WASHINGTON -- The deadly mall attack in Kenya is unlikely to change the Obama administration’s restrained approach to Shabab, the Somali-based terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the violence and that has been the target of occasional U.S. military action, American officials and counter-terrorism analysts say.
Pushed out of territory in Somalia it once controlled and riven by internal dissent, Shabab is seen as a dangerous regional threat. But it has not demonstrated the inclination or capability to attack the U.S. homeland, as Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has tried to do, officials say.
As many as 20 Somali Americans are believed to have joined Shabab in recent years, and at least two have taken part in suicide bombings in Somalia. But experts say the U.S. recruits have not sought to bring the group’s ideology or terrorist tactics back home.
“There’s no large body of evidence that says that these American kids who grew up in the States want to go to Somalia and then come back and kill people in America,” said Clinton Watts, a former FBI counter-terrorism investigator who studies Shabab.
Despite reports by Kenyan officials that two or three Americans took part in the weekend attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, U.S. officials say it’s still unclear if any Americans participated.
U.S. counter-terrorism operations in Somalia have been far less frequent than those targeting Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan and Yemen. A single U.S. drone strike was reported last year in Somalia and none this year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based advocacy group that tracks U.S. drone attacks.
Early in his first term, President Obama rejected proposals from the U.S. military to target and destroy Shabab training camps, U.S. officials have said.
The attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi is an example of “what Al Shabab used to do,” said a U.S. intelligence official who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted discussing classified analysis. “Then Shabab tried to govern, and they found out how hard that is. They had to defend territory, provide services. This could just be them rotating back to what they were, an insurgency. They are using this as a mechanism for recruiting.”
The U.S. does not want to posture itself as being at war with Shabab, even though the group technically merged with Al Qaeda in 2012, a second official said, because most Shabab fighters do not aspire to commit international terrorism.
“I don’t see that [the mall attack] requires a significant change” in U.S. policy, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.
U.S. policy did not change, he pointed out, after Shabab suicide bombers killed 74 people watching a World Cup soccer match in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010.
When Kenya invaded Somalia in October 2011, initial requests for U.S. support were rebuffed. The Kenyan troops eventually became part of the United Nations and U.S.-backed African Union force that pushed Shabab out of the strategic southern port of Kismayu, which was a huge source of revenue for the group, U.S. officials say.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who sits on the House intelligence committee, said Shabab still has "the same aim of controlling the government in Somalia. I think they were severely under pressure in Somalia and lost a lot of territory and this is a way of putting pressure on the Kenyan government to withdraw its forces.”
Even as it was being pushed out of territory in Somalia, Shabab convulsed with internal strife. The group’s leader, Ahmed Godane, has been purging dissidents.
In July his loyalists killed two Shabab co-founders, one of whom was Godane’s former deputy and longtime friend, Ibrahim Afghani, Watts said. Afghani reportedly had criticized the leader's fatwas against pop music and watching sports on television.
This month, U.S. officials believe, Godane’s forces tracked down and killed Alabama-born Omar Hammami, a former Shabab loyalist who had been tweeting his displeasure with Godane’s leadership.
Godane, who reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban, came in for criticism from Osama bin Laden after the 2010 Kampala attacks. Bin Laden asked him to take more care in protecting Muslim civilians.
During the mall attack, witnesses said, gunman tried to determine who was Muslim and target only non-Muslims. But some Muslims reportedly were among the scores of people killed.