Nairobi Attack: Another Stage in Globalization of Terror

Al-Shabab, an Al-Qaida-linked Somali group, targets Kenya and other African countries that ousted it from power in Mogadishu.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A decade after it was founded, Al-Shabab, which began as a wing of the Islamic Courts Union that ruled Somalia for a short while, has changed from a local movement into a international terror organization capable of complex operations throughout East Africa. Even before it officially became a branch of Al-Qaida early last year, Al-Shabab was spreading its wings, lead by experienced fighters, alumni of Iraq and Afghanistan, while to its ranks arrived volunteers who had lived most of their lives in America and Europe.

With the scattering of Al-Qaida members from the battleground of the American "war on terror," a clear route is emerging. South to Yemen, north up to Syria, back south again to Sinai and those who were originally from Africa gathered in Somalia. In each place they found new battles against old enemies. The current Al-Shabab leader, Ahmed Godane, completed in Somalia over the last few months a bloody takeover of the movement, which included the murder of four other leaders. Godane's policy is for more coordination with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's successor at the helm of Al-Qaida, and more operations across the continent – an international Jihad against the countries that supplied the troops for the African Union force that kicked the Union of Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu.

Some of Al-Shabab's veterans left the movement in protest over this more militant direction, which also harmed local farmers, but they have been replaced, according to Western intelligence agencies, by dozens if not hundreds of young Somalis from the West. These Somali communities rapidly grew over the last 20 years of civil war (an estimated 80,000 in the United States, 150,000 in Canada and 100,000 in Britain), creating small, close-knit ghettos where the majority try to make a new home for themselves, but a few who are drawn to radical Islam return home, some of them with knowledge and capabilities that have been used to carry out this week's well-planned attack, which was accompanied by constant updates on Twitter.

The Westgate Mall attack is comparable to the one carried out in 2008 in Mumbai by the Pakistani organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, which also has ties with Al-Qaida. The Mumbai assault was more complex, hitting five different targets - two hotels, a train station, a café and the Lubavitch Center - but taking control of a large mall for over two days is no less daunting an operation. The reports that a large number of the terrorists are American and European citizens have yet to be verified, but from the eyewitness statements of some of the survivors, it is already clear that at least some of them had Western accents. Al-Shabab has proved itself an outfit with cross-border capabilities and is another stage in the globalization of terror.

Attack on mall part-owned by Israelis probably coincidental

The choice of a shopping mall partly owned by Israelis was probably coincidental. Westgate was chosen because it symbolizes the ruling elite in Nairobi and the presence of Western citizens, not necessarily Israeli. But the devastating effect of the attack and the proven long-range capabilities of Al-Shabab pose a challenge to the Israeli security establishment, for which the Horn of Africa is a strategic location in the "outer perimeter," mainly due to its proximity to the Iranian smuggling routes via the Red Sea.

Al-Shabab threatens three of Israel's most important African allies - Kenya, Uganda (where the movement carried out a bloody attack during the days of the Soccer World Cup in 2010, killing 76 civilians in Kampala) and Ethiopia, which also played a central role in the fighting in Somalia. Israel has both official and unofficial security and intelligence-sharing agreements with these countries. Ironically, another East African country with which Israel has close security ties is Eritrea, which is suspected of supporting Al-Shabab as a proxy in its ongoing conflict with Ethiopia.

The 2002 terror attack in Mombasa that killed three Israelis and 13 Kenyans was carried out before Al-Shabab came into being, but the planner, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, became in 2009 one of the main commanders of Al-Shabab until his death two years later. Israel may not for now be a main target of the organization, which is focused on fighting the forces trying to evict it from Somalia, but it is certainly on the list. Israeli security officials heaved a sigh of relief last month when the Falashmura emigration from Ethiopia ended without any significant terror attack. "For now there are no focused threats we know of to attack Israeli targets in East Africa," an Israeli security official working for years in Africa said, "but the motivation and the means definitely are there."

Westgate Mall, the site of the attack in Nairobi.Credit: Reuters

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