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Sadly, the al Shabab attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College that killed at least 147 people was nothing new. Since October 2011, when Kenya invaded Somalia to fight the terrorist group in its home territory, the group has launched more than 100 attacks inside Kenya that have claimed hundreds of lives and sent the country’s tourism industry into a tailspin. Many of the attacks have been as ruthless as this latest outrage: the group killed at least 67 in an attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, and in June 2014 took over a Kenyan town and systematically executed its non-Muslim residents.
Even so, al Shabab has been wounded by a sustained offensive from the multinational African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and its deeds are increasingly eclipsed by the lurid exploits of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Boko Haram. As the group feels its stature weaken, it is more likely to lash out, carrying out high-profile and gratuitously brutal attacks like the one in Garissa. The United States and the rest of the international community must do all they can to support Kenya as it weathers al Shabab’s grisly turn.
Al Shabab was once one of the premier terror groups in the world. Years before ISIS gobbled up sections of Syria and Iraq, al Shabab conquered and then governed most of southern Somalia. Its mix of religious and nationalist appeals drew in recruits from around the globe, including dozens of Somali Americans.
But the group has been in decline since its apex in 2010. AMISOM has driven it from all its major strongholds, and its fighters have defected in droves. It once raised millions of dollars a year in taxes on goods coming into the ports it controlled and from the people under its dominion, but as its territory has shrunk, its revenue almost certainly has as well.
The rise of ISIS and Boko Haram has exacerbated al Shabab’s problems. Those groups have increasingly stolen international media attention, something the Somali terrorist group needs to attract recruits and donors. Indeed, ISIS has become the group du jour for aspiring foreign jihadists. Even Somali Americans are now joining ISIS or other Middle Eastern terror organizations and are largely spurning al Shabab. Furthermore, a high-level al Shabab defector claimed last week that al Qaeda has dissolved all ties with its Somali affiliate. If that is true, it would be yet another blow.
Al Shabab currently has few remaining options for rehabilitating its fortunes. It cannot face the militarily superior AMISOM in conventional battle, as evidenced by its strategy of withdrawing even from its major strongholds in front of AMISOM’s advances. It can, however, launch more, and more sensational, attacks. Counterterror theorists call this “outbidding”; as militant groups compete for the same resources, they feel compelled to distinguish themselves from their competitors with bloodier atrocities. Boko Haram and ISIS are not in al Shabab’s immediate area of operation, but in today’s globalized world, all terror groups compete.
In this context, al Shabab’s recent strategic evolution makes sense. In March, the group released a video showing its fighters executing a group of Somali men by forcing them to swim into the ocean while the fighters shot at them. The sadistic creativity of the execution, and the video’s sole focus on the mass murder, is unusual among al Shabab videos and was designed to shock. Further, since the beginning of this year, al Shabab has issued two calls for supporters in the West to stage lone-wolf attacks, previously something it rarely did. It also seems more eager to target Westerners in East Africa. In 2014, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi cut staffing levels due to al Shabab-related security concerns; in March of this year, the U.S. embassy in Djibouti temporarily closed to “review its security posture”; and in the same month, the U.S. embassy in Kampala, Uganda, warned U.S. citizens of potential al Shabab attacks on Westerners.
The Garissa attack, then, was likely a worrying signal of al Shabab’s shifting focus. To be sure, the attack was retribution for Kenya’s invasion of Somalia, but it also guaranteed international headlines. There are rumors that the terrorists even beheaded some of the students, a gratuitous act designed to increase the horror of the assault.
Yet if there is a silver lining to al Shabab’s increasing brutality, it is that although the group is still dangerous, it is also weakened due to the sustained losses of revenue, territory, fighters, and high-level leaders. Its emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in September last year, and three senior al Shabab leaders responsible for the group’s external operations have been killed in separate U.S. drone strikes since December 2014.
For now, the United States, which has been a strong partner to Kenya and the other countries fighting al Shabab, should prioritize training the Kenyan and Somali military and police forces, whose responses to terror attacks and the execution of its other duties have too often been inadequate. It should also continue the drone strikes—decapitating attacks will not defeat al Shabab, but they are an important part of degrading its capabilities. Ultimately, however, the solution to the menace will be a legitimate, functioning Somali government cooperating with competent regional powers, especially Kenya. The United States and many other countries back the current Somali government, but they must hold it accountable to measurable benchmarks of progress in governance, development, and fighting corruption while also helping Kenya address its own vulnerabilities that enable al Shabab to operate so freely in its country.
During its war against al Shabab the Kenyan government has, at times, trampled some of its citizens’ civil liberties in the name of counterterrorism. After this latest attack, it will likely be tempted to do so again, but it must not overreach with counterproductive, draconian anti-terror measures that curtail civil liberties and deepen fissures between the country’s Christian and Muslim population, something that will only empower al Shabab. For now, Kenya is likely facing a group intent on focusing more of its energy on high-profile and barbaric attacks. The country and the world must brace itself for a new and more dangerous phase in a costly war.