February’s release of a threatening video from the Somalia-based al-Shabaab led to considerable speculation over the danger the Islamist group poses to the West. This is understandable given that the recording explicitly encourages attacks against North American shopping malls and provides map coordinates to the Mall of America in Minnesota, the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, and various other centers operated by the Westfield chain. However, these threats are but one small element of the video, which focuses far more on matters involving Somalis in Kenya and other parts of Africa. This calls into question whether al-Shabaab really poses an imminent danger to the West, or whether it is merely attempting to stay relevant on its own continent.
Part of the video is a reconstruction of a Somali nationalist narrative in an Islamist dressing. It focuses on the so-called Wagalla massacre of 1984, where Kenyan police attempted to disarm parts of the Somalian Degodia sub-clan and instigated a massacre of up to 1000 people (the officially recorded figure is 57). Al-Shabaab reimagines the massacre as a violation of Muslims, not as a violation of a Somali clan. The video also pays significant attention to recent killings of Islamists in Mombasa, allegedly by extra-juridical death squads. Again, what could be seen as a regional conflict between members of the coastal community and the central, Nairobi-based elite is presented in religious language; it is not the region that suffers, it is Muslims.
Outside the naming of malls, the recent video is wholly preoccupied with these local grievance narratives. This follows al-Shabaab’s modus operandi: While its rhetoric at times has been global, its actions have been local, or, increasingly, regional. The group is yet to strike internationally and its two major attacks outside Somalia, in Uganda in 2010 and the Westgate Mall siege in Kenya in 2013, both targeted countries whose military had played a vital role in defeats of al-Shabaab in Somalia, again highlighting the limited scope of its activities.
Having said this, there are three currents that could potentially broaden this focus. The first is al-Shabaab’s dwindling area of control inside Somalia. At present, the only major part of the country that remains in the group’s hands is the Middle Juba province. It is also finding it difficult to hide foreign fighters because of this. There have been reports of these foreigners being clustered in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, but it is unclear if they are defectors or still active fighters. Either way, it serves as a reminder that al-Shabaab’s foreign fighters might return to their countries of origin, if the territories commanded by the organization disappear, and in turn pose threats there. The second current is the increased American elimination of al-Shabaab’s high-ranking officers. The most significant of these were then-leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014, followed by Yusuf Dheeq, a leader of terror operations, Saturday, January 31 this year. The success of the United States in targeting al-Shabaab’s leaders might in turn make it a more prominent target. The third current influencing al-Shabaab’s future direction is increased competition with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), which has become more successful at recruiting in the Somalian diaspora. Again, this might lead to a change in strategy, and possible geographic focus for al-Shabaab.
One cannot predict the future precisely, but the evidence still seems to indicate that a direct al-Shabaab-initiated attack against Western targets will not happen. The group has not struck outside a fairly limited geographic area before or after some of the above trends started. In the most famous case involving terrorists aligned with it outside Somalia—the Holsworthy Barracks plot in Australia—it even seemed that the group’s leadership actively attempted to deter the attack. For now, al-Shabaab also seems relatively pragmatic about the rise of ISIS and has tolerated that group’s recruitment posters in its territories, even though it has itself sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri.
This does not mean the West can be completely relaxed about the threat posed by al-Shabaab. Of continuing concern is the possibility of al-Shabaab supporters acting on the type of encouragement found in the latest video. As with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab exists as a distinct organization, as the head of smaller, more loosely attached affiliate organizations, and as a movement that ideologically influences potential jihadists. These two secondary functions often provide a larger threat than the primary one. For example, Michael Adebolajo, one of the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013, was previously arrested in Kenya with Swaleh Abdulmajid, the son in-law of the now-deceased radical al-Shabaab supporter Aboud Rogo. Adebolajo also frequented the most important mosque in al-Shabaab’s support network in that country. The story is very similar to that of Mohammed Emwazi, the media savvy ISIS executioner known as “Jihadi John.” While living in the United Kingdom, Emwazi befriended future al-Shabaab leader Bilal al-Berjawi and likely attempted to contact al-Shabaab’s Tanzanian network before being deported from that country in 2009.
The danger of al-Shabaab to the West could potentially come through such peripheral sympathizers as these, or the Somali who attacked a Danish cartoonist behind controversial Mohammed cartoons with an axe in 2010. Evidence of al-Shabaab’s ability to radicalize supporters, even from afar, can increasingly be seen, as with the clash between Tanzanian forces and a small al-Shabaab-inspired group in the Amboni caves in February. Moreover, attacks on Western interests could be highly valuable for the group when hitting at regional enemies in Djibouti, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. They would draw extra attention and allow it to appear strong, potentially helping it attract new recruits and resources. This, which again has a locally focused goal, might be the most serious al-Shabaab threat for the West in the future.
Stig Jarle Hansen is an Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.