Al Shabaab is a Threat to the World at Large

by Jerry Gordon (October 2013)

The Nairobi Westgate Mall Attack

At noon Saturday, September 21, 2013 local time, a swarm of 10 to 16 al Shabaab terrorists, heavily armed with AK-47, G-3 assault weapons and grenades, attacked the high end Westgate Mall in the Westlands section of Nairobi. There may have been up to three Americans involved and perhaps the rumored “white widow” English Jihadi Samantha Lewthwaite who was reported to be barking orders to her accomplices by hidden witnesses. Lewthwaite’s late husband was a suicide bomber in the London 7/7 attack that killed more than 67 people. [(61 civilian and 6 Kenyan security personnel), 200 wounded and 63 missing.] She left Britain several years ago and had allegedly been involved in training and conduct of al Shabaab attacks against Kenyan hotels.

The attack on a soft target of hapless unarmed civilians at the Nairobi Westgate Mall resulted in current reports of more than 62 dead, 200 wounded and 63 missing, presumably hostages and other unidentified civilians who may have escaped. More than 1000 fled the Mall after the assault began. After Kenyan military and security forces stormed the four story structure on Sunday, September 22, 2013, the attackers were confined to the fourth floor. Fires were set by the attackers on the roof and explosions could be heard as lower floors were cleared. According to the latest reports, three floors of the mall have collapsed perhaps trapping unknown casualties among the 63 persons still listed as missing. Five of the attackers, all men, were reported by Kenyan military to have been killed in the exchange of gunfire. Eleven Kenyan soldiers were injured in the attack and 11 suspects were arrested following the assault. By Monday, September 23, 2013, Kenyon authorities said they had control over the facility although sporadic gunfire could be still heard by reporters on the scene. Among the dead were the nephew of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his fiancée, citizens of Canada, China, Ghana, the UK, France and the US. Several Americans were also wounded. 19 of the civilian casualties taken to a nearby hospital died of their wounds, among the deceased were four children. 65 people are reported still hospitalized. The death toll from the al Shabaab attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi may still rise. The victims ranged in age from 2 to 78. The oldest was a revered Ghanaian poet, diplomat and academic, Kofi Awoonor, a pan-Africanist who was revered in Ghana for his active support for his country’s independence.

On Tuesday, September 24, 2013, after four days of mayhem and fighting, Kenyan President Kenyatta announced on local TV that the al Shabaab terrorists were “ashamed and defeated.” He declared his country “bloodied but unbowed” after the attack. “We confronted this evil without flinching, confronted our deep grief and pain, and conquered it.”

Somalia President Hassan Mohamad, speaking at Ohio State University in Columbus, said that “Al Shabaab is a threat to the continent of Africa and the world at large.” According to a report in the Epoch Times, “Mohamud likened the attacks to an al-Shabaab assault on Somalia’s main court complex in April 2013 that killed dozens and a 2010 al-Shabaab attack in Uganda’s capital that killed about 76 people.” He was in Columbus, on a tour of the US, which has the second largest Somali émigré community in the US, seeking to recruit returnees to assist in re-developing the war torn country.

Al Shabaab Claimed responsibility for the attack

Al Shabaab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage used social media including Twitter messages and You Tube video posts to communicate its demands. According to an initial report from Nairobi newspaper, The Nation, al Shabaab, an al Qaida (AQ) affiliate in Somalia, Tweeted responsibility for the attack:

“The Mujahideen entered Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the Kenyan Kuffar inside their own turf,” the group said on Twitter.

“What Kenyans are witnessing at Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military.”

Kenyan forces entered Somalia two years ago to fight al-Shabaab, and remain in the country as part of an African Union force that is supporting Somalia's internationally-backed government.

The attackers were intent on killing and holding hostage infidels and Muslims who were not Shariah compliant. Note this from the Fox News report:

Witnesses say the gunmen asked victims they had cornered if they were Muslim: If the answer was yes, several witnesses said, those people were free to go. The non-Muslims were not.

During the assault by Kenyan security forces, al Shabaab spokesman Sheik Rage noted:

From neighboring Somalia, al-Shabaab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said in a recorded message posted on a website that the terrorists had been ordered to “take punitive action against the hostages” if force was used to try to rescue them.

“Israelis and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate by force but they could not,” Rage reportedly said in the audio statement. “The mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force.”

Watch this You Tube video of Sheik Rage’s message of retribution for Kenyan participation in the OAU force in Somalia and support for the Mujahideen assault team in the Westgate Mall attack:



Enter the Israelis

The Times of Israel had a report that AFP and Debka corroborated. Israel dispatched special operations teams to Kenya to assist and advise Kenyan forces in the negotiations and planning of contingency plans for securing the hostages at the Westgate Mall, “Israeli special forces said to be aiding Kenyan rescue operation.” We note that such assistance has a long history going back to the Entebbe hostage rescue of July 1976 during which Kenya provided refueling and other assistance to the Israeli special ops mission.

The Times of Israel noted the nature of the Israeli assistance in the Nairobi terrorist attack:

Israeli forces are reportedly helping Kenyan officials end a deadly siege at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. According to a Kenyan security source, Israeli forces entered the mall, where a siege has been ongoing since Saturday, and “are rescuing the hostages and injured,” AFP reported.

Survivors of the al Shabaab attack reported the assistance of private Israeli security personnel at the Westgate Mall in facilitating their escape to safety. Israelis were reported among the injured in the al Shabaab assault.

The Times of Israel noted the exchange of letters between Israeli President Shimon Peres and President Kenyatta of Kenya who lost close relatives in the Westgate Mall attack:

President Shimon Peres, in a Sunday letter to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, said,”I wish to extend my deepest condolences to the people of Kenya on the horrific terror attack in Nairobi. From the Holy Land we pray for the release of the hostages, the full recovery of the injured, and comfort for the families of the victims.

“Terrorism is a global threat and those who perpetrate it make no distinction between young and old, men and women,” Peres wrote. “There is no justification for the murder of innocent civilians and Israel stands shoulder to shoulder with the Kenyan government and people at this difficult time. We in Israel know the pain of terror and will do whatever we can to support the people of Kenya.”

Kenyatta said Saturday that he had lost “very close family members” (a reference to the loss of his nephew and his fiancée) in the attack carried out by “despicable perpetrators.”

Note Mossad's involvement in investigating a suspicious fire at Nairobi airport in August 2013 and prior attacks against Israeli assets in Kenya:

In August, Mossad agents, along with officials from the FBI, aided in investigating whether a massive fire at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was a terrorist attack. According to foreign media reports, the Mossad runs an outpost in Nairobi, tasked with maintaining security ties with Kenya and other East African nations.

In 2002, terrorists in Mombasa blew up an Israeli-owned hotel and unsuccessfully tried to shoot down an Israeli passenger plane as it was taking off.

Questions Remain on Al Shabaab Planned and Executed Attack

The Westgate Mall attack left unanswered questions raised by Kenyan, US and UK Counterterrorism experts. Where are the alleged Somali American émigré Jihadis? FBI forensic experts in Nairobi are awaiting the results to determine if there were any Americans among them. UK Counterterrorism authorities want to track down the whereabouts of the rumored White Widow, Samantha Lewthwaite, who left the UK for East Africa and may have joined up with Al Shabaab. Interpol has issued a red alert warrant for her arrest. Where is the balance of the alleged international Al Shabaab assault group? There are suggestions that Al Shabaab fighters may have changed clothes, left their weapons and ammunition behind and simply walked out with crowds of released hostages and escaped. Which brings us to the matter of accomplices. Perhaps among the 11 arrested in Kenya interrogations may reveal what they did to facilitate the attack. Counterterrorism experts are concerned about vehicles left in the mall garage for perhaps a month prior to the September 23, 2013 attack. These vehicles might have contained weapons, ammunition, explosives and detonation devices. There is even a possibility raised by experts that accomplices might have rented one of the vacant stores and stocked it with arms and ammunition. That raises the issue of how long ago the Al Shabaab team or accomplices had conducted reconnaissance of the 350,000 square foot Westgate Mall. How did they obtain building plans for the Westgate Mall? Where did funds come from to pay for  the operation? We note that in 2012 ex-pat Somali Muslims in the US alone had repatriated to Somalia over $215 million. How much of that may have been diverted to Al Shabaab? This should be investigated.

Al Shabaab’s Global Jihad Reach with Al Qaeda

By all accounts, this was a global jihad attack by al Shabaab on a soft target in Nairobi, the hub of East African finance and commerce. The attack occurred on Child’s Day with planned activities on the roof at the high end Westgate Mall frequented by ex-patriates from NGOs, UN organizations, the diplomatic corps and well to do Kenyans who were prominent among the victims. The Westgate mall is owned by an Israeli and the facility allegedly had private Israeli security. 

Al Shabaab planned and executed a complex attack in the Westgate Mall episode which signaled the group’s reach across the Muslim Ummah and to Somali émigrés in the West. 

Al Shabaab (meaning ‘youth’ in Arabic) began as a splinter group from the Union of Islamic Courts movement that took over Somalia in 2006 to establish a Shariah compliant government. Al Shabaab broke away and recruited fighters from the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts. Intelligence estimates that the al Shabaab currently has a disciplined force of between 7,000 to 9,000 Jihadis. For a time al Shabaab had control of a portion of the capital, Mogadishu. Following the arrival of 12,000 African Union troops, including a contingent of 4000 Kenyan military in 2011, al Shabaab retreated to the south after being forced out of Kisamayo. Losing control of areas in Somalia, al Shabaab resorted to cross border attacks in Kenya against soft targets. In 2012, al Shabaab signed an agreement with Ayman al-Zawahiri formalizing its affiliation with Al Qaeda.

The Nairobi swarming attack is reminiscent of the November 2008 Pakistani terror group Laskar-e-Taiba's (LeT) Mumbai rampage. More than 164 persons were killed and over 308 wounded, including several Jews at a Chabad House. 

The Nairobi al Shabaab attack is illustrative of a warning issued by AQ leader Ayman al- Zawahiri on 9/11/13 about a series of small but stunning attacks on Western assets including the US. This follows a mid-August secure conference call between al -Zawahiri and several affiliate leaders, including al Shabaab.

US Recruits in the Al Shabaab

Intelligence sources indicate that upwards of 50 Americans from both Somali émigré and homegrown Muslim convert communities have been recruited for training as Jihadis. Radicalized mosques used You Tube videos with a nationalistic appeal to fight against Ethiopian and African Union troops, especially the 4,000 Kenyan brigade. More than two dozen came from the largest Somali émigré community in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Several of the American Jihadis have been killed in suicide missions and by their al Shabaab comrades. Most recently killed was Daphne, Alabama native, Omar Hammami, born of an American Baptist mother and a Syrian Muslim engineer father. Hammami had become highly visible as a rap artist on recruiting videos for al Shabaab. He had been indicted by a Mobile, Alabama US grand jury for material support for terrorism. Hamami had earlier been head of the local Muslim Students Association chapter at the University of South, Alabama, before traveling first to Toronto and from there to Somalia to join al Shabaab. 

Ten American al Shabaab fighters, most from the Twin Cities area, have been killed in Somalia. They have been memorialized in an al Shabaab on-line video, “The Path to Paradise: From the Twin Cities to the Land of Two Migrations.”  We noted in an August 2013 Iconoclast post:

On Eid al –Fitr, August 7, 2013 the Somali Al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab released a video on the internet seeking to recruit Somali émigré and homegrown terrorists to join their jihad and die in war torn Somalia. The video briefly appeared on YouTube, but was taken down because of the violent content. It featured three American recruits, two Somali émigrés and a Native American convert from the Twin Cities area, Minneapolis and St. Paul, a major center of Somali immigration in the US.  These three had been recruited in 2007 traveling to Somalia only to die there in combat by 2009. One of those portrayed in the Al Shabaab video had been an engineering student at the University of Minnesota, while another recruit had graduated Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis.

The French blog reported that an al Shabaab Tweet had listed more than six American Somali émigrés as participating in the Westgate Mall assault. Kenyan authorities suggested that there may have been two to three Americans involved in the assault, two from Minneapolis and the third from Kansas City, Missouri. 

Two Somali émigré community leaders In Kansas City, Missouri could not identify the 27 year old man cited in various reports as among the al Shabaab attackers in Nairobi. Watch the KCMB Channel 9 TV interview here. According to a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

Two Minnesota men named in a tweet by the terror group al-Shabaab as being among the attackers of the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya appear to be as fake as the Twitter account that posted their names, according to members of the local Somali community.

[. . .]

It soon became apparent the Twitter account was fake, and there is no record that anyone with those names lived in Minnesota.

Although government prosecutors produced charts with names and photos of many of the “travelers,” neither of the men named in the Twitter message appear on the charts and their names do not appear in the public court records of the 18 men and one woman who have been charged in what the FBI dubbed, “Operation Rhino.”

Others in the assault team according to the al Shabaab Tweet allegedly came from Canada, the UK, Syria, Finland, Kenya, Dagestan, Sweden and Somalia.

NBC news investigative report indicated that al Shabaab had a large US contingent among the more than 250 foreign Jihadis in the group according to 2011 intelligence estimates. It further noted that US Law enforcement sources could not find matches for the Americans listed in the al Shabaab Westgate Mall assault team indicating that aliases might have been used or the Tweet might have been disinformation. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki at a Monday afternoon briefing said, “At this point, we have no definitive evidence of the nationalities or identities of the perpetrators.”

The NBC report noted the threat from the 20 US passport holders among the al Shabaab fighters in Somalia:

And in terms of where they are in the hierarchy, there are some Americans who are military commanders, but they will never be emir or deputy emir.

But the official cautioned that “these are guys we know about, guys who we have full IDs on,” and there remains a concern that there are U.S. citizens “who we didn’t track.”  

The NBC Report noted the al Shabaab attack in Mogadishu that injured a US Congressman in 2009 and the coincidental appearance of perpetrators in a New York Federal Court on September 23, 2013:

In 2009, before African troops pushed them out of Somalia’s population centers, al Shabaab tried to kill Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., and then head of the House Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Africa, with a mortar attack in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab took responsibility for the failed attack, which came just days after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Somali pirates who had taken a U.S. ship captain hostage in the Indian Ocean.

Three Somali men who were charged with taking part in the conspiracy to kill Rep. Payne appeared in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn on Monday.

Could a Nairobi type Swarming attack happen in the US?

Because there were allegations that there may have been émigré Somali Americans in the Westgate Mall attack, that raises serious questions from counterterrorism agencies in the US whether returning Jihadis could undertake a Nairobi type swarming attack on a mall here. In May 2013, two returning Al Shabaab US recruits were convicted in a Minneapolis Federal court and given lengthy sentences on charges including in one case, conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim and injure.

A CNN report endeavoring to answer this “what if” question chronicled a series of actions at American Malls, some of which have been thwarted, but others have not. It noted these:

In the past few years, federal prosecutors say they have thwarted two planned attacks on malls, each of which would have been carried out by single attacker:

–Nuradin M. Abdi, a Somali citizen living in Columbus, Ohio, was sentenced in 2007 to 10 years in prison after admitting he sought terrorist training in Ethiopia to carry out attacks, including a never-attempted attack on a mall in 2002.
–Derrick Shareef of Rockford, Illinois, was sentenced in 2008 to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to plotting to set off grenades at a Rockford shopping mall. Shareef was a convert to Islam who was recorded saying he wanted to kill “infidels.”

But attacks which have succeeded in causing casualties at American malls in recent years have been carried out by young lone gunmen with no apparent cause to promote:

–A 19-year-old man killed eight people and then himself at an Omaha, Nebraska, mall in December 2007.
–An 18-year-old man killed five people before he was killed by police at a mall in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February 2007.
–A 22-year-old man killed two people and then himself at a mall near Portland, Oregon, in December 2012.

“Soft targets always attract the terrorists because they're usually not defended,” said Lt. Col. Rick Francona, CNN's military analyst. “It's a very effective way of causing a lot of panic, a lot of damage very quickly and achieving the objective of terrorizing people.”

One possible target could be the giant Mall of America (MoA) complex in Bloomington, Minnesota. It lies within easy reach of the largest Somali émigré community in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul with more than two dozen Al Shabaab recruits, 10 of whom have been killed.

The CNN article noted what precautions the MoA has taken against this possibility:

“I think that if you're looking for a hundred percent safety, you should probably wrap yourself in bubble wrap and never leave home,” said Doug Reynolds, security director of the Mall of America.

A strategy to minimize the damage a lone attacker or an armed group could do before authorities arrive can be seen twice a month at the giant mall in Bloomington, Minnesota, which is visited by 43 million people a year.

A voice comes over the public address system and announces that everyone, customers included, should take shelter in back rooms of the mall's stores. Employees lock doors and lower security gates.

“If something bad should happen here, we don't want our response to start with law enforcement will be here and will protect you,” Reynolds said. “We want to know what can be done before law enforcement gets here.”]

The Al Shabaab Nairobi type swarming attack is eerily reminiscent of the Black Friday swarming attack scenario we discussed in our June 2009 article, Foot Soldiers of Islam involving returning Al Shabaab US recruits engaged in an action not unlike the Nairobi Mall attack.  We noted:

We saw in the tragedy in Mumbai, India, [on November 29, 2008], the devastation, death and destruction wrought by a ‘swarming attack’ of a limited number of Kashmiri and Pakistani extremists. Counter terrorism experts and the FBI consider such swarming attacks as a high risk in America.

[ . . .]

The casualties from such orchestrated swarming attacks could be devastating and the economic impacts, significant. Currently, we don’t have local counter terrorism forces trained in weapons and tactics to combat Mumbai-type swarming attacks in high risk communities in this country.  We need to make that an important counter terrorism priority, including penetration of such local Jihadi networks.

UNHCR Refugee Camps in Kenya

Somali Refugees in Kenya –the Source of Resettlement Problems and Jihadi Threats

Kenya hosts more than one million refugees from Somalia and the Sudan. As of August 2012, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported:

The Dadaab and Alinjugur camps registered more than 5,700 new arrivals from Somalia, bringing the total population in these camps to some 474,000. In 2011, Dadaab registered 113,500 new arrivals over the same eight month period. The large numbers were mainly due to the prevailing drought, famine and insecurity in Somalia.

The UNHCR further noted the turmoil in the Dadaab Somali refugee camp:

In the recent past, the security situation in the Dadaab area has become high-risk and dangerous, following a series of incidents, including the abduction of aid workers and fatal attacks on refugee leaders and Kenyan security forces. This led to more restrictive security measures that curtailed humanitarian access to the camps.

There are upwards of an estimated 150,000 Somalis in US major cities like Minneapolis-St Paul, Boston, Columbus, Kansas City, Nashville, San Diego, Phoenix, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Washington, DC among others. A recent report estimated that the Somali émigré community has sent an estimated $215 million in remittances to Somalia nearly equal to the $242 million that the US provides in humanitarian assistance to Somalia. Somali refugee entry to the US via the State Department administered Refugee Resettlement program has been fraught with fraud which led to the shutdown of the P-3 Visa Family Reunification Program for over three years. Some US voluntary agencies which process Somali refugees have commented about innumerable instances of fraud. Somali émigrés have been involved in drug (Khat- a DEA Class A drug) and human trafficking, Medicaid and US Health and Human Services minority health grants fraud. Imams in major Somali émigré centers have been implicated in facilitating al Shabaab recruitment and transportation to Somalia for jihad training. Other Somalis have been convicted of funneling funds for al Shabaab via the Hawala money transfer system.

The Nairobi swarming attack is a clear indication that Al Qaeda is not on the run and that al Shabaab has a global reach. The US Refugee Resettlement and counter terrorism programs must address the possible threat from Somalis (and other Shariah compliant Muslim refugee groups) for this country to be safe from possible homegrown swarming attacks. That is the lesson from the Nairobi Westgate Mall attack.


Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of interviews, The West Speaks.


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