Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Al-Shabaab picks its targets

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
updated 11:13 AM EDT, Mon September 23, 2013
Relatives of Johnny Mutinda Musango, 48, weep after identifying his body at the city morgue in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, September 24. Musango was one of the victims of the Westgate Mall hostage siege. Kenyan security forces were still combing the mall on the fourth day of the siege by al Qaeda-linked terrorists. Relatives of Johnny Mutinda Musango, 48, weep after identifying his body at the city morgue in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, September 24. Musango was one of the victims of the Westgate Mall hostage siege. Kenyan security forces were still combing the mall on the fourth day of the siege by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
HIDE CAPTION
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For Al-Shabaab, the mall was an attractive target because Westerners frequented it
  • Also, it fits with the Somalia-based terrorist group's enmity with Kenya
  • The group has recruited around 40 American men and also dozens from Europe
  • The attack on the Nairobi mall may be an attempt by Al-Shabaab to signal its continued relevance

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- Al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda's brutal Somali affiliate, has claimed credit for the attack by multiple gunmen at an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya that has already killed at least 59 people.

This should not be a surprise. For Al-Shabaab, the mall was an attractive target because Westerners, including Americans, frequented it. The mall is also in the capital of Kenya, a country that Al-Shabaab has good reason to dislike, as the Kenyan military played a major role in handing their forces a defeat last year when they liberated the key Somali port of Kismayo from their control.

Al-Shabaab ("the Youth") tweeted Saturday that "all Muslims inside #Westgate" -- referring to the mall that was attacked in Nairobi -- "were escorted out by the Mujahideen before" the armed assault commenced.

Members of Al-Shabaab use Twitter frequently to communicate their messages to the world. The group has recruited around 40 young American men and also dozens from Europe and has shown that it is comfortable with Internet technology, despite the fact that Somalia is one of the poorest and most anarchic countries on the planet.

Dozens killed, scores wounded, hostages taken

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

More than 10% of the Kenyan population is Muslim. So it is interesting that Shabaab took the precaution of evacuating Muslims from the Nairobi mall they were attacking, suggesting a greater sophistication in the tactics of this attack than the group has shown hitherto in Somalia, where they have killed large numbers of civilians indiscriminately in a country that is almost entirely Muslim.

Before he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs two years ago, even Osama bin Laden had scolded members of Al-Shabaab, telling them to try to avoid killing Muslim civilians.

Cell phone video shows Kenya mall attack
Al Qaeda-linked group claims attacks
Kenya president: Stand together
Terrorists attack mall in Kenya

In a letter that was recovered in the house in Pakistan where bin Laden was killed, al-Qaeda's leader warned Shabaab members that they were killing too many civilians in battles in and around the key Bakara market in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Saturday's attack on the Nairobi mall seems to owe some of its tactics to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group that attacked upscale hotels catering to Westerners in Mumbai, India, in November 2008 over the course of more than three days, killing 166 people.

Al-Shabaab grew amid Somalia's lawlessness

In both the Nairobi and Mumbai attacks, a group of armed gunmen shot at civilians indiscriminately and conducted the operation in a manner that would guarantee sustained media coverage over many hours and even days by taking a large number of hostages. In both assaults, the gunmen did not negotiate for the release of hostages but went into the operation seemingly prepared for a fight to the death.

Al-Shabaab has previously shown that it is capable of carrying out operations outside of Somalia, bombing two groups of fans watching the World Cup on television in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11, 2010, killing more than 70. The group seemed to have carried out that operation because Uganda had provided troops to a United Nations-authorized African Union mission then fighting Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The group has also shown an interest in targets in the West. Eight months before the attack in Uganda, a 28-year-old Somali man armed with a knife and an ax had forced himself into the home of Kurt Westergaard -- a Danish cartoonist who had depicted the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban -- and tried unsuccessfully to break into the panic room where Westergaard was hiding. Danish intelligence officials said the suspect had links with Al-Shabaab.

Al-Shabaab has managed to plant al-Qaeda-like ideas into the heads of even its American recruits.

Shirwa Ahmed, an ethnic Somali, graduated from high school in Minneapolis in 2003, then worked pushing passengers in wheelchairs at the Minneapolis airport. During this period Ahmed was radicalized; the exact mechanisms of that radicalization are still murky, but in late 2007 he traveled to Somalia.

About a year later, on October 29, 2008, Ahmed drove a truck loaded with explosives toward a government compound in Puntland, northern Somalia, blowing himself up and killing about 20 people, including United Nations peacekeeping troops and international humanitarian assistance workers. The FBI matched Ahmed's finger, recovered at the scene, to fingerprints already on file for him. Ahmed was the first American terrorist suicide attacker anywhere.

Al-Shabaab breaks new ground with complex Nairobi attack

The attack on the Nairobi mall may be an attempt by Al-Shabaab to signal its continued relevance. Over the past three years, Al-Shabaab has lost substantial territory and influence in Somalia. Al-Shabaab controlled much of southern Somalia in 2010, but operations by African Union and Kenyan forces have ended its domination of southern Somalia.

In 2011, the U.N.-sanctioned African Union mission partnered with Somali troops to fight Al-Shabaab militants, and in August of that year, African Union and Somali government forces defeated Al-Shabaab forces in Mogadishu, forcing the militants from a stronghold they had controlled since 2009.

Although Al-Shabaab has long been regarded as a regional offshoot of al-Qaeda, its leaders only declared their formal ties to the international terror organization in February 2012.

While the group seems to have been interested in an alliance before then, in 2010, bin Laden instructed the group's leaders to keep their association with al-Qaeda a secret, fearing that openly linking the groups would be bad for Al-Shabaab's fundraising efforts.

By February 2012, however, bin Laden was dead and Al-Shabaab had suffered significant losses in its southern Somali safe haven.

Al-Qaeda's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had earlier petitioned bin Laden to reconsider his views about the proposed merger between Al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, believed the time was right to announce formal ties between the two groups.

While there are a number of American citizens fighting for a variety of al-Qaeda-affiliated or -inspired organizations, Al-Shabaab seems to boast the most American fighters. According to a 2011 report by the House Committee on Homeland Security, an estimated 40 Americans have joined Al-Shabaab in the last few years, at least 24 of them coming from the Somali community in Minnesota.

Al-Shabaab has prominently featured these recruits in its propaganda operations, releasing three official videos that starred Abu Mansoor al-Amriki ("the father of Mansoor, the American"), who is actually Omar Hammami, in his late 20s from Alabama, who was raised as a Baptist and converted to Islam in high school.

One of the videos shows Hammami preparing an ambush and features English rap lyrics extolling jihad.

Hammami was reported to have been killed on September 12 during the course of some kind of an internal conflict within the Al-Shabaab group.

The news of his death was confirmed on Hammami's Twitter account four days later.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT