There is great cause for celebration within the organization. Over the course of one week, al Shabaab has gone from an anemic group of Islamic radicals residing in relative obscurity, to an overnight terrorist powerhouse with global recognition. What happened within the organization to aid their rise to international prominence?
In fact, it is their historic and routine failures which have led al Shabaab from the hard-targeted battlefields of Southern Somalia, fighting against organized and well-armed military adversaries, to the soft-targeted shopping malls of Nairobi, where they now slaughter unarmed and near helpless innocents. The brutal actions and tactics exhibited at the West Gate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya validate a shift in aspirations and mission philosophy. It appears al Shabaab is transitioning from an identity as THE overt rebel paramilitary presence of Southern Somalia, to that of a covert insurgency or true terrorist network now hiding in the seams between Somalia and Kenya.
Instead of their traditional direct engagements fighting against superior military forces, the group is now resorting to insurgent and terrorist attacks. In doing so, al Shabaab has managed to land in the global spotlight. They now appear to appreciate that public fear; respect and media attention is more readily reaped inside shopping malls and not on Somali battlefields.
Even though al Shabaab is significantly smaller than it was two years ago, the leadership is apparently now taking their cues from organizations like the Afghanistan-based Taliban. Unlike conventional engagements, conducting insurgent and terror operations requires far less capital and manpower than that necessary to govern territories and people, or to wage conventional warfare from defended static locations. Ironically, the more material assets al Shabaab is willing to relinquish, shifting from their old model for justifying relevance, the more relevant they will become. In the recent past, various fragments of the terrorist network would fuse, ambitiously engage in direct kinetic operations against the African Union Mission and Kenyan military forces…and (routinely) get brutally crushed.
These defeats resulted in the loss of control over the majority of territories it had previously governed inside Somalia. This included towns along the Kenyan border, segments of Mogadishu and other strategically critical nodes such as the port of Kismayo.
Like most military unit techniques, tactics and procedures, al Shabaab’s rulebook is written in blood. It is important to understand that this new strategy is not a proclamation of strength, but more a quiet admission of weakness. By avoiding direct force-on-force clashes, and relying on the lesser impact of asymmetrical attacks, al Shabaab now sees a road to victory through “death by a thousand cuts.” Like the Taliban, their goal is to now wear down the African Union Mission and Kenyan military forces through modest (force) but psychologically costly engagements, discouraging their desire to occupy Somalia.
Through reorganization and a reduced, more nimble infrastructure, al Shabaab is endeavoring to survive by outlasting their adversaries. If smart with their allocation and expenditure of remaining resources, al Shabaab could potentially conduct insurgency operations for years to come. If they can’t defeat their foes through military supremacy, then they intend on defeating them through will power.
Will this ambitious strategy work? Just ask the Ethiopians about their own 2006 invasion and occupation of Somalia. al Shabaab waged a lengthy insurgency until the Ethiopian forces withdrew from the country in January 2009.
What does this newfound fame or potentially emerging threat mean for the rest of the world outside of Kenya? While truly tragic and brutal in nature, the methods and tactics employed by al Shabaab during the siege of the West Gate Mall were nothing new or even remotely advanced. The utilization of AK-47s, grenades and other small ordinance to attack a shopping mall in order capture unarmed hostages for the purpose of torture, mutilation and murder speaks volumes about the level of sophistication (or lack thereof) within the ranks of the current al Shabaab. Every primitive guerilla organization on the planet employs these exact same tactics…because these tactics encompass the extent of their capabilities.
al Shabaab has exhibited a nominal ability to conduct insurgent or terror attacks outside Somalia or Kenya. This latest incident does little to change perception regarding their ability to do anything different.
My opinion: These cowards/clowns lack a true international sponsor necessary to provide financial support and sophisticated training. Until this happens, al Shabaab, (at least for the moment) remains a vocal and ambitious BUT regional threat.