Kenya's Al-Shabaab Problem Is an American Problem, Too

Matt Berman
National Journal

The massive, horrifying shooting in Kenya is taking place on another side of the world, but the al-Qaeda affiliated group with Western connections that is carrying out the attacks is a distinctly American problem too. 

At least 68 people are dead in the al-Shabaab terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, which began on Saturday and continues into Monday. There are still hostages in the mall. And, if al-Shabaab is to be believed, three American-born people may have played a part in the attack.

Somalia-based al-Shabaab has a history of Western recruitment. The organization itself grew out of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, a group of sharia courts. Al-Shabaab, which means "the youth" in Arabic, split off from the ICU after Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in 2006. That invasion and the subsequent occupation radicalized the young splinter group and made it a magnet for jihadists, helping the group gain thousands of recruits by 2008. Initially, the group was focused on fighting Ethiopian interests in Somalia.

In February of that year, the State Department designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization, calling it a "violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al-Qaida." By the summer of 2010, the group had expanded its reach, as evidenced by a suicide bombing in Uganda that killed 74 people.

It's hard to know exactly how many Western fighters are in Shabaab, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But Shabaab has had some marginal success at drawing recruits from the Somali diaspora in the United States and the United Kingdom. Like other terrorist organizations, Shabaab has targeted young, dissatisfied men who have not integrated well into Western life.

In June 2010, two men from New Jersey were arrested at JFK airport and accused of trying to join up with Shabaab in Somalia. Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutors describe another three men facing federal terrorism charges in the city as "dangerous and influential" members of al-Shabaab. Those three men were arrested in Africa while travelling to Yemen, and none of them is a United States citizen. One, however, is British.

A congressional report from July 2011 found that Shabaab had recruited over 40 American Muslims, and at that point at least 15 had been killed.

One of the group's most famous members was Omar Hammami, an Alabama man who left for Somalia in 2006. Hammami, who tweeted at @abumamerican, eventually broke with Shabaab, while still saying that he believed in "attacking U.S. interests everywhere." He was reportedly killed by Shabaab just last week.

The U.S. and U.K. have taken different paths to dealing with Shabaab and Somalia to this point. After the mission in Somalia in the 1990s, the U.S. has kept Somalia at an "arms length," says Felbab-Brown, resorting more to limited selective strikes than the kind of political development that Britain has strived for.

Up to this point, Western assets have had a limited influence within Shabaab, and the plight of Hammami has actually served as a warning to would-be-jihadists. In the last few years, Shabaab has lost some of its influence and Western recruits have attempted to leave the organization, sometimes saying that they didn't fully understand what they were getting themselves into. The recruits have been "more for the show," says Felbab-Brown. She even points to recent chatter among Shabaab leadership fretting over excessively poor treatment of Western assets, suggesting that their role within the organization needs to be reorganized.

If the Shabaab claims that three of the Kenyan shooters are American-born bear out, we may be seeing what that restructuring could look like.

And the recruits—with their Western citizenship, connections, and on-the-ground knowledge—pose an out-sized potential threat to the U.K. and the U.S. "I would be very surprised if Shabaab had the capacity to pull off in the United States anything on the scale of 9/11, or even in Britain," says Felbab-Brown. But with relatively easy access through U.S. or U.K. borders, it's not crazy to imagine that Shabaab could be capable of launching an attack on a soft-target by a gunman—like the one currently underway in Kenya—abroad. And these Shabaab assets are likely out there. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., believes that there are currently between 15 and 20 active American members of Shabaab.

This fear isn't just a security threat in the United States or the United Kingdom. It's also a palpable privacy threat for Somalis living in the West. The NYPD has already made infiltrating suspect demographic groups (read: Muslim) part of its post-9/11 counter-terrorism M.O. The Somali diaspora is concerned it will be unfairly targeted by the U.S. or U.K. government, get excessive attention from the FBI or the U.K. Home Office, or be socially alienated of Western society, according to Felbab-Brown. In short, greater attention on Shabaab could mean greater attention on normal, law-abiding Somalis living in the West. And if you want to create a mass of young, poorly integrated Somali men, that's surely one way to do it.