Westgate Mall Attack Demonstrates al-Shabaab’s Desperation, Not Strength

Andrew McGregor

Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, September 23, 2013

Expelled from their main sources of financing, consumed by internal disputes and under constant pressure from African Union troops in the field, Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement and its leader Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr” have rolled the dice with a massive attack on civilians in Nairobi with the future of the Shabaab movement as the stakes.

GarissaKenyan Security Forces Try to Secure the Westgate Mall

Having already lost vital revenues provided by the movement’s control of the markets of Mogadishu and the port of Kismayo, Kenya’s support for a new, autonomous administration in southern Somalia threatens to deprive Shabaab of operational mobility in one of its last strongholds. Unable to confront Kenyan troops in the field, al-Shabaab’s strategic response was the formulation of a devastating strike at a soft target in the heart of Kenya – Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall, a gathering place for foreign expatriates and well-to-do Kenyans alike. The result was over 60 civilians killed and 200 wounded. At least three Kenyan servicemen have died, with another eight wounded (Nairobi Standard, September 24).

Al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage (a.k.a. Ali Dheere) insisted the movement was in communication with the fighters in the mall while making the reason for the attack clear: “We have several times told the Kenya government to withdraw its forces from the Muslim land of Somalia but they gave no attention to our warnings” (Raxanreeb.com, September 31). The movement has had a communications strategy in place throughout the attack, giving progress reports on the “mujahideen” inside the mall that at times have been more in tune with reality than the optimistic reports issued by the Kenyan government. The movement at all times stated its disinterest in any type of negotiation, confirming the attack’s punitive nature. Promises have been made by al-Shabaab via Twitter to release statements recorded in the Westgate Mall by individuals involved in the attack, all of whom “spoke comfortably and praised Allah to have been chosen for such an operation.” [1]

Independent press coverage of the situation was hampered by government requests for live transmissions from the site to cease and for people outside the mall to stop efforts to communicate to people still believed to be within the building (Nairobi Star, September 21).

The assault on the mall consisted of a two-pronged attack by heavily armed gunmen carrying AK-47assault rifles and ammunition belts. Many of the attackers appeared to be ethnic-Somali, thought it is unknown yet whether the attackers were Kenyan nationals from largely ethnic-Somali northeast Kenya or Somali nationals. Chief of the Kenyan Defense Forces General Julius Karangi maintains that the gunmen were of different nationalities, including ethnic-Somalis with dual nationality (AFP, September 24). There is a cross-border traffic in ethnic-Somali militants in the poorly regulated border Kenyan-Somali frontier – five Kenyan nationals who had traveled to Kismayo without documents to join al-Shabaab were arrested shortly after the Westgate Mall attack (Xinhua, September 22). There continue to be rumors of American and other foreign nationals taking part in the attack, but nothing has been confirmed as of yet.

There are some accounts of gunmen changing their clothes and leaving the mall in the midst of fleeing shoppers (AFP, September 21). While unconfirmed, they raise the possibility that parts of the operational cell may have survived to carry out further attacks. If none of the attackers still holding out in the Westgate mall are taken alive, Kenyan authorities will have lost a key source of intelligence in their investigations. Wary of booby-traps, well-concentrated fire and the danger to remaining hostages, Kenyan security forces have been forced to proceed slowly in securing the interior of the mall and ending the stand-off. Kenyan Special Forces were reported to have received military support from Israel, former colonial power Great Britain and the United States. [2]

Mogadishu Attacks Part of al-Shabaab’s Regional Strategy

Only two hours before the Westgate Mall attack began, at least two people were killed and four others injured (including two Yemeni nationals) when attackers believed to be al-Shabaab operatives threw a hand-grenade in the foreign exchange part of Mogadishu’s Bakara market, once an important revenue source for al-Shabaab before it was expelled in 2011 by a joint AMISOM-Somali Army operation (Shabelle Media Network [Mogadishu], September 21; Garowe Online, September 21). This latest attack in Mogadishu followed closely a coordinated car-bombing/suicide bombing attack on a Mogadishu restaurant that killed at least 15 people on September 7 (al-Jazeera, September 7). Even Somali president Hasan Shaykh Mohamud narrowly avoided being killed on September 3 when his motorcade was ambushed by al-Shabaab gunmen (Shabelle Media Network [Mogadishu], September 3). Such attacks are part of al-Shabaab’s decision to revert to a guerrilla/terrorist campaign in its currently weakened state, which largely precludes more conventional military operations of any size.

The damaging attacks at home and in Kenya come at a time when Somalia has finally gathered sufficient international support to move forward with efforts to achieve a national restoration. In return for funding pledges of over $2 billion, the Somali federal government has agreed to improve security, implement a new constitution and hold general elections in 2016 (al-Jazeera, September 17). Meanwhile, Godane loyalists within al-Shabaab have lately been engaged in a purge of his opponents within al-Shabaab, including American jihadi Omar Hammami al-Amriki and a lack of funds or battlefield success has made recruitment difficult.

The Crisis in Kismayo

Understanding the assault on the Westgate Mall requires an understanding of events in the southern Somali port town of Kismayo, center of a lucrative trade in charcoal that ensures the wealth of whoever controls this strategic town. Al-Shabaab took control of Kismayo from a local militia in August, 2008 and made the port city an important base through smuggling activities and control of the substantial charcoal trade to the Middle East. However, a severe drought and al-Shabaab’s decision to terminate all international aid to the region brought starvation and the exodus of much of the region’s population to massive refugee camps in northern Kenya, camps that Nairobi views as a security threat and would like to see closed by restoring sufficient security to southern Somalia to enable the return of the refugees. 

After a number of kidnappings and other disturbances along the Kenyan-Somali border, the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) crossed into southern Somalia to eliminate the Shabaab presence there on October 16, 2011. Al-Shabaab’s occupation of Kismayo and the surrounding region was eventually terminated in September 2012 by a combined ground, air and sea operation involving Somali troops, the Kenya Defense Force and the local Ras Kamboni militia (once an al-Shabaab ally). Unfortunately, Operation Linda Nchi did not restore stability, as the Ras Kamboni militia soon became embroiled in deadly clashes with local rivals (especially those of former warlord federal Defense Minister Colonel Barre Adnan Shire Hiraale) for control of the city. KDF forces in Somalia were later absorbed into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) on February 22, 2013. AMISOM has waged an often brutal war against al-Shabaab using mostly Ugandan and Burundian troops since 2007.

The eventual victor in the struggle for control of Kismayo was Ras Kamboni militia leader Ahmed Muhammad Islam Madobe, who appears to have agreed to rule Kismayo and its hinterland as a “semi-autonomous” unofficial buffer state separating Kenya from the rest of Somalia. Nevertheless, KDF commander General Karangi has repeatedly denied any involvement on the part of Kenyan forces in the region in the election of Ahmed Madobe as the new leader of Jubaland by 500 local leader s on May 15, while Brigadier Ngere maintains that Kenya has “a very long border with Somalia, which we have to protect. But we are not creating any buffer state” (BBC, September 22).

An August 28 agreement backed by the UN, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD – a regional grouping) was intended to resolve the differences between the autonomy-seeking Jubaland administration and the federal government in Mogadishu. In reality, the agreement failed to resolve many of the contradictions in the Kismayo/Mogadishu relationship, but did grant Jubaland a semi-autonomous status analogous to that enjoyed by Puntland, a territory in northern Somalia (Puntland severed ties with Mogadishu in August over a political dispute). The newly recognized Jubaland has an area of roughly 33,000 square miles and a population of roughly one million people. The agreement calls for the transfer of Madobe’s Ras Kamboni Brigade to the federal Somali army, but there is a possibility Brigade members might transfer to the local police, which will remain under Madobe’s control in Jubabland (Garowe Online, September 1). In effect, the agreement gives Nairobi the buffer zone it is believed to have been seeking in southern Somalia, together with a pliant local militia beholden to the Kenyan military for its rule of the region. A long-term Kenyan presence in the region essentially means that al-Shabaab will not have the opportunity it desires to force its way back into Kismayo’s charcoal export trade (a business involving a number of prominent Kenyan businessmen). [3] With revenue sources steadily drying up across Somalia, Godane has decided the time is right for drastic measures to drive out the Kenyan presence.

Ethiopian Foreign Ministry officials, who played a large role in crafting the agreement, said it was based on three main principles; respecting the legitimate constitution of Somalia, respecting the unity and sovereignty of Somalia and furthering the fight against al-Shabaab (Garowe Online, September 7).

Somalia’s federal government asked the African Union in June to replace Kenyan troops in southern Somalia with a “multinational force” without local ambitions in the region. (Nairobi Standard, July 6). The request, which was intended to remain private, contained strong criticism of the KDF commander in Somalia, Brigadier General Anthony Ngere, who was accused of “incompetence” and “poor judgment,” particularly in regards to his arrest of Colonel Abbas Ibrahim Gurey, a Somali National Army commander who was sent to Kismayo to organize locally-based federal military forces (Kismaayo/Standard Media, July 1). [4]

Madobe’s rule in the hotly-disputed region promises to be eventful – shortly after landing in Kismayo on September 12 following an official visit to Mogadishu, a convoy of vehicles carrying the new Jubaland leader was hit by an al-Shabaab suicide bomber who drove his vehicle straight into the convoy.  Ten of Madobe’s guards were killed, though Madobe, who was traveling in a bullet-proof car, was unhurt by the blast (Somaliland Sun, September 12).


Kenya’s official response to the Westgate attack so far has been to pledge operations to find and destroy those responsible for the Westgate attack. What will matter in the coming days is whether an aggressive response will have the support of other Kenyan politicians and the Kenyan public, some of whom might feel the price of military intervention in Somalia is too high, both in security terms and in the resultant reluctance of international investors to view Kenya as a desirable place to do business. Kenya is also planning to build a new rail and pipeline corridor carrying oil from South Sudanese and Ugandan sources to the port of Lamu, less than 95 miles from the Somali border, a development that will require new security initiatives in this poorly secured region. 

Al-Shabaab’s reclusive Amir, Abdi Godane, has now made himself and the rest of the Shabaab leadership the targets of an international man-hunt that may well result in the ultimate death of the Amir and other movement leaders. Military pressure on the movement could foster further internal disputes over Godane’s controversial choice to take the movement in the direction of a globally-focused jihad closer to al-Qaeda Central’s concerns than those of more locally-focused Somali jihadists.

The federal government in Mogadishu that once welcomed Kenyan intervention in southern Somalia now finds itself in the unlikely position of sharing al-Shabaab’s desire to end the Kenyan presence and influence in the region, though the two parties differ greatly on what they see replacing the Kenyans and the new Jubaland administration. Encouraging the development of new, autonomy-seeking administrations in a nation struggling to recover some sense of national unity that would enable it to tackle its serious economic and security challenges would seem to be a step backward in the international effort to restore stability to Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall is a searing reminder that the creation of a buffer-state alone will not protect Kenya from the Islamist extremists who are determined to risk all in their struggle to expel foreign forces from Somalia on their way to creating a unified Islamic state. However, unless Kenya has enough confidence in the Somali national government’s ability to provide security in the border regions, it is likely to maintain political influence and a military presence in newly-created Jubaland regardless of the cost.


1. See http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=47003. Al-Shabaab’s Twitter account is currently https://twitter.com/HSM_Press.

2. For Israeli-Kenyan security cooperation, see Andrew McGregor, “Israel to Assist Kenya in Battle against al-Shabaab,” Terrorism Monitor, November 24, 2011.

3. See Muhyadin Ahmed Roble: “Al-Shabaab Razes Forests to Finance Jihad,” Terrorism Monitor, November 18, 2010.

4. See the whole document here: http://www.raxanreeb.com/2013/07/somalia-prime-minister-office-ridiculously-accused-brigadier-general-anthony-ngere-sector-two-amisom-commander-abuse-of-power/


Security Forces Sidelined as Salafists Battle Houthi Shiites in Yemen

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor, September 19, 2013

With Yemen in the midst of a political reconstruction, there are signs that the Zaidi Shiite insurgent group known as the Houthis is taking advantage of the ongoing turmoil to considate their de facto rule of the northern province of Sa’ada while making inroads in other parts of the country. Yemen’s military is largely preoccupied with its struggle against al-Qaeda and its allies in southern Yemen, but the Houthist expansion has not gone unopposed, with Salafist tribesmen tied to the Islamist Islah Party resisting all attempts by the Houthists to spread the areas under their control. Yemen’s security forces have little influence in the northern regions and at times have even been outgunned by both factions in the conflict. With little political will in the National Reconciliation Government for yet another war against the Houthis (there have been six since 2004), the security forces have been largely relegated to the sidelines in the ongoing Houthi-Salafist conflict.  Security officials suggest at least 60 people have been killed in several weeks of tribal clashes that began with a land dispute but intensified when the Houthist and Islah movements became involved to support opposing sides in the quarrel (Daily Star [Beirut], September 13).

Amran Governorate and the Route to Sana’a  

From their stronghold in the mountains of Sa’ada Governorate, the Houthis have expanded their area of influence to large parts of the neighboring governorates of Amran, al-Jawf, Hajjah and al-Mahwit as well as establishing a strong presence Ibb Governorate (particularly the Radhma region), in the capital, Sana’a, and in the surrounding Sana’a Governorate.

The worst clashes have occurred in the Amran governorate of Yemen, lying just north of Sana’a. Houthist forces have established positions in the mountains in regions that are also claimed by tribesmen loyal to the Salafist Islah Party who accuse the Houthists of trying to seize land in the area. Security forces failed in an attempt to intervene between the two heavily-armed factions in Amran (Yemen Times, August 22; September 10). Control of Amran would give the Houthis enormous leverage in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, which would be exposed to rapid infiltration or invasion by Houthist forces based just north of the capital in Amran.

Non-Shiites living in Amran also complain that Houthist militias have tried to take control of zakat donations, alms payments that form one of the five pillars of Islam. Attempts to commandeer zakat funds earmarked for building a school led to violent clashes in the Harf Sifyan area of Amran governorate that left eight people dead (Yemen Times, August 25). According to al-Asha district security manager Muhammad al-Raei, local security forces have not intervened in the conflict because both sides possess heavier weapons than the security forces (Yemen Times, September 10). Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi formed a mediation committee in mid-August, but the new body has been able to accomplish little short of organizing ceasefires to allow both sides to recover their dead and wounded (Yemen Times, August 27).

The Situation in Sa’ada and Ibb

In the city of Sa’ada, capital of the Houthi stronghold of Sa’ada Governorate, it is reported that all real authority is now in the hands of the Houthist movement alone.  According to the military commander in Sa’ada, Brigadier General Hassan Libuza, security duties are now divided between the army and the Houthists, with the latter providing security for Houthi events and the army providing security for government events, which are increasingly meaningless as the Houthists continue to consolidate their control. General Libuza maintains the army is “trying to coexist with the status quo in Sa’ada governorate” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 9).

The Houthists have complained that international jihadis are pouring into the town of Damaj (Sada’ah Governorate), where they are alleged to be building fortifications (Press TV [Tehran], July 16). Damaj was the scene of a violent six-week siege by Houthists in 2011 who had failed to disarm the town’s substantial Salafist population. Though it was long known as a center for the study of moderate Islam, Damaj is now the site of bitter sectarian fighting as the Houthists attempt to establish control over the Salafist-dominated town. By late August, President Hadi had established a special commission designed to promote a ceasefire and reconciliation in Damaj, though the new body has had little influence so far (SABA [Sana’a], August 21; Yemen Times, August 22).

Security officials in the al-Asha district of Amran governorate accuse the Houthis of planting landmines in mountainous areas under their control to prevent other groups from seizing them, though one mine detonated accidentally left ten Houthis dead. This new proliferation of landmines comes just as Yemen was making progress in their eradication (Yemen Times, September 5).

Both sides in the scattered conflict accuse the other of bringing in non-resident fighters to tip the scales in Amran and Ibb governorates (Arab News, September 9). In Ibb Governorate, there are continuing clashes between the pro-Houthist al-Siraj tribe and the Salafist al-Da’an tribe that began in July when the Sirajis began to set up roadblocks controlling access to al-Radhma district. Added to the violent clashes in the region is a wave of kidnappings carried out by both factions. A government-sponsored attempt to reach a ceasefire by promising 20 rifles to the side that had suffered the most casualties collapsed when the Da’an tribe backed out after learning the rifles would go to al-Siraj, fearing the weapons would be turned on them after delivery (Yemen Times, September 5; September 10).

The National Dialogue Conference

Yemen’s coalition government issued a public apology on behalf of the former regime to all residents of Sada’a for the series of military campaigns conducted against Houthist followers in that governorate (Yemen Post, August 22). A Houthi representative at the National Dialogue Conference (a government-sponsored national reconciliation effort), Amal al-Maliki, said the apology was accepted (unlike a similar apology proffered to the separatist Southern Movement) “to enable the government to implement more steps such as compensation and national reconciliation… [However], everything is still ink on paper and nothing tangible has been achieved so far. Reconstruction hasn’t started and those affected haven’t received any compensation so far” (Yemen Times, September 3; Yemen Post, August 24).Among the NDC initiatives approved by Yemen’s cabinet are recommendations for the creation of fund to compensate victims of the internal conflicts in Yemen’s northern and southern regions and the release of all separatists and Houthi rebels arrested after the 2011 anti-regime demonstrations (Gulf News, August 29). Non-Houthists delegates to the NDC have complained of “crimes” committed by the movement against other residents of Sa’ada, including murder, torture, illegal arrests and the displacement of over 130,000 people (al-Sahwah.net, July 11).

The most prominent Houthist delegate to the NDC is Yahya Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the brother of movement leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi. Yahya was the target of unidentified gunmen in Sana’a in late July but survived the attempt on his life. The movement released a statement describing the failed assassination as part of an American/Israeli plot to damage the NDC and drive the country into a civil war (Press TV [Tehran], July 27). There are, however, other suspicions that the attack was the work of Yemen’s national security service, whose dissolution the Houthists have sought since 13 Zaydi Shiites were killed and over 100 wounded in a July 10 attempt to storm the local security headquarters to free a number of Shiite dissidents (AFP, July 14).

Salafist Resistance

Islah Party leader Hamid al-Ahmar has denied the allegation that attacks on Houthists by his followers were retribution for the looting and destruction of Sabafon offices by Houthists in Amran and Sa’ada. [1] Sabafon, Yemen’s leading mobile phone network provider, counts amongst its major shareholders the Ahmar Group, a major holding entity chaired by Hamid al-Ahmar.  Hamid did, however, say that he had sought the help of Hassan Zaid, the leader of Yemen’s al-Haq Party, in mediating between Islah loyalists and Houthis in order to end a campaign of “slander” against him and end attacks against his business interests in northern Yemen. (Yemen Post, September 8). Al-Ahmar, one of the most powerful men in Yemen, is believed to have grown close to authorities in Qatar in recent years as the Emirate seeks to expand its influence in Yemen (Al Monitor, August 20, 2013).

Shaykh Hamid al-Ahmar

Muhammad Musa al-Ameri, the leader of the Rashad Union Party, Yemen’s first Salafist political party, has denounced the Houthis’ establishment of a de facto state within a state in parts of Yemen:

All of the power is in their hands, from the local authorities, the banks and district attorneys to the management of prisons, religious sites and school curricula… The people of Yemen find this unacceptable, insofar as it cleaves off a section of the Republic of Yemen in a manner that is incompatible with the peaceful political process. It is unacceptable that a person can simultaneously take part in the peaceful political process and maintain illegal armed groups… Sa’ada province has been hijacked and now exists outside the framework of the Republic of Yemen; the state’s presence there is only a formality. The strange thing is that the central government in Sana’a finances the activities of the local authority in Sa’ada despite the fact that it has no influence there. This is cause for wonder. It could possibly be the only place the world where a state allocates funds to an area over which it has no influence (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 9).

The International Dimension

As the threat of U.S. military intervention in Syria grew in early September, the Houthis organized demonstrations in the capital, Sana’a, and in numerous places in Sa’adah Governorate. The Houthis maintained their traditional anti-American stance and condemned any possible military intervention, saying it would only lead to further radicalization in the region (Yemen Post, September 6). These demonstrations came soon after similar protests in mid-August denouncing the deployment of American drones in Yemen to assassinate various militant leaders and their associates.

Yemeni officials say that hundreds of Houthi fighters have left for Syria to defend the Assad regime, regarding the fighting there as “a holy jihad.” The officials maintain Iran has provided financial encouragement for the fighters, who enter Syria via Hezbollah camps in Lebanon (Al Sharq al-Awsat, May 30).  A Saudi source reported a Free Syrian Army ambush of Yemeni volunteers in the Dara’a district of Syria in June that allegedly killed over 60 Houthist fighters (Okaz [Jeddah], June 22).

The true extent of Iranian influence on the Houthist movement has never been satisfactorily demonstrated, but recent reports of Houthist fighters in Sa’adah wearing uniforms similar to those of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps suggest that some degree of supply or financing may exist (National Yemen, September 14). A ship intercepted by the Yemeni Coast Guard with U.S. naval assistance last January was reported to have been carrying a load of Iranian arms destined for the Houthist movement. The cargo was said to have included SAM-2 and SAM-3 surface-to-air missiles (SABA [Sana’a], February 3; Reuters, February 3)


Ali al-Emad, a Houthi representative at the NDC, has suggested that the failure of security forces to intervene in the Houthi-Salafist confloict was deliberate: “Security officials are failing to uphold their responsibilities. There are political powers out there that are trying to exhaust the Houthis by encouraging numerous conflicts so that the group has to fight on numerous fronts in various governorates” (Yemen Times, September 14). The inability of the security forces in Amran to impose security on the region is reflected in many other locations in Yemen, leading to demands from prominent businessmen that they be allowed to form their own private militias to protect themselves from abduction or assassination if the government is not able to quickly reverse the deteriorating security situation (Yemen Observer, September 5).

Ongoing clashes between the Sunni Salafists and the Zaidi Shiites have so far been as much about land as religion, but there is a risk that Yemen’s tribal combat may be absorbed into a larger sectarian conflict pitting the Shiite/Alawite axis of Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement against the Sunni/Salafist Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is alarmed by the nascent Shiite state on its southern border but efforts to demonstrate its displeasure to Sana’a have resulted only in new openings for the Kingdom’s regional rival, Qatar. Unable to project force in the north, Yemen’s central government risks irrelevancy at a time when it is most needed to coordinate national unity efforts.


  1. The full name of the Islah Party is al-Tajammu al-Yamani li’l-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform). The political wing of the Houthist movement, Ansar Allah, was formed in 2012.

Sinai Jihadists Respond to Egyptian Military Offensive with Statements and Suicide Bombs

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor, September 19, 2013

As the Egyptian military intensifies its campaign against militants and terrorists in the volatile but strategic Sinai Peninsula, their jihadist opponents have responded with a series of messages claiming the Army was using excessive force, destroying property and killing civilians. These statements of defiance have been backed up by several suicide attacks designed to dissuade Egypt’s security forces from pursuing the complete elimination of the various Salafi-Jihadi groups operating in the Sinai.