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Al-Shabab, the global jihad, and terrorism without borders

The Westgate attack is part of a global strategy by militant groups, and to counter them, a new way forward is needed.

Last Modified: 24 Sep 2013 14:17
Daniel E Agbiboa

Daniel Agbiboa is a Departmental Scholar, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford, UK. His research interests include Islamist terrorism and transnational security, with over 25 peer-reviewed publications.
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Al-Shabab is part of a loosly-affiliated network of Islamist terrorists [AP]

At least 70 people died, over 175 injured and several others held hostage when a group of Islamists fighters stormed Kenya's high-end Westgate Mall in Nairobi and randomly opened fire on shoppers enjoying their weekend. Reportedly, the Islamist fighters shouted in the local Swahili language that Muslims would be allowed to leave while all others were subjected to their bloodletting.

France confirmed two of its citizens had been killed, and two Canadians, one of them a diplomat, were also among the dead. The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have all confirmed that their citizens were among those affected. The respected Ghanaian Poet, Professor Kofi Awoonor, was also among those confirmed dead in the Westgate attack.

The Somali-based and al-Qaeda-linked Islamist terrorist group, al-Shabab - the youth in Arabic - has since claimed responsibility for the horrific attack through its Twitter account. In one tweet, the Islamist group said: "The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar inside their own turf."

In another tweet they stated their refusal to negotiate and later on said, "For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now its time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land."

The above tweets suggest that al-Shabab's Westgate attack was retribution for Kenya's military operations against the Islamist group in Somalia. Kenya has about 4,000 troops in southern Somalia. They intervened in 2011 following attacks and kidnappings in northern Kenya near the Somali border. The Kenyans were subsequently incorporated into a larger African Union (AU) force of 17,000 soldiers with a UN mandate to protect the weak Somali government. This mandate put the AU forces and al-Shabab at daggers drawn.

Al-Shabab's Westgate attack in Kenya should be understood in the light of the blood-soaked global jihadist campaign of the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation - a rather loose association of radical Salafist Islamist groups operating in many countries around the world.

A primer on al-Shabab

The seismic rise of Islamist terrorist groups, like al-Shabab, starting in the 1980s and 1990s has had a snowball effect on the lethality of religious-oriented terrorist groups. Available empirical data shows that between 1968 and 2005, 94 percent of all terrorist attacks, and 87 percent of all casualties caused by religious-oriented groups, were perpetrated by Islamist groups.

In general, groups affiliated with the al-Qaeda terrorist network, like al-Shabab, are especially prone to lethal and high-casualty attacks. Specific examples include the terrorist attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Moscow attack in 1999, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Al-Shabab was formed as a radical offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts, which, in 2006, controlled Mogadishu. The group is estimated to have roughly 7,000 to 9,000 fighters, mainly recruited within Somalia but also from Western countries. The group, which formally pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda in September 2009, controls about half of south-central Somalia. In the recent past, al-Shabab has proven its capability to launch deadly attacks outside its traditional Somali borders. On July 11, 2010, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the bombing of two groups of fans watching the World Cup games in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, killing more than 70. These brutal attacks, according to al-Shabab, were launched to punish Uganda for its role in assisting the AU peacekeeping forces in Somalia.

Al-Shabab has also been linked to the training of Nigeria's Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram (in Hausa, "Western education is unlawful”) which has killed over 10,000 people since its founding in 2002. In August 2011, General Carter Ham, Commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) claimed that Boko Haram is financially sponsored by al-Qaeda and al-Shabab.

He also alleged that both jihadist groups shared training and fighters with Boko Haram. He described that as "the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us as well." Both al-Shabab and Boko Haram share an ideology that is embedded in radical Salafism and their adherents are purportedly influenced by the Quranic phrase: "Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors." Group members view it as their necessary duty and goal to engage in a violent struggle against the "enemies of Islam", both at home and abroad. Its members see the overthrow of secular government as justified since their rulers are viewed as accepting or leaning towards the ways of Islam's enemies.

Al-Shabab may also be compared to Nigeria's splinter Islamist group Jama'at Ansar al-Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan (Supporters of Islam in the Land of Sudan) which emerged in the Muslim north of Nigeria with the overriding goal of "restoring the dignity of the Muslims as it was in the time of the Caliphate ... [and] the method of achieving these aims and goals is jihad." In 2012, Ansaru, as the group is commonly known, kidnapped, and later killed, seven foreigners. According to a statement reportedly released by the group, the kidnappings and killings were a response to attacks against Islam by European countries in places like Afghanistan and Mali.

Al-Qaeda's global jihad

Al-Shabab's Westgate attack in Kenya should be understood in the light of the blood-soaked global jihadist campaign of the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation - a rather loose association of radical Salafist groups operating in many countries around the world that revere foundational members such as Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the late Jordanian/Palestinian figure Abdullah Azzam and led by a transnational coterie of veterans of Islamist struggles around the world.

Al-Qaeda's agenda is ideological, religious and political in nature, including (a) unifying the Islamic world under a puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam, the rejection of both secular rule and the institution of the nation-state in the Muslim world leading to the overthrow of all existing Muslim countries and the integration of all Muslim societies into a Caliphate, the liberation of Muslim territories from foreign occupation, and the use of holy war (lesser jihad) to bind Muslims together and lead them through a "clash of civilization" that will rid the Muslim world of non-Muslim cultural and political influence.

Resolving terrorism, therefore, requires a non-kinetic, coordinated response that fuses domestic, regional and international strategies along the lines of diplomacy, development, and demilitarization.

In a bid to build a coherent ideology (manhaj) that will unify all Islamists terrorist groups, al-Qaeda leaders drew from takfiri thoughts, which justify attacking corrupt governments in Muslim lands, and draws on materials that not only stress the need for militant groups to amalgamate, but also outline the Muslim requirement to target the global enemy (typically the US and the West). Subsequently, the hybrid ideology that emerged makes little distinction between targeting local enemies and targeting global ones and have a one-size-fits-all solution - jihad. In other words, al-Qaeda subsidiaries like al-Shabab are only required to expand their focus, not abandon their own local agenda. The development of a coherent ideology helped al-Qaeda acquire franchises which are crucial for projecting the organisation's power and gaining traction for its cause.


Al-Qaeda franchises

The al-Qaeda organisation founded a regional branch in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and acquired franchises in Iraq (AQI) and the Maghreb (AQIM), reinforcing the organisation's ability to present itself as the leading Islamist militant group. Even as they pursued local agendas, the franchises were required to undertake some attacks against Western interests, and leaders of groups like al-Shabab joining al-Qaeda had to be willing to present a united front, stay on message, and be seen to fall under al-Qaeda's authority.  Not surprising, groups affiliated to al-Qaeda have all attacked Western interests in their respective regions. The 2008 Mumbai attacks was clear evidence that al-Qaeda's idea of attacking global enemies of Islam has found a fertile ground among Pakistan's Islamist militant group like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which in the past focused only on Indian targets.

To what degree does al-Qaeda exercise command and control over its dispersed structure and subsidiaries like al-Shabab? Al-Qaeda is not a hierarchical organisation with full control over its franchises. Rather, the organisation operates as a devolved network hierarchy in which levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight, and at times, transcend the command structure between core, branch and franchises. Due to the already existing unifying ideology, al-Qaeda need only provide "strategic leadership" rather than "day-to-day oversight". Nevertheless, before launching any attack, all al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are required to seek approval from the central al-Qaeda leadership. The aim is to ensure that attacks, like the recent Westgate attack by al-Shabab, reinforce, not undermine, al-Qaeda's strategic objectives.

Clearly, al-Shabab's continued terrorist activity is not detached from that of other jihadist groups in Africa - including Boko Haram, Ansaru, and al-Qaeda's North African wing - and beyond. It should be recalled that in 2012 the US military officials warned that these jihadist outfits were increasingly joining forces to coordinate and sophisticate their violent attacks. Military crackdowns on these radical Islamist groups in recent years - the Nigerian military on Boko Haram; the French attack on al-Qaeda affiliates in Mali; the AU crackdown on al-Shabab in Somalia - have been incendiary and counterproductive.

An increasingly globalised world like ours easily enhances the spread of terrorism beyond borders - as the recent Westgate attack in Kenya demonstrates - blurring the distinction between domestic and transnational terrorism.

Resolving terrorism, therefore, requires a non-kinetic, coordinated response that fuses domestic, regional and international strategies along the lines of diplomacy, development, and demilitarisation. Declared wars on terror, including missile strikes, state terror, assassination, and invasion, have only a limited capacity to root out Islamist terrorism because they fail to engage with the underlying existential conditions and unifying ideologies that can shape jihadist groups, like al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Ansaru, and al-Qaeda, who reject the status quo and develop a violent pedagogy that aims for maximum casualties.

Daniel Agbiboa is a Departmental Scholar, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford, UK. His research interests include Islamist terrorism and transnational security, with over 25 peer-reviewed publications. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielAgbiboa

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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