The Westgate Mall Attack and What it Means for al-Shabaab Influence Within the United StatesLast Monday, a dense plume of smoke could be seen following a loud explosion that erupted in the heart of the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Al-Shabab militants had held hundreds hostage that day, with at least sixty-two confirmed killed, after storming the mall with guns. Though the grisly attack may seem akin to another terrorism attack in a volatile region, the strike uncovers a few critical considerations regarding the terrorist group responsible and its plans for international expansion.
Al-Shabaab, a Somali militant group (the Arabic name translates to “The Youth”) came into existence in 2006 as the radical youth wing of Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts. The coalition began as a faction fighting Ethiopian forces who entered Somalia to back the country’s interim government. During this period, foreign jihadists flocked to Somalia to help al-Shabaab in its fight gradually establishing a link between the group and al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab has seen its influence dwindle in recent years, beginning with its forced-removal from Mogadishu in 2011 and then again its loss of control of the region after leaving the port Kismayo a year later. These losses deprived them of the ability to levy taxes and acquire supplies in areas under their control.
Given its diminishing hold on regional power, it comes as little surprise that al-Shabaab decisively chose to strike beyond its borders and launch a fatal assault on the popular Nairobi mall; Westgate shopping center is a major tourist hub attracting western foreigners and affluent Kenyans. The attack sends a clear message to radicals and other extremist al-Qaeda-linked organizations stating, “We’re still here, and we’re still in serious business.”
But al-Shabaab’s propagandistic attack was not meant to radicalize Islamists exclusively in the region. The group of fighters that day was comprised not only of Somali nationals, but also of international recruits – most significantly at least two fighters have been confirmed to have come from Minnesota and Missouri. In other words, a number of these recruits who were involved in this gruesome Jihadist strike were United States citizens loyal to al-Shabaab.
Why is this significant? Consider the following factors in conjunction with one another: (1) the choice to attack a site of this sort rather than one with government or military affiliation was largely a publicity-driven move, (2) both the targets and the al-Shabab recruits were an amalgamation of foreigners originating from an array of western countries. The attack was more than just another anti-west assault launched by Islamists; it was meant to serve as an initiative in capturing the attention of Somalis and Muslims – specifically within the United States – for recruitment to the group’s militant forces.
The American-Somali population saw a spike in numbers following immigrants escaping the country’s 1991 civil war . An estimated 50,000 to over 150,000 Somali naturalized citizens reside within the United States today, living in concentrated groups, the largest of which is situated in Minnesota. And although the majority of Somalis have assimilated to American culture, the adjustment of the population has been met with interruptions by the Islamic radicalization of its youth that has been occurring since at least 2004. In 2007, al-Shabaab began openly calling for foreign fighters around the world to come join their extremist forces – and a number of American-Somalis began taking heed to their calls, leaving for Somalia to train in the name of jihad.
While there is nothing new about Americans being recruited and trained to fight for Jihadist terrorist organizations, al-Shabaab and its Nairobi propaganda attack not only increased the probable numbers of radicalized Americans migrating to the region but also highlighted an acute new domestic security concern within the United States. Through recruiting, radicalizing and training, al-Shabaab is able to extend its extremist goals directly into the United States through Somali citizens who leave for Somalia as Islamists and return to the States as new Jihadists. U.S. intelligence forces need to begin focusing on al-Shabaab’s recruitment among the swelling American-Somali population, as it will soon prove itself to be among the next major threats to the borders of this nation. If the government is to minimize the effects of al-Shabaab’s recruitment campaign, it must take initiative to locate both the locals responsible for radicalizing these Somali-Americans, as well as those who have left the country to receive training, to ensure that they do not reenter the country equipped with ambitions of Jihadist destruction.
Not only must it track and locate recruiters and militants who are nationals, but the United States must also keep a close watch as to where in Somalia its dollars are being wired. In addition to the number of recruits the group receives from this country, al-Shabaab’s supporters have maintained direct contact with its leaders; recorded transactions indicate that the group has received at least tens of thousands of American dollars through money transfer businesses over the years to the organization. Since al-Shabaab was added to the State Department’s list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 2008, the providing of money, communications, weapons, human capital, etc., to the group has been deemed illegal, which has appeared to have had somewhat of a preventative effect with twelve individuals convicted in 2011. Regardless of this initiative and the seemingly negligible reported amount of funds channeled to the organization, there still exists the prominent threat of “under-wraps” al-Shabaab recruitment and funding that occurs entirely undetected within the United States.
Perhaps in spite of all these considerations, al-Shabaab’s horrific, newsworthy assault on the Westgate Mall was a mere cry for attention – an act of desperation to reclaim what little is left of its legitimacy as a serious terrorist organization. After all, the group’s primary aim has always been to maintain ironclad control over Somalia, and with that gone, al-Shabaab has little to its name within the region. Some argue that the attack will fail to create a substantial wave of radicalization and influence potential recruits in such a dramatic manner. However, the truth still indicates that the threat is grave. The attack shows that al-Shabaab is still serious about its exploits, and the Americans involved prove that the group’s recruitment is still effective and in full swing within the States. Moreover, the White House must marshal its intelligence services in cracking down on domestic recruitment, and perhaps most importantly monitoring the reentry of American-Somalis returning from Somalia, in order to ensure that domestic grounds are kept secure from the new security threat posed by al-Shabaab and its terrorist outlets on U.S. soil.