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Militant Group Al-Shabab Evolves With Help From Al-Qaida


Now, the strike on Nairobi was noteworthy in part because of the group claiming responsibility. As David and Gregory mentioned, al-Shabab is a militant organization from nearby Somalia. Analyst Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council says a few years ago it would've had little reason to strike outside Somalia's borders. More recently, al-Shabab has been evolving, turned to new purposes by the influence of al-Qaida.

BRONWYN BRUTON: It emerged in 2005 in the wake of international efforts to create a government in Somalia.

INSKEEP: Which hasn't had a functioning national government in quite some time.

BRUTON: Yeah. Not since 1991, which basically was the year of a horrible famine and civil war, a time of intense violence. So al-Shabab mostly is a domestic insurgency, that is intending to remove this government, remove foreign influence from Somalia.

Unfortunately al-Qaida has used this domestic unrest as an opportunity to send operatives, international jihadists, who are essentially capitalizing on the suffering of the Somali people. And al-Shabab has been characterized as an affiliate, a proxy of al-Qaida, even though it's really a very small number of people within al-Shabab who are threats to the United States, who are interested in acting outside Somalia's borders

INSKEEP: So you have really local people with local concerns, and their fight has been globalized in the interest of Al-Qaida. That's what you see happening.

BRUTON: Yes, it's taken many, many years for that to happen. al-Shabab, as I mentioned, emerged in 2005. We're now in 2013.

INSKEEP: OK, before this attack on Kenya, on this shopping mall, what was al-Shabab's relationship to Kenya, people in Kenya, anything else?

BRUTON: Al-Shabab has had a symbiotic relationship with Kenya. Al-Shabab gets a lot of its funding and a lot of its political support from the Somali diaspora. And there's an enormous Somali diaspora in Nairobi, particularly in the community of Eastleigh. For that reason it's been conventional wisdom among analysts that al-Shabab would be very reluctant to attack Nairobi. Because if they did that, there would be a profound backlash against the Somali community there and support for al-Shabab crumble.

The fact that they have chosen to do this attack in Nairobi is actually an indication that there's been a decisive schism between these local actors and al-Shabab - which I've been talking about - and this group of foreign jihadists who've been at the very top of the leadership, but has had some bad luck in trying to actually pursued their jihadist's goals.

INSKEEP: So should we think of this shopping mall attack as the work of a faction of al-Shabab? Is that a good way to think of it?

BRUTON: Yeah. I mean al-Shabab has, on their Twitter feed, they've released a list of names of people actually perpetrated the attack. It hasn't been verified, but a lot of them are ethnically Somali people who've come from Sweden; one of them is from Syria. Only two of them actually list their country of origin as Somalia. These are hard-core jihadis and they're not necessarily interested in Somalia at all.

INSKEEP: Should we think of this attack as a way to assert control over the agenda and the image of al-Shabab? Could this almost be an internal political battle that is being played out in the shopping mall?

BRUTON: I think the likelihood that this transnational faction of Al-Shabab is interested in Somalia primarily, is very thin. On the other hand, Kenya is full of Western interests. And if al-Qaida wants to target America, which is obviously its reason for being, Kenya is the place to be. They would much rather be operating in Nairobi where they can hurt more people, and they can make more progress in their jihad than they could ever hope to accomplish in Mogadishu.

INSKEEP: Would you remind us, to the extent that it's known, how involved the United States has been in targeting and battling against al-Shabab?

BRUTON: Al-Shabab is low on a list of U.S. priorities, I think. If you look at the amount of money that the U.S. has been battling al-Shabab, it's less than $2 billion since 2007. But Kenya is the economic engine - it's the lifeblood of East Africa. There are diplomats there. There are aid workers there. There are tourists there. It is a vital hub for U.S. interests.

INSKEEP: Is there a danger here for the United States, because perhaps one of the reasons - if you're a terror group - that you would mount an attack like this in the shopping mall, is to suck in the United States in some way.

BRUTON: Absolutely, that was their goal in Somalia. Certainly it was al-Qaida's goal in Somalia to attempt to draw the U.S. into yet another quagmire, it didn't succeed. But they will certainly attempt to draw the U.S. into Nairobi. The United States will certainly feel pressure to assist in respond.

INSKEEP: Bronwyn Bruton is deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.