Terrorist groups need attention to survive. If they can’t get it by actually launching attacks, just talking about attacks will do.
Over the weekend, Somali jihadist group al-Shabab released a propaganda video calling for attacks against the Mall of America in Minnesota, Canada’s West Edmonton Mall, and two Westfield malls in London. While clearly a bid for publicity after a year of headlines dominated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the video does comes with some weight, given that al-Shabab actually did attack the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing more than 60 people. There’s also evidence that Shabab has actively recruited fighters from Minnesota’s Somali community. But Shabab has never carried out an attack outside East Africa and it seems unlikely that they would warn their targets to step up security before launching the first one.
The U.S. government doesn’t seem that concerned, though with a potential shutdown looming, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson couldn’t help noting that this sort of vague threat is the reason his department needs a budget.
This threat may be dubious, but al-Shabab is still dangerous. The group carries out regular attacks in Somalia, including a bombing that killed 15 people at a well-known Mogadishu hotel last week, and has become more international in its ambitions. It was behind a series of deadly raids in Kenya during last year’s World Cup and there are signs that it is in communication with Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
The current state of al-Shabab also tells us something about the challenges of fighting groups that function simultaneously as both traditional terrorist cells and guerilla armies engaged in civil war. Like ISIS and Boko Haram, al-Shaba once exerted de facto political control over a substantial portion of territory in Somalia. Since it was pushed out of Mogadishu in 2011 and lost its last urban stronghold in 2013 following a Kenyan-Somali military offensive, it’s gone underground, changing its operational focus. What was once an army in control of territory has become a more traditional terrorist group, and in some ways more dangerous to foreign countries.
The lesson going forward is that groups like al-Shabab can be defeated on the battlefield, but then can then transform into something equally or even more threatening, and much more difficult to eliminate. Something to keep in mind as the fight against ISIS escalates.