A Kenyan victim says: “This is not Islam. Islam is a religion of mercy and charity.”
Kenyan Islamic scholar Abubakr Sharif Ahmed, better known as Makaburi, says: “I’m not a moderate. . . . Moderate Islam is that of Obama and Tony Blair. The Al-Shaba’ab operation is justifiable. I’m not affiliated to the group, but do support its ideology.”
These two comments came following the terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi in which 67 people were killed.
But just who are Al-Shaba’ab?
Ali and Khalid, two people who were held captives in the mall and managed to escape with their lives, related what happened during the Al-Shaba’ab siege to BBC’s Panorama. Ali said: “They forced me to ‘watch’ another captive who tried to escape. They shackled his feet and hands and blindfolded him, and then they stabbed him to death while he screamed in pain.”
Khaled said: “They brought two kids in front of me and put explosive belts on them, and sent them in a suicide operation, and we never saw them again. They were only six and seven years old.”
Among the documents discovered in Osama Bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was a document that called for the ties between his organization and Al-Shaba’ab to be kept a secret. Bin Laden was conscious that publicly acknowledging this link would draw the West’s attention to the Somalia-based organization. As a result, Al-Shaba’ab remained relatively free in terms of their orchestration and implementation of terrorist operations in eastern Africa.
The claims that the threat represented by Al-Qaeda is waning are simply not true. Al-Qaeda’s decentralization and fragmentation in no way means that the terrorist group no longer represents a threat. Its mere ideology is a threat.
Al-Qaeda wants Muslims to feel separate and distinct from non-Muslims, namely in that they should not feel like they are potential targets of terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda also wants non-Muslims to be suspicious and hostile towards Muslims, which further alienates and isolates the Muslim community. Most terrorist operations are carefully organized and orchestrated, with the people carrying them out having a distinct plan of action and specific grievances.
In Nairobi, the plan was: “If you are a Muslim, you are safe,” meaning that non-Muslims were the target of the operation, although many Muslims were killed. What Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are trying to do is divide people and society, creating splits within states and communities in order to accomplish their ultimate objective of creating a world of division and strife.
Will they succeed?
The problem is that the areas where groups like Al-Shaba’ab and others are situated also attract foreign youths who are neither deprived nor poor, but who have fallen prey to this terrifying ideology. These angry young men, often called “intellectuals,” believe that through such violent actions they can avenge themselves on the world, and that their actions will have long-term consequences.
The Westgate Mall terrorist attack is painful not only due to the number of people killed, but also who were killed and how, including the brutal butchering of young children. This was a terrorist operation and so its aim was to terrify the watching world.
Some international economies are harmed by what is happening in neighboring states. For example, Lebanon shares a border with Syria, while Pakistan is adversely affected by the close proximity of Afghanistan. As for Kenya, it unfortunately finds itself sharing a border with Somalia.
These states are harmed by their proximity to an unruly neighbor, in addition to their own failure to implement national security.
Today, this state of instability is able to traverse broad geographic regions, starting from eastern Africa to Sudan, Somalia and then to Kenya. The question that must be asked here is: Why didn’t Al-Shaba’ab carry out a single terrorist operation against Ethiopia, despite the historic hostility between the two countries?
This could be due to the tight security situation in Ethiopia and the weakening security in Kenya. Al-Shaba’ab announced their arrival on the international scene in 2006, initially seeking to take control of Somalia and turn it into an Islamic emirate before African troops were deployed, dashing these Islamist dreams.
During internal clashes last month, Al-Shaba’ab leaders who wanted to keep the group’s activities domestic were killed, including Omar Hamami, a US citizen of Syrian parentage. Those who wanted to expand the terrorist group’s operations have since taken over.
Following the Westgate terrorist operation, Al-Shaba’ab movement issued a statement signed by its emir, Sheikh Mokhtar Abu Zubair. The statement read: “On Saturday, September 21, 2013, which was just 10 days after the anniversary date of the blessed 9/11 operations, a battle which is among the epic battles in the history of Islam began in Nairobi, and in which some of the Mujaheddin Martyrdom-Seekers have written with their blood. Allah has honored the Mujaheddin fighters to write this epic battle—the Badr of Nairobi [a reference to the Islamic Battle of Badr]—with their blood and to change the course of history and avenge the deaths of the weak, oppressed Muslims.”
On July 12, two months before the Westgate operation, a report by the UN in Kenya warned that Al-Shaba’ab’s major ally, Al-Hijra, was orchestrating new and more complex operations.
Among the rumors that spread following Westgate was that one of the group’s leaders was a Kenyan national who embraced Islam and who had been a former soldier in the Special Forces. According to the same report, while Al-Hijra and Al-Shaba’ab were strengthening their ties, the Kenyan group had also suffered a number of setbacks, with many of its senior leaders being killed in counter-terrorist operations, including Sheikh Abboud Roghou Mohamed. However, the report also highlighted the continuing threat posed by Al-Hijra, in addition to that of Al-Shaba’ab.
Al-Hijra did not hide its loyalty to Al-Qaeda. In February 2012, only one day after Al-Qaeda and Al-Shaba’ab announced their merger, Al-Hijra announced that it was part of Al-Qaeda in East Africa.
The report also mentioned two names of Al-Qaeda loyalists who were being consulted by Al-Hijra, including Abubakr Sharif Ahmed, who was placed on the UN and US terrorist watch list. He is believed to be very close to the Al-Shaba’ab leadership, with the report also saying that Makaburi exerted a “growing influence over Al-Hijra,” adding he was “determined to redirect the group’s resources and manpower from hitting ‘soft targets’ to conducting complex, large-scale attacks in Kenya on behalf and in support of Al-Shaba’ab.”
The second name mentioned in the UN report is that of British national Jermaine John Grant, who was reportedly planning to attack a tourist resort in Mombasa in 2011. According to the report, Grant admitted being a member of Al-Qaeda, not Al-Shaba’ab, to Kenyan authorities.
In his book, The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia, James Ferguson tells an anecdote about Somali youth being lured into joining the terrorist Al-Shaba’ab organization in return for a single piece of fruit per day.
There are those who say that Somalia is hungry and poor and that as long as there is poverty and starvation, Al-Shaba’ab will have no shortage of recruits. But where does their money come from?
Today, a hardline movement is rising in Kenya. A state of inequality is prevailing across the world; distrust in government and unemployment are rife. This state of division and fragmentation, if it remains unaddressed, will only serve to strengthen Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Indeed, Al-Qaeda draws strength from such circumstances in order to create more division and strife in a vicious circle.
If this state of affairs continues, then Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shaba’ab in Somalia, Al-Hijra in Kenya, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will see a new era of interaction and collaboration.