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 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT