On Saturday, operatives from a militant Islamist group stormed the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. So far, 67 people have been killed and over 200 injured in the attack. Over the weekend, explosions and bursts of gunfire inside the building were reported, leading some to think that the body count would grow even higher. The hostages that were held, however, have all reportedly been released. As of a few hours ago, the siege was officially declared over by the Kenyan government, and control of the mall was taken back. But who is Al Shabaab, the militant organization that claimed responsibility?
The Sunni Islamist group is officially known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, but is commonly called Al Shabaab ("The Youth" in Arabic). Based in Somalia, it is an offshoot of Al Qaeda, which it officially joined last year. It was formed in the early 2000s as a militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union, which controlled much of the country until 2006. It gained popularity by fighting Ethiopian forces in Somalia, and enjoyed support by Somalis as a popular resistance movement.
But the group was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in 2008. The group has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly attacks in the region, including a 2010 suicide bombing of Kampala, Uganda that left 74 dead. Along with another group, Hizbul Islam, Al Shabaab staged a series of attacks on Mogadishu in 2009, with over 1,400 civilians killed.
Al Shabaab is estimated to have somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 followers. It's also believed to have a number of US-born members, including Omar Hammami, also know as Abu Mansoor Al Amriki, a rapping jihadi who was allegedly killed by his former allies earlier this month. Many other American members, who either fight for or fund the group, allegedly stem from the Somali community in Minnesota, which the FBI has been investigating for years.
The mall siege in Nairobi did not come as a total surprise. Al Shabaab warned of attacks in Kenya in retaliation for Operation Linda Nchi, a joint military operation between the armed forces of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, France, and the US. Al Shabaab, which was accused of kidnapping foreign tourists, was the target of the operation, during which 700 militants were killed.
But what does the Nairobi attack signify about Al Shabaab's greater plan? Analysts in the US aren't sure yet. The former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, told ABC that the attack suggested "weakness" because of its target. Al Shabaab, he said, "can only get in the headlines if it attacks a soft undefended civilian location in a neighboring country — it's an indication they're not able to go toe-to-toe with the African Union forces in Mogadishu or in Somalia generally." (ABC)