Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Al-Shabaab picks its targets

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
September 23, 2013 -- Updated 1513 GMT (2313 HKT)
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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1609 GMT (0009 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT