September 25, 2014

September 25, 2014 | Commentary on Terrorism, Africa

One Year After Al-Shabaab's Westgate Attack in Kenya

Sunday marked the first anniversary of al-Shabaab's four-day siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where 67 people were killed and 170 injured. One year later, Al-Shabaab, the official al-Qaeda affiliate based in Somalia, remains a threat to U.S. partners and interests in the region.

Despite President Obama's rhetoric that Somalia is a success story that the U.S. should seek to imitate in Iraq and Syria, U.S. backed forces in Somalia (namely the African Union's Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM) are a long ways from defeating al-Shabaab and handing off internal security to Somali defense forces.

The likelihood of another spectacular commercial shopping center attack in the region remains as real today as it did a year ago. In fact, a similar style attack was recently foiled in Kampala, Uganda, and only because of cooperation between U.S. intelligence and Ugandan security forces. In what would have likely been a large-scale attack, Ugandan security forces uncovered sophisticated weaponry, suicide vests, and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) in several terrorist cells in and around Kampala.

On Sept. 14, the U.S. Embassy in Kampala issued a warning to all American citizens to seek safety because authorities believed al-Shabaab was planning an imminent attack. This was not the first warning for Americans in Kampala. Over the past year, the security level has remained heightened and other specific warnings have been released in regards to potential al-Shabaab attacks.

Ugandan security forces have arrested 19 individuals in connection with the thwarted attack, many of which are believed to have entered Uganda through unofficial border crossing points on the Uganda-South Sudan and Uganda-Kenya border.

Al-Shabaab has a history of attacking AMISOM troop contributing countries, including Uganda in 2010, when al-Shabaab attacked bars in Kampala showing the World Cup. More than 70 people were killed.

The foiled attack comes on the heels of the U.S. airstrikes that killed al-Shabaab's leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Shortly after Godane's death al-Shabaab separately attacked AMISOM troops and a Somali security convoy on the outskirts of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

The group's new leader, Ahmed Omar Abu Ubaidah, is considered a hardliner and was one of Godane's advisors. He also likely played a role in the group's internal purge last year to root out fighters not supportive of the group's global aspirations. The purge included killing Omar Hammami. Hammami was from Alabama and notorious for his use of social media, particularly YouTube, using it to recruit young fighters.

Also of consequence, Ubaidah is believed to be from southeast Somalia, the heart of al-Shabaab's fighting force. Godane was from Somaliland, the northern breakaway territory in Somalia, and seen by some in the organization as an outsider. Ubaidah in leadership might consolidate some of the internal factions, but it is still soon to tell.

The Obama administration has repeatedly highlighted counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia as a "success story." During his speech about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Sept. 10, President Obama even stated Somalia should serve as a model for the U.S. operations against ISIS.

The president's statements presumed al-Shabaab's defeat and a successful Somalia, neither of which is an accurate portrayal of al-Shabaab or Somalia's status. And if the current state of Somalia is indeed his rubric for success, the U.S. will likely be fighting ISIS far longer than anyone in the administration is willing to admit.

Al-Shabaab remains a real and credible threat and should be addressed as one. During a U.S. House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Matthew Olsen, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) stated that NCTC continues "to monitor al-Shabaab and its foreign fighter cadre as a potential threat to the U.S. homeland." Regional security over the past year has also worsened, not improved. As a direct result of security concerns in Kenya, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi has been forced to draw down its staff significantly.

Even after AMISOM's seven-year long campaign, including several successes -- such as taking Mogadishu in 2011 and the critical port of Kismayo in 2012 -- AMISOM still hasn't been able to restore security in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has proven to be a deeply resilient terrorist group and has implemented successful strategies to control supply lines. Godane's death will not be a likely game changer on the ground. Godane himself came to power through a U.S. raid on the group's previous leader, Aden Hashi Ayro.

If the space between the AMISOM troops and the weak Somali defense forces remains as wide as it is, President Obama's so-called success in Somalia will not be the reality on the ground, even at a future date -- and al-Shabaab will continue to operate with impunity and seek to attack targets well beyond the confines of Somalia's borders.

 - Charlotte Florance is a research associate for Africa and the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Charlotte Florance Policy Analyst, Africa and the Middle East
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in Huffington Post