Foretaste of things to come

Al-Shabaab also raises money in the US and Europe where there are substantial Somali communities.

The four-day assault on the upmarket Westgate mall in Nairobi that killed dozens of civilians could be a foretaste of things to come.  Al-Shabaab, the Somali Muslim fundamentalist youth movement, reasserted itself in neighbouring Kenya at a time its grip on Somali territory has been seriously weakened and its fighters have been on the defensive in a campaign to eradicate them launched by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops of the African intervention force.

Al-Shabaab chief Ahmed Abdi Godane said the assault was a warning to the West which “backed Kenya's invasion” of Somalia and to Kenya that there would be “more bloodshed” if Nairobi did notwithdraw its troops from Somalia.

The mall was a soft target: lightly guarded by ineffective security personnel, easily accessed by al-Shabaab operatives who hid assault weapons on the premises, and popular with upper class Kenyans and expatriates from across the world.

In the aftermath of the Westgate operation, Western forensic and terrorism experts have converged on Nairobi to help with the investigation. These investigators are focusing on the participation of foreign jihadis in the assault. Kenya has been a key US and Israeli partner in fighting fundamentalist “terrorism” in Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa and the Westgate mall is owned by Israelis. 

The blow-back from this operation could be intercontinental. Northern-Irish born Samantha Lewthwaite is suspected of having been in command of the team that assaulted the Westgate mall. Known as the “White Widow”, Lewthwaite, converted to Islam as a teenager and married Germaine Lindsay who killed 26 people when he blew himself up on a London underground train in 2005.  Although she promptly denounced her husband's action as “abhorrent”,  she soon left Britain for East Africa, settling in Somalia.  She is suspected of taking part in al-Shabaab bombings along the Kenyan coast and may have been killed in the Nairobi operation.

Remain active

Two or three of the fighters involved are said to be from the US, two of them teenagers recruited in the Somali community in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The group is said to have had 40-50 US fighters, of whom 15-20 may remain active. Al-Shabaab also raises money in the US and Europe where there are substantial Somali communities.

Al-Shabaab may have taken its cue from fellow al-Qaeda-affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which had been contained in its home country until ISI fighters joined the struggle against the regime in neighbouring Syria.  Since 2012, ISI and associated Jabhat Nusra militants have assumed a commanding role in the Syrian conflict and are gaining control of strategic territory in the north of the country near the Turkish border. ISI and Jabhat units have a high percentage of foreign fighters who belong to a global movement that can be called the "Jihadi International" which actively recruits in many Western nations as well as in stressed Muslim communities in the Third World.

Today, the Sunni ISI can claim that it has killed thousands, mostly Shia civilians, in daily suicide and car bombings throughout Iraq.  ISI and Jabhat fighters move easily between Iraq and Syria in pursuit of their goal of transforming these countries into a solid West Asian base for a caliphate.

Iraq slipped into the failed state category after the US invaded and occupied the country and toppled its dictator Saddam Hussein.  Syria is on the way to failed state status due to the ongoing Arab and Western-backed war against the regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad.  Consequently, over the past two years Syria has become the most attractive destination for international jihadis, including hundreds of US and European citizens.

According to the authoritative Jane's consultancy, foreign jihadis linked to al-Qaeda fighting there number 10,000, or about 10 per cent of the total number of 100,000 ranged against the government. In addition to jihadis, whose goal is pan-Islamic, there are 30-35,000 fundamentalists whose aim to the ouster of the government.  Other rebels are associated with 1,000 bands who cannot match the expertise, discipline and fire-power of the jihadis, who dominate the Syrian scene.

Al-Qaeda's name means "The Base."  Since establishing itself in Afghanistan in 1988-89, its affiliates have installed new bases across the Muslim world: in Pakistan, the Maghreb, the Arabian Peninsula, Nigeria, Somalia, the North Caucasus, Iraq, and, most recently, Syria. Al-Qaeda and its partners also reach out to fellow countrymen and women living in the West and elsewhere with the aim of creating not bases but cadres willing to mount operations against governments and peoples regarded as “enemies of Islam” and obstacles to the creation of a 21st century caliphate.

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