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Al Shabaab: Westgate was just the beginning

18 October 2013, 07:05

Nairobi - One month after Al Shabaab fighters stormed Westgate shopping mall and massacred dozens of people, the threat from regional sleeper cells or local sympathisers remains high, analysts warned.

"If you haven't learnt the lesson Westgate, more is coming," read posters put up this week at rallies in the southern Somali port of Barawe, a stronghold of the Al Shabaab linked militants.

"For every Muslim killed in Kismayo, Kenya will pay the price," another read, referring to a city Kenyan troops captured last year.

The attack on Westgate mall which left 67 dead marked a significant and worrying step up in Al Shabaab operations, and had required long periods of surveillance and planning, security experts said.

Richard Dowden, head of Britain's Royal African Society, has warned that the Westgate attack suggests Al Shabaab commanders have shifted from "Somali internal politics and closer to Al Qaeda's global agenda."

Tackling the Al Shabaab is on two key fronts: militarily inside Somalia where African Union troops have been battling the Islamists since 2007, but also in the wider region, especially those countries whose armies are in Somalia, including Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

Earlier this month US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Foreign Relations committee the Westgate "attack suggests that violent extremism in the Horn of Africa may be evolving."

Security remains on high alert, with the US Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) warning this week it "continues to assess reports that a Westgate-style attack may soon occur" in Uganda's capital Kampala.

The AU force in Somalia has requested its size be boosted by a quarter to 23,000 troops and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud urged "total war" on the Al Shabaab "to deny them territory and the space to train and plan".

Al Shabaab recruits across east Africa

But territorial gains inside Somalia alone will not eliminate the Al Shabaab - or Islamist forces aligned to the extremists - across the wider region.

Foreign fighters from Western or Arab nations with the Al Shabaab in Somalia have gained much of the focus in recent years.

But dozens, if not hundreds, of young men from countries across the Horn of Africa have also trained with the Al Shabaab inside Somalia, according to United Nations experts.

Others are feared to have been radicalised at home.

"There are local sympathisers of the Al Shabaab or aligned groups across eastern Africa, but so far their actions have been limited to fairly low scale attacks such as throwing grenades or shooting security forces," said a Western security source.

"The attack at Westgate was of a different scale, requiring far more planning, funding and training. The Al Shabaab has the capability of sending specially trained recruits, waiting for the order to carry out specific large scale action."

The UN monitoring group on Somalia noted in its latest report in July the dangers posed by Kenya's Islamist Al-Hijra group, a radical organisation formerly known as the Muslim Youth Center, linked to the Al Shabaab as well as groups in neighbouring nations.

Those include Tanzania's Ansar Muslim Youth Center, as well as groups in Rwanda and Burundi.

"Al Shabaab continues to pose a regional and international threat through its affiliates," the UN report read, noting that as AU troops have seized more territory in Somalia, there has been an "increasing exodus" of foreign fighters, some of whom left "with the intention of supporting jihad in the region".

Exactly who the attackers at Westgate were are not known, whether it was a team specifically sent from Somalia or even if they were a "homegrown" team recruited in Kenya itself.

The Al Shabaab have carried out large scale attacks in Somalia and the region before, such as an attack on a UN compound in Mogadishu in June or bombings that killed 76 in Kampala in 2010.

"More than a dramatic jump in capacity, the (Westgate) attack shows a change in focus and motivation by Al Shabaab's core planners," said Devon Knudsen, of the US-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Some argue that the Westgate masterminds hoped to spark reprisals against Somalis in the country - including both the half a million refugees and Kenya's sizable ethnic Somali citizens - that would radicalise more to join the Al Shabaab.

The Al Shabaab emerged as a force in Somalia with attacks on Ethiopian troops during its 2006 invasion of Somalia.

"Al Shabaab's greatest recruiting tools are revenge, nationalism and exclusion," wrote EJ Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group.

He said the public claim of responsiblity for Westgate was aimed to "trigger a backlash against Somalis - and Muslims - in Kenya and in southern Somalia."

For the Al Shabaab, their propaganda message at least is clear, warning in another placard paraded on trucks loaded with heavily armed fighters: "Westgate was just the beginning."



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