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And in the wake of the attack in Nairobi, Al-Shabab appears to be less an insurgent movement and more of a terrorist group. But whether that means they're stronger or weaker is a matter of debate, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Al-Shabab has been around for years as a militia group fighting for territory in Somalia. Then suddenly, Al-Shabab militants turn up in a ritzy shopping mall in Kenya, dressed in casual clothes and gunning down men, women and children.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: A week ago, Al-Shabab wasn't in the news and arguably outside of Somalia no one really cared about them.
GJELTEN: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University and the Rand Corporation.
HOFFMAN: Today, they've dominated the headlines for nearly a week. They've been successful in staging an enormously bloody terrorist event. And it's catapulted itself back into prominence as one of the major terrorist forces in the world today.
GJELTEN: But as a terrorist force, not an insurgent force. That was the old Al-Shabab, the one defeated by the Somali military and African Union forces. Under pressure, it's been transformed. No more fighting head on, trying to hold territory. Instead, it's allied with al-Qaida and dedicated to global jihad. Katherine Zimmerman has been following Al-Shabab as an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
KATHERINE ZIMMERMAN: It is much leaner than it was. And many of the individuals who were there purely to fight an insurgency have peeled away. So, what we have now is a strong contingent of individuals who are in Al-Shabab because it is an al-Qaida affiliate.
GJELTEN: Westgate was not its first terrorist attack; that was in Uganda three years ago. But that attack was controversial within Al-Shabab. Some of the group's more traditional leaders opposed it. But those leaders, Zimmerman says, have since been purged.
ZIMMERMAN: The leadership is now united in conducting these sorts of attacks abroad in a way that it wasn't three years ago.
GJELTEN: And the Westgate attack showed that Al-Shabab now has significant capability as a terrorist group. But does that necessarily make it stronger?
ANDREW MCGREGOR: My view is that Al-Shabab has really taken kind of a desperate stand here with this kind of attack.
GJELTEN: Andrew McGregor is a terrorism analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.
MCGREGOR: Knowing that there will be inevitable retaliation, possibly ending the existence of Al-Shabab as an organization and even more probably ending the existence of much of its leadership.
GJELTEN: McGregor thinks the United States, Kenya, and other governments will now be even more determined to go after Al-Shabab. And he does not see this big attack as bringing the group more outside support. A lot of its income, McGregor says, has come from Somalis abroad - the diaspora.
MCGREGOR: Now, I think a lot of the diaspora community is not going to look very favorably on this because now Somalis will be viewed in these other foreign countries as potential security risks.
GJELTEN: McGregor does say he's in the minority in thinking the Kenya attack showed Al-Shabab's decline not its reemergence. Examples from other countries may be useful here. Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman compares Al-Shabab with the group AQI - al-Qaida in Iraq. It once controlled territory in Iraq, was beaten, but lately has carried out attacks in Syria.
HOFFMAN: We thought that al-Qaida in Iraq was crushed in 2009, 2010, but it merely reinvented itself as a terrorist organization and one could argue is even more formidable and more consequential, much like Al-Shabab it's operating on a transnational playing field.
GJELTEN: Counterterrorism officials do point out that Al-Shabab, like AQI, is fighting a regional struggle. Despite the big attack in Kenya, they say Al-Shabab is not yet seen as threatening the U.S. homeland. Tom Gjelten, NPR News Washington.
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