Al-Shabab, Once Thought Weakened, Is Still A Threat

The group that claimed responsibility for the deadly attack at an upscale shopping mall in Kenya operates out of Somalia. Al-Shabab had been thought to be weakened after years of fighting inside Somalia, but the group maintains a core of loyal fighters.

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We're going to hear more now about the group behind the deadly attack on a shopping mall in Kenya this weekend. The militant group al-Shabab emerged as a dangerous terrorist organization seven years ago in Somalia. But it has suffered major setbacks there in the past few years. And now, with a single devastating attack across the border in Nairobi, the group is trying to demonstrate that it's still relevant. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Leaders of al-Shabab have been signaling for a while that their ambitions extended beyond Somali borders. The group's been targeting countries that sent troops into Somalia to support the government there. In 2010, al-Shabab attacked crowds in Uganda watching the World Cup. And it's objected for years to Kenyan boots on the ground in Somalia. Now with a deadly attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, al-Shabab's militant factions again seized the stage.

ALI SOUFAN: Now what we see is the radical faction or the violent jihadi faction that's affiliated itself in al-Qaida, we see it on the rise.

JOHNSON: Ali Soufan is a former FBI special agent who now runs a security consulting group. Soufan points out that al-Shabab pledged allegiance to al-Qaida last year. And, like that group, it aims to inflict physical as well as psychological damage.

SOUFAN: The moment they attacked the three entrances of the mall and they started to shoot people, they were attacking also Twitter and launching messages about their operations.

JOHNSON: Soufan says those Twitter messages, combined with footage of the smoldering mall and the terrified people running from the building, give al-Shabab a couple of advantages. First, it means the group can use the attack to raise money from supporters in and outside Somalia. And, second, it could give al-Shabab a fresh boost to recruit foreign fighters to join its cause.

The FBI says dozens of U.S. citizens of Somali descent have already joined the fray over the past six years, so have people from other Western nations. But the White House says it has no confirmation Americans took part in the Nairobi rampage.

Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, says that's been a persistent concern.

JUAN ZARATE: For a long time, U.S. officials have been worried along with British officials and others that Westerners were being drawn to the allure of the fight in Somalia, were being recruited and trained by al-Shabab and had the potential to launch outward outside of Somalia.

JOHNSON: Just as al-Qaida affiliates learned from a methodical siege on hotels and other public places in Mumbai back in 2008, Zarate says other radical groups will take lessons from Nairobi.

ZARATE: And we're just going to have to deal with the realities that it's al-Qaida's tentacles in places like Somalia, North Africa, Yemen that are starting to present the greatest regional and perhaps homeland threats to United States.

JOHNSON: Now the challenge once again is what to do about it. John Campbell, a 30-year veteran at the Foreign Service who now studies Africa policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Western approach to that problem is complicated.

JOHN CAMPBELL: The point is that the ability of outsiders to actually impact on what goes on in Africa is extremely limited. It's mostly at the margins, and it's going to vary considerably from one place to another.

JOHNSON: For instance, foreign aid and military support to governments plagued by corruption could backfire, Campbell says, and turn popular support toward the militants.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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