The hostage-taking assault on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, by al-Shabaab militants out of Somalia is part of a larger pattern in the region. In popular perception, jihadi terrorism is associated with the Arabian peninsula and the AfPak region. But western security agencies have paid a substantial amount of attention to North and West Africa as well over the past decade, and with good reason.
The mall attack may have grabbed eyeballs around the world — a Mumbai-style attack, India’s contribution to the lexicon of international terrorism, will always demand horrified attention by striking at the urban landscape’s soft underbelly — but it is not the first large-scale terrorist attack in the region this year, nor even the worst.
That dubious distinction goes to the In Amenas crisis in January when terrorists from the Masked Brigade group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar held over 800 people hostage at the Tigantourine gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria. And May saw a suicide bombing at a uranium mine in Niger, owned by French company Areva. The common thread running through these attacks is al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda has suffered serious reverses in the years since 9/11 and its capabilities have been degraded. But its losses have forced it to adapt and evolve in a manner that has made it more difficult to pin down now. It operates much like a multinational corporation with a core group operating out of the tribal regions of Pakistan headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, with franchises and subsidiaries in various parts of the world — most of all in North Africa.
Al-Shabaab is a case in point. Born in the chaos of the Somalian civil war, until recently it controlled large swathes of territory in the southern part of the country — but that ended in October last year when government forces and African Union peacekeepers pushed it out of its last stronghold, the port city of Kismayo. In February of that year, however, with military reverses and internal strife mounting, al-Shabaab had sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda.
Not coincidentally, al-Shabaab also has links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a militant group that came to the al-Qaeda fold in 2006. Born in Algeria, AQIM has a presence across the region, from Mali to Libya and Tunisia. Until late 2012, in fact, Belmokhtar, the man responsible for the In Amenas attack, was one of AQIM’s chief leaders.
The problem is not that these groups will attack targets outside Africa — currently, they lack both the capabilities and the ambition to do so — but that they form a deep reserve pool of militants for global al-Qaeda operations. Members of these franchisees have fought and continue to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, and serve in turn as training agents for non-African militants.
The reverses they have suffered of late — al-Shabaab’s losses in Somalia and France’s decisive defeat of AQIM in Mali — could paradoxically make them more dangerous in some ways, not constrained by the need to hold and defend territory but focusing on attacks like the one on the mall to show their continued relevance.
And enabled as they are by local factors — ethno-nationalist sentiments they have co-opted, lack of economic opportunities for the youth and weak governments — they will not be easily stamped out. The horror that has just played out in Nairobi may well be repeated.