In a horrific mid-day attack on Saturday, September 21, 2013 in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, jihadist assailants invaded an upscale shopping mall, slaughtering and injuring dozens of terrified shoppers with grenades and automatic weapons.
As of early Sunday morning, even as the stand-off between the attackers and Kenyan security forces continued inside the mall, the death count stood at 59, a number sure to rise in coming hours.
According to reports, at least an additional 150 have been injured. People fleeing from the modern Westgate mall reported that the attackers had singled out non-Muslims to kill after telling Muslims to get out.
The jihadist identity of the attackers as well as their disciplined, swarming tactics, including the use of assault weapons, hand grenades and hostage-taking while holding off responding Kenyan security forces for many hours, which were mounted against a soft civilian target with many non-Muslim, Western individuals inside is reminiscent of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks (although on a smaller scale).
The al-Qa'eda-linked Islamic jihad group al-Shabaab took credit for the Nairobi attack in a number of Twitter messages, claiming the attack was retribution for Muslims killed in Somalia by Kenyan forces which launched a defensive cross-border action against al-Shabaab in 2011.
Al-Shabaab, which means "The Youth" in Arabic, arose in 2006 out of the now-defunct Islamic Courts Union, itself a confederation of Somali courts established to enforce sharia (Islamic law) in the lawless country beginning in the 1990s.
The rise of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia followed a pattern also seen in Afghanistan in roughly the same time frame, when the Taliban ("The Students") formed armed militias to impose Islamic law and some semblance of order after the Soviet Red Army defeat led to a chaotic scramble for power among savage warlords in that already-devastated country.
In Somalia, similarly, local clan leaders centered in the capital of Mogadishu used the Islamic court system to impose their own rough justice in the wake of the 1991 overthrow of Siad Barre, the dictator who had ruled Somalia since 1969.
Al-Shabaab, which began as the militant youth wing of that Islamic Courts system, attracted numerous foreign fighters to its cause (including from the United States) and formally joined al-Qa'eda with a pledge of bayat (allegiance) to al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2012.
Today, al-Shabaab is estimated to include some 7,000-9,000 fighters. Although al-Shabaab appears to have established its own independent line of communication to AQ Central (located in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region), it also has a relationship with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), currently assessed to pose "the most direct threat to the U.S. homeland" of all the interconnected, "latticed" AQ network of affiliates.
AQAP has provided explosives and basic military training to al-Shabaab and also facilitates its communications back to AQ Central. Jihadist fighters have moved in both directions across the Gulf of Aden, including hundreds of al-Shabaab members who've traveled to Yemen to assist AQAP in its fight against the Yemen government, as well as the other way, from AQAP and elsewhere to support al-Shabaab fighters who are attempting to bring down the Somali government.
Ominously, coordination among Africa's most dangerous jihadist groups, including al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Nigeria-based Boko Haram, has been documented to involve explosives, finances and terror training, according to General Carter Ham, who, until April 2013, was the head of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Speaking in June 2012 to an African Centre for Strategic Studies seminar in Washington, D.C., Gen. Ham expressed concern that these three groups were "seeking to co-ordinate and synchronise their efforts." While both AQIM and al-Shabaab are on the U.S. Department of State's Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, for reasons that are not clear, to date, the Obama administration has refused to list Boko Haram, an openly and savagely violent jihadist organization which calls itself "Jama'atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da'awati wal-Jihad" (JASDJ - Group of the Sunni People for the Calling and Jihad).
While the head of al-Shabaab is Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Mukhtar Abu Zubair), who comes from Somalia's northern breakaway region of Somaliland, several Americans also have risen to senior levels among the group's leadership. Local mosques in U.S. areas with a heavy Somali immigrant population, such as Minnesota, play leading roles in recruiting young men, often born and raised in the U.S., to sign up for jihad in Somalia.
Al-Shabaab also has proven remarkably sophisticated in its use of the internet to post recruitment appeals aimed directly back at young Somali-American men that feature glorified battle scenes and personal testimonials from Somali-Americans already among its ranks.
Once they get to Somalia, it is often some of al-Qa'eda's top operatives, some of them from AQAP across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, who train these Muslim American jihadis. Several dozen have traveled from the U.S. since 2007 to join al-Shabaab's jihadist ranks in Somalia, among them a number who have been killed in fighting and suicide attacks.
One of the most prominent among these is "Abu Mansour al-Amriki" AKA "Omar Shafik al-Hammami" aka "Farouk", who is listed on the FBI "Most Wanted Terrorist List" and "Rewards for Justice". Al-Hammami, a 28-year-old from Alabama, has taken on a leadership role as AQ fundraiser, jihadi lecturer, recruiter, spokesman and video rapper, especially since the 2011 assassination of fellow U.S. citizen jihadi, Anwar al-Awlaki.
The son of a Christian mother and a Syrian-born Muslim father, al-Hammami likely was recruited to jihad at the University of South Alabama, where he was president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), the original and still one of the largest Muslim Brotherhood front groups in the U.S. His native English language ability catapulted him to a position as one of AQ/al-Shabaab's most popular recruiters, not just from the U.S. but also Britain.
In the following May 10, 2013 internet video posting, al-Hammami seemed to be shown at the 3:14 minute mark clearly fighting among Syrian rebel forces.
In July 2011, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), then the Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, convened his third hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims. Al-Shabaab and its threat to the American homeland were the focus of this hearing, especially because of the group's record of recruitment of some 40 Americans and 20 Canadians who had (at that time) joined the jihad in Somalia.
According to the Homeland Security committee, King said, "Al-Shabaab-related federal prosecutions for funding, recruiting and attempting to join al-Shabaab [were] the largest number and most significant upward trend in homegrown terror cases filed by the Justice Department" between 2009-2011, comprising at least 38 cases. The Justice Department has noted that al-Shabaab is recruiting inside American mosques in communities with a large Somali immigrant population.
Among these, Minneapolis; Lewiston, Maine; Shelbyville, Tennessee; and Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona count some of the largest Somali communities in the U.S., comprising legal and illegal immigrants and also refugees. The situation in Canada with regard to the large influx of Somali immigrants as well as the mosque recruitment by al-Shabaab closely mirrors that in the U.S.
Senior U.S. counterterrorism experts express the concern that, among all these dozens of Muslim Somali-Americans who have been recruited in American mosques, traveled to Somalia and received explosives and weapons training, perhaps even fought in al-Shabaab units, some may return with these terrorist skills to the U.S. undetected, where they could launch the kind of terrorist attacks against soft civilian targets that they have at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
As described by W. Anders Folk, former Assistant U.S. Attorney, District of Minnesota (who testified at the July 2011 King hearings), al-Shabaab's jihadist ideology, shared with and learned from AQ imams and trainers, teaches virulent hatred of Americans and other "infidels" who are non-Muslim.
To defend against such jihadis imbued with such ideology, Folk urges a "multi-faceted approach" that combines U.S. military targeting in the Horn of Africa region, FBI investigation and prosecution of those in the homeland who "provide, attempt or conspire to provide" support to al-Shabaab, and local law enforcement work among Somali immigrant communities.
Unless the al-Shabaab threat to the homeland is taken seriously, the next attack could be a shopping mall in an American suburb.