Westgate Example of Shabab Tactic Shift; No Strategic Change

Ever since the Kenyan army took Kismayo about a year ago, a large-scale terrorist attack against Kenya was in the horizon.

As I have written in earlier articles, foreign strikes by the Shabab are imminent only when their overall leader, Abu Zubayr aka Ahmed Godane, announces a threat against a foreign target. He made threats against Uganda a few days before the Kampala attacks in 2010; likewise, he threatened Kenya almost a year ago when its troops took Kismayo.

The main reason a strike could not be launched when he made the threat was because of internal dissent. Since his threat, he purged the Shabab of all opposing voices, both extreme and moderate.

Dozens of well-known and not-so-known Shabab members have been executed and imprisoned from February of this year – from Abu Zubayr’s own deputy to the head of the Shura (their version of the parliament), down to foot soldiers that made anti-Abu Zubayr comments at tea shops.

The Shabab foreign policy has always been to attack countries directly involved in combating them inside Somalia. Some of the rebels purged from the Shabab wanted to escalate and attack western countries not militarily involved in the Somali war. The attack in Nairobi is therefore neither a change in the foreign policy of the Shabab nor unexpected.

Earlier this year, the non-Somali Shabab were unhappy with having an ethnic Somali leading the foreign operations department. If it is true that most of the attackers of Westgate are ethnic Somali, it will be the only surprise as Shabab used mostly non-Somalis for earlier attacks in Kenya and Uganda and one that could mean the “Africans” (the non-Somali East African Shabab) are still upset at their lack of real power inside the Shabab.

Shifting Tactics

The Westgate attack is just the latest of a string of Shabab attacks in which they use “martyrdom” commando raids to strike at target locations and end with detonating explosives on their bodies. The first notable such attack was in late 2010 when Shabab attackers in government uniform attacked Hotel Muna in Mogadishu, killing about a dozen MPs and other guests. That was followed by an attack on the airport. It soon became their choice of attacking high value targets.

A commando suicide attack was carried out against the current president days after he was elected in September 2012, then it was the Supreme Court in Mogadishu, and finally the UNDP building.

These kinds of attacks are almost unstoppable in Mogadishu as they start with a car bomb followed by attackers disguised as first-responding government troops. The only thing that can be done is increasing the layers of security, which drains resources – a probable secondary aim of the Shabab as they increasingly use commando suicide attacks as a tactic.

In attacking a place frequented by expatriates and dragging out the attack for more than 48 hours for prolonged media attention, the Westgate attack’s main aim may be to destroy the image of Kenya as a safe place to do business or to go visit. Creating inter-religious tension and causing a backlash to the anti-Shabab Somali community in Eastleigh may be a secondary aim.

This may not be true for Kenya, but suicide commando attacks may become commonplace in Mogadishu as the Shabab reverts to asymmetrical warfare to be better positioned to carry out its mission statement – the reason its leaders said they ordered a retreat from Mogadishu in 2011.

No matter the rhetoric, the war with HSM will not end in the near future. Whether we like it or not, a purely military solution is impossible. The Shabab have a robust media machine that preaches and defends its ideology. Their dead leaders recruit from the grave. A more comprehensive response is necessary to face this challenge.

And financially, they are doing just fine: the charcoal their financiers had in the Kismayo port when it fell was sold (despite the ban on Somali charcoal exports); the charcoal exports continue. And, as expected, some businessmen are still paying them the annual Zakah in areas they lost control of.

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5 Responses to Westgate Example of Shabab Tactic Shift; No Strategic Change

  1. PKZM says:

    Too bad if the last post on ITI. Probably best open-source analysis on HSM on the web. Seriously. If you don’t speak soomaali, it is incredibly difficult to reach a correct assessment on Somalia. So much outright BS being said and written in the English-speaking-somali-expert-world.

    Provocative question. If you want better future for Somalia, why do you fight corruption instead of stepping aside and letting the present government collapse? Corruption is it’s raison d’etre, its DNA. “The worse the better”, as Lenin once wrote.

    • praisedone says:

      No wonder Leninism failed.

      • PKZM says:

        Ultimately. But not until after 75 years.)

        To assume SFG can re-invent itself as a functional gov’t is a huge bet. What if it can only mimic normalcy like Karzai’s gov’t, risking to collapse once foreign forces withdraw? I don’t mean it’s better to sit and do nothing, but this can be a big effort going to waste. Unless you are positioning yourself for a political career of course.

      • praisedone says:

        My effort is going into fighting corruption, which should prevent state collapse after withdrawal of foreign forces.

  2. jerid lawil says:

    Praisedone, thank you for the well researched, thought out and very specific analysis of the Westgate attack, but also the prognosis of where HSM goes from here. However, I am doubt how many young people, given the change of fortune of al-Shabaab are lining up for these suicide attacks.

    In fact, I consider 2009 the year that HSM was at top of its power, both militarily and organizationally. It had attracted many young people from US, Canada and Europe, ready to do serious fighting. You will remember that the commando style attack started back in a big way in February 2009 when HSM attacked the position of Burundi forces at the former National University, killing over 12 AMISOM soldiers. Then seven months later, on September 17, 2009, a twin bomb suicide attack inside AMISOM base in Karaan killed 17 soldiers including Burundi Maj. Gen. Niyoyunguruza, and others including TFG Deputy Police Commissioner Gen. Mohamed Nur. This attack involved an American youth in one of the two UN vehicles used.

    The point I am making is that while I agree that al-Shabaab will continue to go after highly visible targets, I am not sure that they command the same advantage that they had back in 2009.

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