Al-Shabaab: the terror group that has Kenyan authorities terrorizing their own people

The University of Chicago is closed today, apart from its hospitals. I can tell you from personal experience that this is almost unprecedented. It took real-deal blizzards (and I mean “blizzard” by Chicago standards, which means “so much snow that it would shut DC down for a month”) to get that place to even consider cancelling classes when I was there. But it’s not weather that shut the place down today. Campus is closed because the FBI found a “credible threat” posted somewhere online that somebody is or was planning an act of gun violence on the university quad today. Hopefully nothing comes of it, or that they catch the person who made the threat without any loss of life.

I don’t in any way want to diminish what’s happening at the University of Chicago today, or the seriousness of the problem that the city of Chicago, and the United States in general, is having right now with respect to gun violence. But I do like to put things in context every now and then, and so I think this story about Chicago makes a helpful lead-in to talk about Kenya, Somalia, and the terror group al-Shabaab. Why? Well, consider what happened earlier today at Kenya’s Strathmore University:

A security drill at a Nairobi university has led to the death of a staff member after many panicked when security forces used what students thought was live ammunition to stage a pretend attack on the school.

Social media went into overdrive on Monday afternoon as security forces simulated an attack against Strathmore University’s Madaraka campus in the Kenyan capital – with many believing the incident was real.

The university confirmed to Al Jazeera that a 33-year-old staff member died “from severe head injuries”.

“Efforts to resuscitate her failed, and she succumbed to the injuries,” a university spokeswoman said.

It was not immediately what led to the staff member’s death, but local media reported that a number people jumped from the third storey of a building to flee “attackers”, while photographs showed others perched on the ledges of a building.

Strathmore wasn’t responding to a specific threat by holding this catastrophic drill. The threat of attacks on soft targets in Kenya isn’t specific, it’s general and omnipresent. And while you can blame officials at the university for not managing this simulation better, you can’t really blame them for holding one in the first place. It’s only been about 8 months, after all, since the Somali terror group al-Shabaab attacked Garissa University College, in eastern Kenya, and killed 147 people. It’s only been about 5 months since al-Shabaab struck a mining camp in northeastern Kenya, an attack that “only” killed 14 people but seems all the more frightening for the sheer randomness of the target. Before the Garissa attack, and aside from its innumerable atrocities inside Somalia, al-Shabaab was perhaps best known for its attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, an attack that lasted 4 days, killed around 70 people, and produced scenes like this:

The ground floor team said they saw at least two gunmen who were “walking not running”, picking their targets. Terrified shoppers ran into the cavernous supermarket pursued by the attackers who exchanged fire with Musungu’s irregular band. His friend from the diplomatic police was hit in the thigh and Musungu helped him outside. Several people were injured and Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic, who had entered the mall after the attacks began, helped to get them outside.

In some places the gunmen stopped to separate Muslims from non-Muslims. In one case, shocked by the audacity of four-year-old British boy Elliot Prior, who scolded a gunman for shooting and injuring his mother, the militant showed mercy and spared his life. In others cases, such as at the Urban Gourmet Burger restaurant – where Australian-Briton Ross Langdon and his Dutch partner Elif Yavuz died – people were slaughtered en masse.

So it’s understandable that Kenyan authorities may feel like any place could be al-Shabaab’s next target. The group specializes in the kind of low-tech, soft-target attacks that characterized the recent Paris attack (in fact, the Paris attack led to a round of increased online interest in the Garissa attack, which hadn’t gotten much international attention when it occurred in April), the assault on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali a couple of weeks ago, and the 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba attack on Mumbai, which has become the archetype of this particular terrorist tactic.

Al-Shabaab began life as a youth movement (shabab means “youth” or “young men” in Arabic) affiliated with the radical Islamic Courts Union, a faction that controlled southern Somalia for several months back in 2006. Somalia, it should be noted, has been engaged in a civil war of varying intensity and allegiances pretty much since Siad Barre’s dictatorship was overthrown in 1991, and Shabaab is just one of the many sides that have formed over all that time. After the ICU was driven out of most of southern Somalia in late 2006, most of the organization eventually participated in the same transitional government that it had previously been fighting, and the ICU’s head, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, actually served as Somalia’s interim president from 2009-2012. Al-Shabaab broke away from the ICU in 2009 over the parent group’s decision to join the political process. In 2012 it pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, which precipitated an internal fight between the faction that supported joining al-Qaeda and another faction that opposed the declaration and wanted the group to focus on Somalia rather than joining the global jihad. Needless to say, the localists lost that fight.

"Somalia map states regions districts" by Ingoman (James Dahl) - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
Somalia in late 2009 compared to October 2014, so you can see how much ground al-Shabaab has lost (Wikimedia | FAH1223 and James Dahl)

Although al-Shabaab is affiliated with al-Qaeda, it may serve as a model for the kind of changes that ISIS appears to be undergoing in recent months. After it broke from the ICU in 2009, it began to accumulate territory in southern Somalia, including most of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. However, interventions from both Ethiopia and Kenya (particularly an intensive 2011-2012 effort called “Operation Linda Nchi”), in concert with Somalia’s transitional government and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), as well as the occasional US drone strike, started to wear Shabaab down beginning in 2011. Where at its height in 2010 the group controlled much of southern Somalia, including some major cities, today it controls only a few pockets of largely rural territory. In response to its losses on the battlefield, al-Shabaab shifted to a more explicitly terrorist model, as ISIS (which has been losing territory in Syria and Iraq) now seems to be doing. Outside of Somalia, the focus of the group’s attacks has been Kenya, and that owes to Kenya’s decision to intervene in Somalia, but that intervention was itself precipitated by border clashes between Shabaab and Kenyan forces in 2010. Ethiopia has so far managed to prevent any al-Shabaab attacks, despite the fact that it’s been heavily involved in Somalia for over a decade now.

Reports have just started coming in that an arrest has been made in the University of Chicago case, and regular business will resume on the campus tomorrow. That’s obviously very good news. You can imagine that students at Strathmore, or Garissa University College, or people in any number of other potential soft targets throughout Kenya, would love to get the same kind of “all clear” message one of these days.

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