Can Kenya Handle the Threat of a ‘Much More Lethal’ al-Shabab?

Al-Shabab, once a disparate coalition, has evolved into a regional affiliate of al-Qaida, able to pull off attacks of greater sophistication and attract foreign fighters. Ray Suarez talks to J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council about the group’s effort to make an impression and how prepared Kenya is to deal with the threat.

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    For more on who's behind the attack, we turn to Ray Suarez.


    What is al-Shabab, and what does it want? Is Kenya equipped to deal with the militant group?

    We are joined by Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

    Should this group be better understood today as a Somali organization concerned with who controls Somalia or a transnational organization?

  • J. PETER PHAM, Atlantic Council:

    It's well on the way, Ray, of evolving.

    Certainly, a few years ago, it was primarily concerned with establishing an extremist Islamist state, an emirate in Somalia. But defeats by African Union peacekeepers aided by intervention forces from Kenya and Ethiopia, backed by Western countries, have put the group really down on its heels.

    And as a result, it has been gradually transforming. And this is perhaps, if you will, the first salvo of the group in its new incarnation as a transnational group attracting people not just from Somali backgrounds, but other backgrounds, and fighting as the regional affiliate of al-Qaida that it formally became a year ago.


    They were pushed out of Mogadishu. They were pushed by these same forces out of their southern base in Kismayo. Are they operating out of strength or out of weakness when they do an audacious attack on a civilian target like a shopping mall?


    Ironically, it was the weakness and the defeat that enabled them to transform themselves.

    Up to that point, Shabab had been a coalition of disparate forces, some interested in clan rivalries, some interested in Somali agenda, others interested in a transnational agenda. What has happened since then, it has allowed the current emir of al-Shabab, a fellow by the name of Ahmed Abdi Godane, Abu Zubayr's nom de guerre, to push the others and in some cases eliminate the other leaders and assume a much more cohesive control of the organization, so it's more nimble and arguably much more lethal.


    But is there an actual political program, a goal to an attack like this? You kill more than 50, more than 60 civilians, but to what end? They can't topple the Kenyan state, for instance.


    No, but I think what they're hoping to do is to put their imprint.

    They became an al-Qaida affiliate a little over a year ago, and since then haven't done much more than roadside bombings, an occasional truck bomb. But now they have hit it big. And this attack actually shows a greater tactical and operational sophistication than Shabab has ever shown before, to be able to coordinate multiple armed fighters going into a shopping mall, at various levels within that mall, attacking.

    This required reconnaissance weeks, if not months beforehand. It requires a support network operational in Kenya, which needs to be a concern to Kenyan authorities now. And neighboring countries need to ask themselves whether they may be unwittingly hosting a similar network, a sleeper cell. And all of these are serious questions that now need to be addressed.


    The dead come from a range of countries. But, as we just heard the Kenyan foreign minister tell Margaret a few moments ago, the fighters come from a range of countries as well, possibly including the United States and Britain. What does that tell you about al-Shabab today?


    Well, it tells us that the pipeline that al-Shabab – al-Shabab was unique among the al-Qaida affiliates to begin with, insofar as where other al-Qaida affiliates, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has targeted the U.S. homeland, fortunately unsuccessfully to date, other al-Qaida affiliates have had people reach out to them, but al-Shabab, alone among all these groups, these regional affiliates, has had a pipeline to both funnel fighters and recruits to its fight in East Africa, as well as to send material support.

    There have been numerous federal investigations. There are several prosecutions and convictions in U.S. courts. And so this is a group with a reach back to America. And it shows that these fighters, the ones the minister mentioned from the United States, Britain, I have heard other reports of fighters coming also from Sweden and other countries, that the pipeline is still active, and it's still drawing, even when the fight in Somalia seems near finished, even with the transformation to a transnational agenda. They're still getting recruits.


    Kenya has become a hub for international operations, both in relief agencies, international groups, also military operations.

    But it also has a large number of refugees on its soil. Does al-Shabab organize in those Somali camps? Is this something the Kenyan state has had trouble with?


    As the minister mentioned in her interview with Margaret, this is something Kenya has grappled with. It's become a hot-button political issue in Kenya, the presence of — when any country — we would be upset in the United States if our second largest city was a refugee camp that had been around for well over a decade.

    And this is certainly what Kenya is facing. But Kenyan authorities also need to be concerned that it's not just ethnic Somalis, whether from Somalia or native to Kenya, who are susceptible to this.

    When Shabab had its heyday, occupying most of South Central Somalia, the largest non-Somali group within al-Shabab were non-Somali Kenyans. So, there are other Kenyans involved. And, as we have heard, they seem to still be successful in attracting foreign fighters as well.

    So one shouldn't be — should be very careful about the profiling, that it doesn't lead to a backlash that makes counterterrorism that much more difficult.


    This is the most significant terrorist attack in Kenya since the U.S. Embassy bombings. Have African militaries gone to school on how to fight back against this kind of thing? Are they anticipating more of this kind of attack?


    Well, certainly, over the course of the last decade-and-a-half, two decades, African militaries by and large have become much more professional, better trained.

    And the Kenyan military is certainly one of the more capable African militaries. But militaries have their purpose. They can push back at borders. They can secure certain areas. But you also need law enforcement. You need intelligence. You need to be able to operate in the community.

    So there are limits to what the military can do. And we have seen — and I don't want to criticize the Kenyans in the wake of a tragedy, but we have just seen over the weekend some of the flaws in their — some of the people who were victims who were treated and released, the police didn't interview them and gather real-time intelligence, things like that, that perhaps the international community could help the Kenyans with, training up that law enforcement capacity alongside the military capacity.


    Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, thanks for joining us.


    Thank you.