrying out attacks in neighboring East African countries to targets in the west. For a decade, the group was, at worst, a threat to the region, but it has now emerged as a new threat to the European Union and the United States.
In a video released through the group’s media office on Sunday, the East African terrorist group urged its supporters in the West to carry out lone-wolf attacks, specifically at the Mall of America in Minnesota. The call for individualized violence from al-Shabab presents a double-barreled threat -- The group has a deeply rooted network of cells of Somali communities in the west, and al-Shabab’s closest ally is al Qaeda in The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda considered to be the group most capable of directly attacking the West.
“Al-Shabab has been transforming and the West is a victim of its relative success,” said Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
Over the past decade, al-Shabab’s strategy has evolved from a militia advocating Somali nationalism working to expel foreign powers, to declaring an Islamic Emirate in Somalia. In 2007, at least a dozen African countries formed the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a United Nations-backed coalition, funded and trained in part by the U.S. and France, to combat the militant group in Somalia. Nearly eight years later, al-Shabab’s power on the ground within Somalia has severely decreased and it has evolved into a more widespread, sporadic threat.
“Al-Shabab has been politically marginalized and is unlikely to regain its strength as a conventional military force,” Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director at the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, wrote in a Soufan Group IntelBrief in November. “Its ‘mosquito-bite’ campaign of suicide bombings, IEDs, and assassinations will continue to embarrass the government, drawing attention to its many weaknesses.”
In addition to its continued operations in Somalia, al-Shabab has revamped its global outreach. Drawing from AQAP’s strategy, it has turned away from governance to smaller, more frequent attacks outside the country.
“Its military defeat has hastened its transformation into a terrorist group. It’s no longer tied to the land so more radical leaders within al-Shabab that have been in the ascendency have pushed out more local [leaders]… Those with the more transnational ambitions have risen to the top,” Pham said. “Now that they’re no longer tied to have to defend territory and govern it, they’ve actually grown.”
Over the last two years, al-Shabab has been able to carry out large attacks outside Somalia. Last year, the group made international headlines when at least four gunmen attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 67 people and injuring over 175 others. In Sunday’s video, the group called on supporters in Somali communities to attack malls in the West, specifically Minnesota, home to one of the largest Somali communities and one of the biggest malls in the U.S, the Mall of America.
“What we have here is an open solicitation to these sympathizers, who maybe because of the changing security situation on the ground in East Africa may not be able to get to Somalia to join al-Shabab, to carry out lone-wolf attacks,” Pham said.
Al-Shabab has maintained a steady stream of incoming fighters almost exclusively from Somali communities in the West for years. There was a “sharp increase” in recruitment for al-Shabab from Somali communities in Europe in 2007, particularly from the U.K. and Scandinavian countries with heavy populations of Somali refugees. The group has also recruited Somali-Americans from Ohio, California, Virginia -- Washington D.C. specifically -- New Jersey, and New York, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Somalia-born American resident Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame for providing “material support” to both AQAP and al-Shabab. Last September, several U.S. hellfire missiles reportedly targeted and killed al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.
“The development of networks in Europe, Canada, and the United States has potentially given al-Shabab the capability to mount terrorist attacks in the West,” according to “Eurojihad,” a recently published book on radicalization patterns in Europe.
Though al-Shabab’s Western networks are exclusively in Somali communities, the group has had a strong relationship with AQAP for years. AQAP has claimed responsibility for some of the biggest terrorist attacks in the west, including the recent attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.
The link between the two groups was partially fostered by Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American AQAP leader killed by U.S. hellfire missiles in September 2011. A year later, al-Shabab was officially recognized as a Somali-branch of al Qaeda.
“This is the natural culmination of what’s happened. As I said, be careful what you wish for. There was always that struggle within Shabab for years between those who were interested in governing Somalia …. and those who were more interested in fighting and spreading the jihad,” Pham said. “Once the land was taken … that gave the upper hand to those who were organized more as terrorists.”