The Siege in Nairobi

Is this al-Shabab’s rebirth -- or its dying gasp?

A year ago, Kenyan forces seized al-Shabab's final stronghold, the Somali port of Kismayo, sending the group into the country's rural interior and cutting off their economic lifeline. A long and brutal war against a slippery enemy, it seemed, was nearly won. After entering Somalia's conflict in October 2011, the Kenyan military, working together with the Somali National Army and the Ethiopian Defense Forces, had successfully weakened the Islamist terrorist group and seemed poised to restore peace to a fractured nation riddled by two decades of conflict.

Those gains, it turns out, were fleeting. The three countries' militaries have been unable to wrestle control of Somalia's southern hinterlands from al-Shabab's forces. Provided an operational safe haven, but lacking a city base, al-Shabab transitioned from conventional fighting to asymmetric warfare using guerilla and terror attacks to target the new Somali Federal Government (SFG) in Mogadishu and now, tragically, in the heart of Kenya. Al-Shabab's brazen Sept. 21 attack on the luxury Westgate Mall in Nairobi, where an unknown number of its members killed at least 68 people and wounded 175, was just the latest step in its evolution from leader of an Islamic state in Somalia to a regional Islamist terror movement spreading its tentacles throughout the Horn of Africa.

It's been barely 48 hours since the attack begin -- and as of this writing, the standoff continues -- but al-Shabab's motives seem clear: a vicious and bloodthirsty strike at the soft, civilian underbelly of East Africa's most important city to provoke a heavy-handed response, one that channels the popular support of disenfranchised Muslims in Kenya and re-energizes a terror group thought to be on the wane. Regardless of the motive, it's not yet possible to assess whether this attack signals the rebirth of al-Shabab as a regional jihadi movement, or the last gasp of a dying organization.

Like any good guerrilla force, al-Shabab knows it has to conserve its sparse resources for maximum impact. Occurring less than a month before the second anniversary of Kenya's Somalia intervention, the attack comes during a nadir in relations between Nairobi and the SFG, which controls just a small swath of land in and around Mogadishu. Many in the Somali government are wondering when the Kenyan military will exit Kismayo, and doubt its intentions. The persistent theory in Mogadishu is that Kenya seems reluctant to turn over the valuable port, preferring to relinquish control to a warlord of its choosing rather than Somalia's central government. Meanwhile, many Kenyans are wondering when their troops will return home. For its part, al-Shabab may be hoping that the Westgate attack will convince Kenyans that a sustained involvement in Somalia is just too messy.

And yet, it may also be a ploy to provoke Kenya, encouraging even greater commitment to sustaining forces in Somalia. On Twitter, al-Shabab called the attack "retributive justice for crimes committed" by Kenya's military, and witness accounts say that the terrorists reportedly targeted non-Muslims in the Westgate massacre. If the attack provokes Kenya to venture deeper into Somalia, al-Shabab hopes it can exhaust foreign forces in an asymmetric campaign of hide-and-seek insurgency. Inciting Kenya's rage and prompting an extended invasion is almost as positive an outcome for al-Shabab as getting the Kenyan military to unilaterally withdraw. Either way, the goal is the same: it's largely a matter of sequencing.

The Westgate raid may also be intended to fan the flames of xenophobia. Resentment and persecution are familiar feelings to Somalis living in Kenya -- and for native Kenyan Muslims, as well, who have historically maintained a contentious relationship with the central government. It's too early to say whether Westgate will provoke retaliatory attacks against these communities in Kenya: much depends on whether or not the Kenyan government and security forces are willing and able to prevent an upwelling of violence against minority Muslims.

Adding to the uncertainty, it's still unknown whether the majority of the attackers were Somali, or Somalis who had long resided in Kenya, Kenyans recruited to Somalia, or possibly Western foreign fighters dispatched from southern Somalia. If the attackers were residing in or native to Kenya, this would suggest a more sizeable base of popular support for al-Shabab in Kenya and potentially indicate the start of a broader campaign -- one likely met by a swift and brutal crackdown from Kenyan police and security forces.

But that's not to say that this action has the backing of local elements. Previously, Somali diaspora communities -- like the one in Kenya -- had provided al-Shabab with crucial support. Clans aligned with al-Shabab leveraged their family networks, securing remittances to sustain their operations and attracting young Somali youth from as far away as Minneapolis to fill their ranks through online propaganda lauding the glory of combat. But the last two years have been tough for al-Shabab.

In February 2011, the group's emir, Sheikh Moktar Ali Zubeyr (a.k.a. Ahmad Godane) arranged a merger with al Qaeda to shore up his power amongst al-Shabab's fractious clans. His ascendance coincided with a dramatic uptick in indiscriminant violence alienating al-Shabab's local popular support and creating rifts among its leaders. Up until 2011, al-Shabab -- more than any other al Qaeda affiliate -- had successfully attracted Westerners to fight in its ranks. However, under Godane's reign, foreign fighters were shunned in deference to indigenous Somali fighters more loyal to the emir.

Instead of further empowering the organization, the merger created dissension among Shabab's clannish leaders: many felt that joining al Qaeda's global vision undermined their credibility amongst Somali clans wary of foreign influences. Likewise, Godane's killing of innocent Somalis began to create backlash and defection. Omar Hammami, the most well-known U.S. member of al-Shabab (and a popular inspiration in jihadi media) published a YouTube video fearing for his life -- and speaking about low morale and Godane's straying from sharia law. Hammami's video became the first of many public signs of a fracturing al-Shabab.

Over the past 12 months, several key al-Shabab leaders have defected; Godane has gone after both Somali citizens and foreign fighters. And just this past week, reports emerged that al-Shabab murdered Hammami. It's a stretch to say that al-Shabab is reeling, but it's likely ostracized by the al Qaeda core for its very public internal disputes and factionalized by public dissension in the ranks. Needing to distract from killing one of its most celebrated members, a successful and public attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall resets the agenda and helps Godane silence his critics.

But while it seems strong and dangerous now, the health of al-Shabab is difficult to discern. In July 2010, the group claimed credit for a suicide bombing in Uganda that killed at least 74 people. "We are sending a message to Uganda and Burundi," the group's spokesperson said at the time, adding that if the two countries didn't withdraw their troops from Somalia, "blasts will continue." But follow up attacks never manifested.

On Saturday, as the full nature of the Westgate raid became clear, al-Shabab on Twitter claimed this was the first of many attacks to come. If it quickly executes other attacks in Kenya, this would suggest a profound resurgence. If it fails to generate another attack over the next six months, the Westgate attack may represent a last desperate attempt to generate popular support, resources, and personnel. In terrorism, as in life, it's all about the follow through.

Nichole Sobecki/AFP/Getty Images


Persona Non Grata

The United States should arrest Sudan's genocidal president in New York.

For the first time ever, attendees at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this week may include a sitting head of state who is the subject of an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for genocide and crimes against humanity. That head of state is Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who, clearly undeterred by the ICC warrant, has said he plans to make the trip to New York. To make matters worse, Bashir intends to visit the UNGA after unleashing new violence in 2013 that has led to levels of human displacement second only to Syria, in global terms, since the beginning of the year.

Indeed, Darfur, the scene of Bashir's earlier crimes for which he was indicted by the ICC, is burning again. Janjaweed militia forces, backed by the Sudanese government, are once more torching villages, terrorizing civilians, and systematically clearing prime land and resource-rich areas of their inhabitants. The latest ethnic-cleansing campaign has already displaced over half a million Darfuri civilians this year, the largest population movement since the height of the genocide eight years ago. Amid this horror, it is unconscionable that the U.N. and United States would welcome Bashir to New York -- unless there are plans to arrest him and try him on a global stage.

Most media and diplomatic descriptions of the surging violence in Darfur fall within the popularly accepted "endemic intertribal hatred" narrative. In reality, however, the violence is systematic, state-sponsored, and driven by economic and security objectives. Bashir and his government actively promote the image of uncontrollable, anarchic, intertribal violence to mask their divide-and-rule strategy's underlying intent: consolidating control of the economy in Darfur.

At the height of the mass atrocities committed from 2003 to 2005, the Sudanese regime's janjaweed strategy appeared to be driven only secondarily by the acquisition of salaries and war booty. By contrast, today's escalating violence is more blatantly fueled by monetary motivations. The government and its militia allies are grabbing land, consolidating control of recently discovered gold mines, manipulating reconciliation conferences for increased "blood money," expanding protection rackets and smuggling networks, demanding ransoms, robbing banks, and resuming large-scale looting.

An additional government motivation behind these actions and other violence is appeasing increasingly restless janjaweed constituencies needed for the regime's fight against the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front, which is battling the regime in Darfur and other parts of the country. Gradually, many janjaweed militia groups, including those incorporated in Sudan's border guards and Central Reserve Police, have slipped partly out of government control as the salaries and other endowments available for patronage networks have shrunk with declining government budgets and interest. Janjaweed units increasingly have undertaken criminal activities to make up for lost payments from the government's off-budget expenditures. During the past six months, the regime has sought to bring many of its favored janjaweed elements back into closer alliance around shared objectives, such as population clearing in northern Darfur to better control dramatically increased gold production there.

In addition to attacking non-Arab ethnic groups, throughout 2013 some of the regime's janjaweed militias have also targeted civilians from Arab tribes that were historically aligned with the government. The newly expanded scope of violence in Darfur is also tied to the emergence of pressing economic imperatives, largely triggered by the loss of oil revenues following southern secession. As the government struggles to develop alternate revenue streams and pacify the increasingly restless janjaweed elements, Sudanese government officials have grown willing to fan the flames of violence even against some of their less-favored allies.

Since the regime in Khartoum denies journalists, aid workers, and U.N. peacekeepers access to Darfur and other locations where civilian targeting is frequent, the killing, looting, and burning occurs in an information blackout. Encountering increasing difficulties from Khartoum, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur, UNAMID, is largely unable to protect civilians and has not yet been able to address the deepening economic and security drivers of rapidly intensifying conflict in Darfur.

And Darfur is not the only area of Sudan that is burning. The government has deployed similar scorched-earth tactics in its conflict with Sudan Revolutionary Front rebels in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile region. To date, separate peace initiatives for these areas have been pursued, thus dividing international efforts and playing into the hands of Khartoum's strategy. Instead, the international community should abandon the existing stovepiped talks and prioritize the creation of one comprehensive peace process that addresses all of Sudan's conflicts in one forum, maximizing participation from a wide swath of elements of civil society, the opposition, rebels, and the government.

The United States and European Union are strong rhetorical supporters of a comprehensive approach to peace in Sudan. They now must act on that rhetoric with bold diplomacy that closely supports lead African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, as he promotes a solution addressing the grievances of all Sudanese. Of equal urgency, the United States and EU should provide new support to those Sudanese actors inside the country who are on the front lines of the struggle for peace and democracy. Such a "peace surge" resulted in the deal that ended two decades of deadly war between the north and south of Sudan in 2005 and led to the peaceful birth of the new state of South Sudan in 2011. A similar, expanded diplomatic effort could end the equally deadly, multifront war that continues to rage in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile.

There should be a global strategy of total isolation against Bashir and any official who uses genocidal tactics to brutally retain power. Thus, if it is allowed, Bashir's visit to the U.N. should result in U.S. authorities arresting him and sending him to The Hague. Otherwise, the only possible silver lining of this situation would be that the international outrage over Bashir's appearance and the corresponding, refocused attention on his continuing crimes might galvanize support for real solutions in Sudan, such as a comprehensive peace process. Put simply, Sudanese lives depend on one, or ideally both, of these outcomes.