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Nairobi attack underlines strength of radical al-Shabab wing

Thursday, September 26, 2013

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The terror attack in Kenya by Islamist group al-Shabab claimed more than 60 lives. The group was formed as neighboring Somalia disintegrated politically and people sought a new source of authority.

Civil war has been the normal state of affairs in Somalia for some two decades. Following the ousting of dictator Siad Barre in 1991 local warlords fought for power throughout the country. Thousands of people were killed. In 1995 the first UN intervention took place but failed to restore peace.

In their search for a normal life, many Somalis, the majority of them Muslims, turned to religious authorities. Islamic courts were set up which restored a certain amount of law and order. Some of these courts united to form the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU). They chased the warlords out of the capital Mogadishu and in 2006 took over control of much of southern Somalia. A radical section of the ICU also threatened to seize Ethiopia's Ogaden territory. Ethiopia, backed by the US, responded militarily and drove out the ICU. This second military intervention from outside was again viewed critically by much of the Somali population.

That was the moment when the small radical group al-Shabab became popular as a result of its resistance to the foreign forces, says Markus Höhne, a Somalia researcher at the Max Plank Institute in the German city of Halle. "The growth in popularity of such small splinter groups has a great deal to do with the total failure of anti-terrorism measures in Somalia," Höhne told DW.

Foreign fighters

In 2009 Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia. The battle between al-Shabab and the new Somali transition government continued. By then, at the latest, the population at large realized that al-Shabab had many faces, it was not a homogenous group. The radical wing carried out attacks against the Somali population and imposed Islamic law, the sharia, in a brutal manner.

"The other part of al-Shabab only followed because the radicals were the only ones who managed to establish some kind of law and order, peace and stability," said Mehari Mehu from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Addis Ababa. "They later left the group again but the part that was left has an international orientation. It is inspired and controlled by al Qaeda."

News agencies report that the US Justice Department has information that al-Shabab has been recruiting members in the US since 2007.

In 2012 the Kenyan police launched a manhunt for a German national believed to have links to al-Shabab. The group receives financial backing from wealthy individuals in the Middle East who are seeking to further their own ideologies, says Mehari Maru.

Al-Shabab 'more dangerous than ever'

In 2011 al-Shabab lost ground in Somalia. Kenya's government had become active in the conflict and declared war on the group, after the militias had been held responsible for the kidnapping of foreigners in Kenya. Al-Shabab reacted with attacks in both Somalia and Kenya, culminating in the siege of the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi.

Markus Höhne says that in recent months a radical wing has gained strength within al-Shabab. Its followers are focused less on Somalia and more on a global jihad or holy war. "Al-Shabab is by no means defeated but is actually more dangerous than ever," Höhne told DW.

Mehari Maru from the ISS disagrees. He points to the fact that a few years ago the group controlled large parts of Somali territory but is now concentrating more on individual attacks. For Maru this is a sign that the group has become weaker, although he admits that al-Shabab's ideology is not bound by national borders and therefore represents a global threat.

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