Well-planned, well-executed and incredibly bold, al-Shabab’s horrific attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi is not just an attempt to punish Kenya for its role in Somalia as the organisation claims.
It is a deeply troubling statement of the armed group’s shifting emphasis and its new ambitions.
Al-Shabab emerged from the rubble of Somalia’s civil war in 2006. Back then it was the enforcement wing of the Taliban-inspired Islamic Courts Union – a movement that sought to use Islamic principles to reclaim the country from the warlords who’d torn the country apart over the previous decade and a half. It was nationalist in its ambitions, concerned more about stabilising Somalia than with international jihad.
But it became more hostile to the outside world when Ethiopia invaded in 2006 to put down what Addis Ababa saw as a growing Islamist threat on its eastern frontier.
Over the border inside Somalia, al-Shabab became the focus for those who wanted to see the foreigners gone. It galvanised support from people fed up with the Ethiopian’s heavy-handed military tactics and it drew in dozens – perhaps hundreds – of foreign fighters who saw an opportunity to get involved in an exciting new Jihad.
The arrival of the radicalised foreigners saw an internal debate begin between the nationalists and the Jihadis between those who saw their goal as the military and political take-over of Somalia to establish an Islamic regime, and those who saw it as an African branch of the wider struggle for conservative – even reactionary – Islamic values in the face of militant western imperialism.
For years it remained a simmering argument, papered over by the more immediate battle for military control of Mogadishu.
But in 2010, al-Shabab began losing territory and a series of setbacks cost them money, support and influence: an increasingly experienced and technically capable African Union force drove them out of Mogadishu the Kenyans joined the fight in 2011, opening up another front and the Arab Spring offered a more exciting alternative for the foreign fighters who had become jaded with the movement’s losses.
Finally, a new government appeared to offer the best chance for a credible, stable and legitimate administration that the country has had in more than two decades.
All of a sudden, al-Shabab began to look like a lost cause, with no military capability, and little popular support.
But over the past year, ever since the Kenyan military seized control of the key southern port of Kismayo, al-Shabab all but vanished, using the opportunity to re-organise, re-arm and re-finance itself.
That internal debate boiled over into a full-blown struggle for power between the nationalists and the Jihadis that ended with the leader of the nationalists – Hassan Dahir Aweis – handing himself in to the government, while the jihadist faction head Mohamed Godane consolidated power by executing those opposed to his extremist ideology.
Although the planning for the Westgate operation almost certainly began long before Godane took control, the two seem closely linked, effectively marking the launch of “al-Shabab 2.0”.
Now, the organisation seems to have accepted that it can no longer hold large areas of territory in Somalia. That is too expensive, takes too much time, energy and money, and is a distraction from their much broader agenda.
Instead it seems the plan is to become a disruptive force, drawing finance, recruits and purpose from high-profile attacks on targets like Westgate. Rather than trying to defend ground against the well-equipped African Union troops, they disappear underground, working through supportive clan networks. And they play the long game, willing to outlast the political cycles driven by elections and constitutional timetables.
The challenge for the Kenyan and Somali governments is figuring out how to defeat an organisation using the tactics that have helped al-Qaeda survive more than a decade after 9/11.
Mogadishu’s mayor put it succinctly enough: “This is not a military war any more,” he said. “This is an intelligence war.”