A Primer On The Somali Terrorist Group Al-Shabab

What is al-Shabab? Melissa Block speaks with J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center and co-author of the book Somalia: Fixing Africa's Most Failed State, about the Somali Islamic extremist group that has claimed responsibility for the attack on a shopping mall in Kenya.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The terrorist group behind the mall attack, al-Shabab, was formed in the chaos of Somalia in the early 2000s with the aim of establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state. Its name means The Youth. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center and co-author of the book "Somalia: Fixing Africa's Most Failed State," joins me here in the studio for more on al-Shabab, its tactics and goals.

Peter Pham, welcome to the program.

PETER PHAM: Thank you.

BLOCK: I wonder first if you could tell us, at its peak, how much territory inside Somalia al-Shabab controlled.

PHAM: Well, at its peak several years ago it controlled virtually all of south central Somalia, outside literally a few square blocks of the capital, Mogadishu, where African Union peacekeepers protected the transitional government. So its territory covered virtually a third of Somali territory.

BLOCK: And what happened since then?

PHAM: Well, several things happened. First, the drought of 2011 led to a famine and Shabab really mishandled it, blocking international relief and turning a lot of the people against it. Then it also tried to impose too quickly a harsh version of Islamic law that was totally alien to Somali Islam and the culture of Somalia, and that got quite a bit of blowback from the population.

And then better-trained African Union peacekeepers pushed in, as well as Kenya, which had been goaded on by Shabab incursions into northern Kenya and Ethiopia from the West. All these combined to drive Shabab out of most of the population centers it controlled.

BLOCK: And to the extent that you could say that al-Shabab has a goal, what would that goal be?

PHAM: Well, as it's mutated, its goal now is to carry out this violent jihad, as they see it, not just in Somalia, but in neighboring countries, to put East Africa in flames, so to speak. They talk about, in their messaging, revenge for Kenya's intervention in Somalia, but I think a larger agenda's at work. And there are tensions in these countries and the group that is now dominant within Shabab has made no secret that it has - it sees itself as an al-Qaida regional player and not just a Somali player.

And the attacks this past weekend are, in many respects, al-Shabab's announcement that despite all the premature predictions or indications of its demise, that the group is still a force to be reckoned with. And it certainly did so in a very powerful way, attacking a regional economic hub that's also the seat of the U.N. operations in that part of the world, a major diplomatic and political capital. And hitting a target where they could maximize the number of international victims so the reverberations would ripple far beyond Kenya.

BLOCK: The thinking had been, I believe, that al-Shabab was on the decline, that its numbers were down, it didn't control territory. When you look at an attack like this with the huge carnage that they've been able to inflict, what does that tell you about the strength and the power of this group now?

PHAM: I think it tells us more - less about the group, although it does tell us something about the group, more about the power of wishful thinking on the part of Western analysts and governments. For two years now, we've had numerous senior officials of U.S. and other governments proclaiming prematurely, as I and other analysts warned, the death of al-Shabab.

We even had senior officials say earlier this year the defeat of Shabab was one of the two greatest achievements of the administration in Africa. The fact is, Shabab was transforming itself. We were judging it by an old standard and it was reinventing itself in a new, more potent fashion. And we took the eye off the ball and perhaps didn't devote the resources necessary to finish the task at hand.

BLOCK: What would that mean?

PHAM: I think it means, first and foremost, helping America's partners in the region. Fixing Somalia, the failed state that has not had a central government worthy of that name for more than two decades, is a generational task. It's going to take years. In the meantime, there are partners, good partners of the U.S. - Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda - who are on the front lines. They need support.

Secondly, we have to balance our interests. The United States, since the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, who is an indictee of the International Criminal Court for his involvement, or alleged involvement, with post-election violence several years back, and who lost a nephew and his fiancee in this weekend's attacks, we've boycotted Kenya. Well, advancing the agenda of international justice is one thing and it's certainly a commendable objective.

On the other hand, you can't boycott a head of state and still be fully working hand in glove with him on security issues. So we have to balance our competing in national interests. And as Americans, we don't like that - we like black and white. And unfortunately, there are some cases where we have to balance different objectives.

BLOCK: Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, thanks so much.

PHAM: Thank you.

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