Kenya and the Transformation of Terrorism

Kenya and the Transformation of Terrorism

Why you should care

Because these days global change is never that far away from your doorstep. 

There is still much that we don’t know about the terrorist attack in Kenya. What we do know is this: It was a major attack, ranking up there with Mumbai in 2008 and Algeria earlier this year. Like those attacks, the event in Kenya signals the front end of a transformation in the global terrorist movement.John McLaughlin spent 32 years at the CIA focusing on counterterrorism, serving as deputy director and acting director. He retired in 2004 and now spends his time teaching, traveling and advising governments on terrorist threats. A regular contributor to OZY, McLaughlin answers our questions about what it all means.

What motivated the attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi?

There are at least two factors at play. First, Kenya is one of the countries that provided troops to African peacekeepers, at least 4,000 of them, which kept pressure on al-Shabaab and pushed them out of their bases in Mogadishu and elsewhere in Somalia. (Uganda also supplied troops and faced a similar attack.) Secondly and more consequentially, there has been a factional battle within al-Shabaab.

woman being carried from the mall

Source Kabir DhanjiCorbis

On the one side are those who want to focus on territorial dominance locally in Somalia, and on the other are those who want to follow al-Qaida’s lead by going international. The attack in Kenya may mean that the latter viewpoint has prevailed. It may mean that al-Shabaab will pop up in other places, and that’s bad news for the rest of us.

Is this the “new normal” for terrorism?

In short, yes. Soft targets like shopping centers are “in,” although it’s too soon to say that al-Qaida and others are ruling out high-value, “spectacular” attacks like the World Trade Center. It’s also true that the U.S. and other countries have made large-scale attacks more difficult to pull off, meaning smaller civilian targets get more focus. Soft targets like malls and urban crowds have long been favored by some members of al-Qaida. It was bin Laden who pushed for “far targets,” but without him a different strategy has taken the lead. One of the more ruthless terrorist groups, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) calls this approach “death by a thousand cuts” – targets that are associated with the U.S. can be hit at a dozen different places even if AQAP can’t hit the U.S. directly.

What does this tell us about the terrorist movement overall?

The terrorist movement isn’t receding, as many claim, so much as it is transforming. It’s transforming in ways that, in the narrow sphere of terrorism, are as profound as the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s the end of what we could call “the terrorist in a box,” which means the clearly bounded, highly structured, hierarchical organizations we’ve known through the middle of the last decade.

Weak governments have left large swaths of territory uncovered, giving terror the largest safe haven it’s had in a decade.

Now, the movement is a network of networks. What’s more, weak governments – particularly in North Africa – have left large swaths of territory uncovered, giving terror the largest safe haven it’s had in a decade. An operation like the Kenya attack bears striking resemblance to the attack in January on the natural gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria, which was carried out by the breakaway elements of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The leader of that attack was able to dip into networks across six or seven countries for fighters and weapons, and when the dust finally clears in Kenya, we are likely to see the same: al-Shabaab probably had help from many other like-minded groups. If we are to believe what’s being reported, it was a sophisticated attack, clearly surveilled in advance; they took hostages and may have had inside help, just like in Algeria. It’s narrow, dangerous even, to think of this attack as just a bunch of Somalis who trekked to Kenya.

Security forces lined up during a press conference in Kenya.

Source Jerome Delay/AP/Corbis

Is there a threat to the U.S.?

Potentially yes, in two very different respects. Starting about six years ago, at least several dozen Somali Americans went to Somalia for terrorist training, and their status is now unknown. It’s possible they could deploy to the U.S. to plan an attack. Second, just because a group is small and remote, it doesn’t mean they can’t organize an attack on the U.S. It was the small, Pakistan-based Tehrik-e-Taliban that inspired and trained Faisal Shahzad to try a truck bomb in Times Square in 2010, thankfully unsuccessfully. And Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that tried to attack the U.S. several times: Remember their part in the underwear bomber and printer-cartridge bomb plots. Attacks by small groups can’t be ruled out once they’ve gained access to a relatively safe haven.

Who else is at risk?

Other potential targets are all throughout Europe: facilities and countries that are seen as partners to the U.S. and former colonial powers who have history in this part of the world. We’ve seen attacks in London, Madrid – and foiled attacks in other parts of Europe. Israel and Britain’s involvement in the aftermath in Kenya can make them targets, but governments have upped their game and made it harder for terrorists to operate there.

What happens next?

The Kenyans, with help from the British, Israel and the U.S., will have to sort through the debris for forensic evidence. As many as 10 suspects are reported to be in custody, but it’s unclear if they were the attackers or conspirators trying to flee the country. As with any attack, it will take time to deconstruct the event and answer who was involved and how much prior planning went into it.

If you were in your old job, what would be worrying you the most?

Not this particular attack or this group, but what the attack and the group represent: terrorism that is harder to predict and detect, drawn to less-protected targets, of which there are many of the American variety in the world. Attacks like this herald major changes in the terrorist world, which is taking advantage of the chaos associated with revolutions in countries affected by the Arab Spring across northern Africa and the Middle East. Many of these countries no longer control their territories outside of metropolitan areas; governments are weak, intelligence services are new and the largely under-25 populations are sympathetic to the extremist cause and ripe for recruitment. These regions are crisscrossed by smuggling routes, organized crime and weapons trade; they are places to hide and places to train and gain strength.

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