Countering al-Shabab: How the War on Terrorism Is Being Fought in East Africa

Two bombings of churches in Kenya pointed to the resurgence al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in East Africa. But a TIME investigation into how the region's countries (and the U.S.) are handling groups like Somalia's al-Shabab leads to accusations of illegal, murky tactics

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Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

A woman wounded during church attacks in the Kenyan city of Garissa is helped by Red Cross paramedics at Nairobi's Wilson Airport on July 1, 2012

The attack by suspected Islamist militants on two churches in eastern Kenya on Sunday, in which the assailants killed 17 people and wounded 60 more, is more bloody confirmation of the emergence of African terrorist groups. A group of seven masked men threw grenades into the Catholic Church and African Inland Church in Garissa, close to the Somali border, then opened fire with assault rifles. Though no group has claimed responsibility, it is the latest incident after a series of attacks carried out by Islamist militants across Kenya that have killed close to 60 people. The episodes began after Kenya invaded Somalia last September in pursuit of the Somali guerrilla group al-Shabab.

For years Western terrorist hunters have war-gamed a scenario whereby al-Qaeda, pressed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, tries to establish a new staging ground in the Sahara and the Sahel, the band of lawless desert and scrub running east to west across Africa. According to the theory, al-Qaeda would likely try to extend its franchise to three indigenous African groups: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria, Mali and Niger; Boko Haram in northern Nigeria; and al-Shabab in Somalia.

Theory is now becoming reality. After gestating for years, all three groups now present a real threat. Formerly a mostly criminal enterprise kidnapping foreigners for million-dollar ransoms, in the past year AQIM strengthened its arsenal with weapons smuggled out of the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, then piggybacked on a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali so effectively that it and its fellow Islamists now control a de facto new state. (In a move similar to the Afghan Taliban’s demolition of Buddhist statues, some of the militants have now set about destroying “idolatrous” Sufi shrines in the ancient city of Timbuktu.) In Nigeria, most of Boko Haram’s attacks have a local focus — the security forces, state institutions, churches — but a faction has emerged with bigger ambitions, as it demonstrated with a suicide car-bomb attack on Aug. 26 last year on the U.N.’s headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, which killed 24 people and injured 115.

(PHOTOS: Government Forces Lay Claim to Mogadishu)

AQIM and Boko Haram represent a regional threat: according to U.S. and Nigerian intelligence, AQIM has trained Boko Haram operatives since the middle of the past decade. In spite of that, it is al-Shabab that garners the most attention from Western counterterrorism efforts, not least because Islamic terrorism has a long history in East Africa. It was the Aug. 7, 1998, U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in which 224 people died and which was carried out by another al-Qaeda affiliate based in Somalia, that gave first notice to the world that a previously little-known Saudi fundamentalist called Osama bin Laden, who lived in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, for five years in the 1990s, was making good on his 1996 and ’98 declarations of a global jihad against the U.S. Al-Shabab was originally the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of clerics and judges that tolerated the presence of the embassy bombers in its ranks and briefly ruled Mogadishu for six months in 2006. When an ICU leader declared a jihad on neighboring Ethiopia in October 2006, Ethiopia invaded, toppled the ICU and the group faded. But al-Shabab, by presenting itself as a force for nationalist resistance, gained strength and by 2008 was operating across much of Mogadishu and all of southern Somalia. Encouraged by the al-Qaeda operatives in its midst, it declared an alliance with bin Laden’s group. It also drew 200 to 250 foreigners to Somalia to join it, mainly ethnic Somali from the U.S., Britain, Europe and Australia but also itinerant jihadists from across the Middle East and South Asia. Finally, according to Nigerian intelligence, it also made tentative contact with Boko Haram.

All of which would put al-Shabab at the top of any Western intelligence service’s Africa watch list. But al-Shabab also has a proven will and ability to operate internationally. In 2008, it killed 30 people in a series of bombings in Somaliland. When the Ethiopians were replaced by Ugandans and Burundians sent in as an African Union peacekeeping force from 2007 to ’09, al-Shabab switched targets. On July 11, 2010, as the world watched Spain beat the Netherlands in the soccer World Cup final, two al-Shabab suicide bombers wearing vests stuffed with plastic explosives and ball bearings blew themselves up while surrounded by crowds watching the game in front of two separate outdoor screens in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. A total of 76 people died, mostly Ugandans, but also Ethiopians, Eritreans and a 25-year-old American, Nate Henn, of Wilmington, Del., from the San Diego activist group Invisible Children. After the Kenyan invasion last September, Kenya too became a target. The Islamists have staged grenade and bomb attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa, Garissa and elsewhere.

Inside Somalia, where al-Shabab operates as a conventional guerrilla army, the Islamists are losing territory to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which takes Ugandan and Burundian forces, and also soldiers from Djibouti, Sierra Leone and, since it agreed to a common command last month, Kenya. But al-Shabab’s steady loss of territory inside Somalia contrasts with its operations outside it where, as a terrorist group, it grows ever more bold and bloody. A TIME investigation into the Western counterterrorism response in East Africa offers some explanation as to why.

MORE: Threat Level Rising: How African Terrorist Groups Inspired by al-Qaeda Are Gaining Strength

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32 comments
gandalf.the.shining.white
gandalf.the.shining.white

The Koran - and if you get offended - tough,this is 2013 - grow up - and stop throwing your toys out of your misbegotten , mysogynist  pram.

As ANYONE who posts here knows, Islam  is not a religion at all , but a political doctrine of supremacy, like Fascism, and Nazism, and communism, hiding under the guise of the religion of the burhka.

Winston Churchill  PM of Great Britain !940 - 1945- said 

'Islam is as dangerous in a man, as rabies in a dog'

And , I believe its important to see this from the other side, in the name of tolerance, 

An Indonesian cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir recently put it, "If the West wants to have peace, then they have to accept Islamic rule."

Mazzaroth Darkman
Mazzaroth Darkman

There exists a global jihadist movement, dedicated to terror and political goals (basically rule the world), there really is no reason why intelligence agencies of collaborating states should not work together to protect the innocent....

f_galton
f_galton

al-Shabab's influence is already waning. Most young Islamists in the region are more interested in joining al-Shabop, or al-Shadoobiedoobiedoo, or el-Debarge.

DANS
DANS

Gee, why doesn't Obama give some help to Kenya, the city of his birth? He makes one heck of a native son, doesn't he? I guess he can forget about having a street named after him!

Gin Heedneeds
Gin Heedneeds

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STAY BOW-LEGGED amp; THICK. G-ESTEEM (Presidential Election Nov 6, 2012) 44-Life

Flicka71
Flicka71

Al-shabab of East Africa.......-_-';'.....

Did anyone read the part about them using the rest of the world obsession of soccer (2010 world cup match) to their own advantage? Very dirty and well played. 

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

"Islamists" is a made-up word that does not exist in Islam. Al Shabab is a terrorist group. They are not "Islamic Terrorists." A Christian criminal is always just a criminal. But a Muslim criminal in the eyes of Time.com is an "Islamic terrorist." Funny....you NEVER see the term "Christian terrorists" ever used, not one single time in any news story ever printed by TIME (gay terrorist?). Never do you cite a "Christian criminal, because when a Christian commits a crime, his religion instantly becomes irrelevant, even if he says it is relevant. Why is it okay for the writers and editors at TIME to be prejudiced against Muslims and Islam? It certainly is not a rational prejudice. Muslims are 1.6 billion and growing. That's a lot of readers to lose just because you can't pull your head out of the 50s. "Jihadists" and "Islamists" are made up words that do not exist in the Muslim world that show prejudice aginst Islam. If someone is a criminal, objective journalism says you simply call them a criminal (or a terrorist even) and nothing more. Your prejudice is showing and it will end up costing you money.

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f_galton
f_galton

I see what you did there.

gandalf.the.shining.white
gandalf.the.shining.white

Their very founder, the dashing and daring Prophet - has ALWAYS used other peoples weakness, to his advantage.

Its a bit like William Hill -never bet on a losing proposition. He was a master tactician, and used his skills as a trader, and persuader. They would plan tactics masterfully, and execute them ruthlessly - when the odds were on their side. When they weren't, he would slink back into the ' sneaky' Mohammed, and use treachery, guile, and over-arching ambition to win his way.

But what would I know? I wouldn't know a Siberian hampster, from a rat....but then again....

metropika
metropika

Oh boohoo. You don't like it, call al-Jazeera and register your complaints with them. I hear that they take this sort of thing seriously. As for the rest of us, we just call them as we see them and really could'nt give a rats-ass what you think.

Demigagog19
Demigagog19

Heya Greg, have u seen a group of Christians bombing marketplace or mosques or temples? None, thank u very much . That's why there's no term Christian Terrorists in any media

And for Norway? Breivik although very much is Christian he never mentioned that he done that in the name of Christian, no sir he done that because he disgusted with Muslims who demand Sharia enforced with violence and terrorize others who does not follow their teachings.

f_galton
f_galton

I consider Barney Frank to be a gay terrorist.

Epi Phyte
Epi Phyte

Al Shabaab are engaged in "islamic terrorism" because they are waging jihad to  institute a government based solely on shariah. This is their primary ideological driver and sole objective. . . . And they have ample theological support for their methods and goals starting with the actions of Mohammad himself, who also waged a terroristic  jihad to impose shariah and establish an islamic state.

Flicka71
Flicka71

That is an excellent point GregAbdul! A religion is a life guide and self vogue so therefore it should be relevant. 

Islamist terrorist in my opinion is a word though because the extremist muslims parties (suni and sheeite {please excuse the spelling}) are fighting, not only to get the West out and away, but also because of there difference in opinions about how they choose religious leaders so therefore how islam is expressed.

Jamie Bobini
Jamie Bobini

Please look up The Lord's Resistance Army, Ku Klux Klan, The National Liberation Front of Tripura and of course Nazi Germany. 

Just because you refuse to see doesn't mean they don't exist. 

Breivik by the way, declared himself a 'Christian crusader' -- how is that not doing things in the name of Christianity? He was against sharia government, just as some terrorists are against non-sharia government.

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

notice how you nicely said no way a terrorist can be a Christian? I guess....because you say so......

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

I see Christian terrorists all the time. You have a large block of Christians in America who fight to keep medicine from poor people (obama and obamacare haters). Hate crimes are committed in the US. Mosques have been shot at and burned and Muslims are just plain harassed. From where I sit, Christians have in no way cornered the market on morality or abstaining from violence.

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

Epi....

and you know this because you flew to East Africa and spoke to the leadership of al Shabaab....or are you parroting conservative talking points without one ounce of real-world experience on Islam?

Jamie Bobini
Jamie Bobini

That would be assuming that non-shariah government is the default and correct form of government. There is nothing wrong with desiring shariah. Whether shariah is still appropriate today is another issue -- personally, I don't agree to it.

As for primary ideological drivers, should American soldiers in Afghanistan be labeled Democratic terrorists? Or if we listen to hardliners who claim the US is a Christian country, Christian terrorists? It's as bad as reporting a black rapist or white pedophile. Terrorists are terrorists are murderers. They may be motivated by religion (and that applies to Christianity as much as Islam), but they are not the religion. Let's not paint 1.6 billion good, cranky, kind, annoying, pleasant people with a single brush. 

gandalf.the.shining.white
gandalf.the.shining.white

Flick, the whole point is that Islam is NOT  a religion. The religion part is a cover up for the real intent of Mohammed, through the Koran (and other texts) to totally dominate the world. It is a political ideology, like Fascism, or Nazism.

He exposed his naked ambition to murder, terrorize, and subjugate, in Arabia. The Koran is basically a criminal text book.

And that is not me saying that. Look at the number of Islamic terrorists who , inspired by Mohammed, and fundamentalist clerics, actually use Koranic texts as their motive.

Can you see a picture emerge here? They commit these atrocities BECAUSE OF ISLAM, not in spite of it.

The problem lies with the Koran.


GregAbdul
GregAbdul

Flicka, I don't mean to sound defensive....

I am asking you to visit your local mosque and see if there are any "Islamic terrorists" there......

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

Hi Flicka,

Thanks for your compliment, but you miss my point. In the West when a crime is reported, religion is relevant ONLY when it's Islam. Christians commit crimes every day, yet Western media knows and assumes there's not a single Christian terrorist in the entire world. "Islamist" is a made up media word. I am a Muslim. I study our language in its primary source (the Quran). Every blue moon, I visit the mosque. For you to tell me about Muslims makes me ask you a basic question: have you ever set foot in a mosque that you can tell me your real life experience with Muslims? Or are you simply parroting a media line? For example: who told you that Muslims are "parties"? "ist" suffixes are not Islam or Arabic, but English. I wish you had the humility to actually learn about Muslims from Muslims. TIME didn't get this word from Muslims. They made it up because they are forcing religion into stories that are more often about nationalism and culture than they are about religion. For example: Islam explicitly forbids destroying houses of worship, especially churches. There is nothing "Islamic" about tossing grenades at people while they pray, no matter what their prayer is. If you bothered actually learning Islam from Muslims instead of from Time.com, you would be more able to see the clear prejudiced, inferential half-truths they exhibit. They do it because they know you are not knowledgable enough to spot it.

gandalf.the.shining.white
gandalf.the.shining.white

Flick - i like your style - and knowledge - the Islamic doctrine IS to conquer , and subjugate the world,  because their erroneous belief, that Mohammed was the Perfect man. WHICH INDEED HE WAS, make no mistake about it. If you base the idea of a perfect man on Ali Sina's criteria -

He will  pay 

$50,000 U.S. dollars 

to anyone who can disprove any of the dozen of the accusations that I have made against Muhammad. I accuse Muhammad of being:

a narcissist  a misogynist a rapist a pedophile a lecher a  torturer a mass murderer a cult leader an assassin a terrorist a mad man a looter



Flicka71
Flicka71

Also I do not think that all muslims are islamist terrorists. I think that prejudice and misconception began when the TImes covered the story that muslims were going to put there money into a mosque near and right after the 9/11 tragedy. This lead to the assumption that all muslims wish the death of America because ONLY TO US because of lack of knowledge, it seemed like insult to injury......but isn't it in your islamic code to build structures of worship over sites of martyrdom? This is just a question.......you know so people are more informed. ^-^ (smiley = friendly)

Jamie Bobini
Jamie Bobini

GregAbdul, it might be nice to be nice to people who are on your side.  We can't change the haters of course, because no amount of reason will persuade them. We can only hope people keep an open mind and try to learn more before judging. 

Flicka71
Flicka71

Oh, you mean press coverage...yea I agree with that. America in general lives by a lot of double standards....-_-';'.....You kind of took a pretty defensive tone in the middle. I didn't say it to offend you. As far as what you have to ask yourself, "have I ever set foot in a mosque, ever?" Weeeelp no. But man, you have to consider that I live in the conservative southern bible thumping belt south. lol. I don't let the Times form my opinion for me.

p.s.- I know enough about the muslim religion to consider that there is a clear difference between a moderate muslim and the terrorist muslims. Also I'm trying to learn Arabic too. Over in the middle east there technically are parties as I mentioned- the suni and sheeite. please don't misinterpret this as me trying to educate you about your own culture but it's true.

"They do it because they know you are not knowledgable enough to spot it."

Okay.......really? .......was that........was that really necessary? people really have to stop reading comments with a negative connotation........well bye. Absolutely none of you disqus-ers are inviting to actual disqus-tion.

Epi Phyte
Epi Phyte

Al Shabaab are islamic terrorists because they use terror in pursuant of the political goals of islam (establishing an islamic state, imposing shariah). The only remotely christian equivalent would be a christian who murders an abortion doctor in specific reliance on christian theology in order to further the political goal of ending abortion (an objective of orthodox and evangelical Christianity).