Intelligence officers warn of more terrorism after Kenya mall attack

The mall attack in Kenya could foreshadow more soft target attacks, potentially even in the U.S. Photo: al-Shabaab militants outside Mogadishu (AP)

WASHINGTON, September 26, 2013 — The horrific terrorist attack by al-Shabaab on the Watergate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya this week starkly highlights the threat of al-Qaeda affiliates against soft targets around the world and the increasing reach of terrorist affiliates. It is also raising concerns of another round of terrorist attacks, potentially even in the United States.

The few Americans aware of al-Shabaab before this week likely categorized it as a Somali terrorist group, active primarily around the Port of Kismayo.

SEE RELATED: Before Kenya: Media trashed warnings of radicalized U.S. Muslims

Last year, African Union troops expelled the group from the stronghold, declaring a cautious victory. Even at the time, however, a village elder warned a local television station that no one should celebrate. “Al Shabaab has not perished,” he said on the television interview, “so the worry is what next.”

What’s next appears to be an effort by the group to grow geographically and in numbers.

Andy Polk, former director of the congressional anti-terrorism caucus, told the Communities, “Al-Shabaab has been working very quietly to expand regionally after the assaults against them, to stretch the battlefield and get new recruits. Their regional magazine is clearly aimed at attracting disaffected youth in Ethiopia, Kenya and elsewhere, and it appears to be working.”

The hard-line Muslim group, known for imposing strict Shari’a law complete with stonings and public executions in areas it controls, is a clan-based terrorist group that has declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda. According to the website of the National Counterterrorism Center, the group is “not centralized or monolithic in its agenda or goals.”

SEE RELATED: Kenya mall shooting symptom of Africa neglect

However, according to counter-terrorism officials, since the group formally joined with al-Qaeda in 2007, it has developed a coherent goal beyond “expelling the infidels from Somalia” to include global jihad. One intelligence official notes, “If you look at Shabaab and how it is evolved, you can see it clearly has gone from wanting to make Somalia an Islamic state to promoting al-Qaeda’s idea of an Islamic Caliphate.”

A report by the America Enterprise Group supports this position. In its “Analysis of Al-Shabaab’s Evolving Rhetoric,” published in February 2011, Cody Curran sites a May 2010 threat by al-Shabaab which said, “we warn that the hand of oppression which has for so long affected worshippers at the mosque in Bakara Market, a mosque often targeted by cowardly Crusader attack, is the same filthy hand which kills Muslims in Pakistan and Iraq … We will not live in security until we extirpate their roots, if not tomorrow, then in the near future.”

Like other terrorist groups, al-Shabaab has successfully used social media to spread its message and gain recruits. The organization has mastered YouTube, twitter, and Facebook as well as other social networking sites.

According to Polk, Shabaab is growing in popularity around the region because it is offering recruits and their family large sums of money to join the organization. He says “Ideology is part of it, but their recruiters are very clever. They will offer a potential recruit whatever they are looking for — money, fame, a way out, or the jihadist ideology — if that will get them to join up.” 

At the same time, they are romanticizing the idea of al-Shabaab, says Polk. “Joining them is almost like camp: You can camp out, learn to shoot, and be part of something greater … all of which is appealing to a young person in a slum with no job and no hope.”

Once these young idealists join al-Shabaab, however, “they are basically kidnapped,” explains Polk. He says, “There is no money, and they are told if they try to escape they will kill them and their family.” 

Says Polk, “The countries really have to work harder at developing education and counter extremist messages to let their youth know not all that glitters is gold, that al-Shabaab is not camp but they are trying to kidnap them away from their families.”

“Soft” targets, or civilian targets, are likely to remain a major aim for al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups. Not only do these targets require the least planning and skill to succeed, but they also inflict the most psychological damage.

Last January, an al-Qaeda affiliate led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar launched another major attack against a civilian target. The brigade took over an oil field in Amenas, Algeria, and demanded that France halt its military intervention in northern Mali. The brigade took more than 800 hostages, including 132 foreigners. Algerian forces ultimately freed most of the hostages, but 49 hostages — including three Americans — were killed in the crisis.

Polk warns, “I would not be surprised to see attacks over the next 12 months against schools, churches, nightclubs and restaurants like we have seen by Islamists in Kenya and Ethiopia.”

While international authorities are attempting to thwart al-Shabaab recruiting efforts, and are stepping up drone strikes and intelligence operations against the terrorist organization, the threat remains significant.

Andy Polk says, “I think Syria is creating a blind spot to a growing security threat to the U.S. The administration does not seem to fully understand the proliferation of al-Qaeda throughout Africa in the form of various affiliates, as was evident by the response to the Benghazi tragedy, nor does it have a real, strategic, long term policy to address the problem.”

A former CIA officer who worked on the terrorist target says that despite drone attacks, intelligence efforts and military attention to the terrorist problem, the mall attack shows that United States is “woefully behind” in tracking terrorists. “We thought al-Qaeda was dead after bin Laden,” he notes, “and they were just regrouping. Now we have affiliates and sympathizers and who knows what else, and we just can’t keep up. We plug up one place and another springs a leak.”

“Who would have thought al-Shabaab would have launched an attack at a major mall, a few blocks from the embassy in Christian-dominated Kenya? Maybe some intelligence officers, but obviously they weren’t screaming loud enough,” he says.

“The real tragedy,” he notes, “is that we have no idea what is going on. We don’t have enough resources, or the right kinds of resources, so Shabaab just goes out and takes over a mall frequented by foreigners and kills anyone who can’t recite a Muslim prayer and we have no idea it is coming.”

The success of the attack, he says, is likely to spawn similar efforts. He agrees with Andy Polk that the next attacks are likely to be against “soft” targets, given the ease of access and the high profile of those attacks. 

“It’s a tragedy no matter where it happens,” he says, “But I do hope the next mall they take over isn’t in Chicago or Boston or New York or Iowa. But the sad thing is, it could be. It really could be.”

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Lisa M. Ruth

Lisa M. Ruth started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service and analysis.  After leaving the government, she joined a private intelligence firm in South Florida as President, where she oversaw all research, analysis and reporting.

Lisa joined CDN as a journalist in 2009 and writes extensively on intelligence, world affairs, and breaking news. She also provides investigative reporting and news analysis. Lisa continues to write both for her own columns and as a guest writer on a wide variety of subjects, and is now Executive Editor for CDN and edits the Global, Family and Health sections.  She is also a regular contributor to Newsmax and other publications.

Contact Lisa M. Ruth


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