Al-Shabab: One Terror Group, Many Brands : Parallels Al-Shabab's deadly attack on a college in Kenya illustrates the changing face of the militant group. Al-Shabab emerged in Somalia but now it's described as a transnational network across East Africa.
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Al-Shabab: One Terror Group, Many Brands

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Al-Shabab: One Terror Group, Many Brands

Al-Shabab: One Terror Group, Many Brands

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The flags are flying at half-staff in Kenya today. It's a show of national mourning in a country still reeling from the massacre of 148 people, mostly students, at a university not far from Kenya's border with Somalia.


That location highlights the transformation of the militant group al-Shabab, which until recently controlled parts of Somalia. It emerged there about 10 years ago, promising security in a failed and violent state.

MONTAGNE: Instead, the Islamist militants instituted a form of religious law so harsh they were driven out. NPR's Gregory Warner has been reporting on how al-Shabab has morphed into a transnational network. For more, he joined us from Nairobi. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: As I just said, initially the group promised stability in the country of Somalia. So what caused the shift in the identity of al-Shabab so it became more than just a Somalian entity?

WARNER: Well, the biggest shift was that al-Shabab lost the reins of power. They were in charge of Somalia, but they had their hands full with governing. And then the successful U.S.-backed military campaign to oust them, using African troops based in Mogadishu, has pushed them out of government and allowed al-Shabab to focus more on what they do, which is terrorism. So there's more now recruitment, radicalization and training within Kenya - these indigenous jihadist groups - and al-Shabab is linked up with those. So al-Shabab now looks a little more like al-Qaida; it's a brand. It speaks many languages and carries many passports.

MONTAGNE: Why is al-Shabab's message catching on in Kenya?

WARNER: Well, al-Shabab has a very different face in Kenya than in Somalia. I think this is really important to understand. So, for instance, in Somalia, they have absolutely no compunction about killing Muslims, right? They'll target civil servants, government officials. They'll bomb people praying in a mosque. Osama bin Laden used to criticize al-Shabab for this. But anyone who doesn't subscribe to their very extreme version of Islam is an apostate and a target.

In Kenya - totally different messaging. They present themselves as a champion and protector for all Muslim interests, and they preach Muslim solidarity. And so if you look back, for instance, at the Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi in 2013, they mostly let Muslims go, but not every Muslim. In fact, there were stories of them killing Muslim women 'cause they weren't, quote, "modestly dressed." They weren't wearing headscarves. We didn't see any of that in this latest attack in the university. They killed some Muslims in the shooting spree, but they tried as much as possible to let Muslims go, again trying to prove to Kenya that they're here for all Muslims.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, that particular section of Kenya was in dispute. Somalia claimed it, so they're seeing that as - what? - a Muslim area.

WARNER: Exactly. And this plays into concerns that Muslims have in these areas that are not ideological, that have to do much more with economics and a feeling of government corruption and a constant narrative that's been here for half a century about Christians from the central area coming in with government connections and being able to take, quote, unquote, "Muslim-owned lands." So al-Shabab is trying to insert itself into this narrative in trying to present themselves as the champion and protector of Muslim interests, not necessarily extremist Muslim, but trying to present themselves as the defender of all Muslims in Kenya.

MONTAGNE: Well, then what is the feeling now after all these attacks, especially this last one, among Kenya's Christians?

WARNER: I've talked to dozens of Kenyan Christians in the last few days. I have not heard a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment. Kenyans are proud of living in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country that's known for a fair amount of religious tolerance. They don't want to change that. What people are angry with, though, and do talk about is the government. They say the government needs to change its strategy, especially vis-a-vis Muslims, in order to keep Kenya safer.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Gregory Warner speaking to us from Nairobi, Kenya. Thanks very much.

WARNER: Thank you, Renee.

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