Death to Shoppers? Al-Shabaab and the Fracturing of International Jihadism

On February 22nd, the Somali based al-Shabaab jihadist group issued a six minute video where it called on Muslim men to attack shopping malls in western countries. Three locations in particular were singled out in the video: Mall of America in Bloomington Minnesota, West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton Alberta and the Oxford Street shopping district in London. The latter is not a mall but a heavily trafficked shopping area, what in British parlance is often called a “High Street”. The video went on to show stark images of the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya by al-Shabaab militants in 2013. That attack left 60 people dead and caused several million dollars of damage to the shopping complex.

On the one hand there is something almost laughable at the idea of shopping, that most exalted of activities in western consumer culture, will now become the next battlefield of the jihadist struggle. What comes next, Buffalo wings and beer? Can Monday Night Football be far behind? Will “holy war” be reduced to attacking the most visible emblems of western consumerist culture? On the other hand, the success of al-Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall is reason for concern. They have done it before, with deadly consequences. Shopping Malls have little in the way of security and lots of soft targets. Moreover, it has already happened in the United States once before.

On December 11, 2012, Jacob Tyler Roberts attacked shoppers at the Clackamas Town Center just outside the city of Portland, Oregon. The location is precisely the kind of large enclosed regional mall cited by al-Shabaab. Armed with a Bushmaster XM15-E2S M4 semiautomatic carbine and wearing tactical clothing and a hockey mask, Roberts ran into the mall and began shooting at shoppers. He fired a total of 17 shots, killing two people, and seriously injuring a third person. When confronted by an armed civilian, the gunmen took his own life. The incident lasted just 22 minutes and was over before police could even respond in force. Roberts had no jihadist links or any political agenda, and the attack was described as a random act of violence.

Jihadist threats against targets in the United States are bound to get heavy media attention. Such threats are seen as underscoring the growing power and reach of international jihadism and its supporters. The fact that an attack can occur literally in our own communities drives home the point that the front line of the jihadist struggle is literally in our own neighborhoods. In reality, however, such threats are a measure not of the strength of the jihadist movement but of its weakness. Moreover, it underlines the fact that the public posture of jihadist groups is often shaped by their competition with other jihadist groups for financing and militants.

Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen (Movement of Striving Youth or Mujahedeen Youth Movement) typically contracted to just al-Shabaab or “The Youngsters” is a Somali based, Jihadist militant group that began in 2006 as a splinter group of the Islamic Courts Union. It’s possible that its founding could date back as early as 2004. Historically, both its rank and file and its leadership have drawn heavily on foreign jihadists from North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Most of its financing was from external sources supplemented by revenue from a large trade in illegal elephant ivory. Moreover, largely as a result of the broad diaspora of Somalis around the globe, it was among the first jihadist organizations to recruit heavily among westernized Muslims. Since 2007, more than 40 Americans have joined the ranks of al-Shabaab. The group declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda in a 15 minute video on February 9, 2012

Over the last several years, the group has steadily lost ground to Somali government forces supported by African Union troops (African Union Mission to Somalia or AMISOM). In addition, the United States has employed drone strikes to attack al-Shabaab’s leadership. It has retreated from the major cities, although it still has cells that operate there, and the territory under its control is now limited to rural areas. Its total strength is estimated at approximately 8,000 militants. It has claimed that it is cooperating with the, Algerian based, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram but there seems little practical result from this. Its military setbacks and the loss of significant portions of its senior leadership has created significant dissension in its ranks and it is believed that the group may split up into different militant factions.

One of the consequences of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria has been a significant drop off in material support, both financing and new militants for al-Shabaab. The current jihadist struggle in the Middle East, framed between Baghdad and Damascus, is occurring in the very cultural and historical heart of the Arab Middle East. This region is the heart and soul of Arab civilization. By comparison, what is happening in Somalia and the attempt of al-Shabaab to extend the jihadist struggle to Kenya and Uganda is, at best, a side show. Al-Shabaab has found it hard to compete against the “main event” and its capabilities have suffered accordingly. Hence the need for heightened visibility in order to recruit new militants and financial support.

Moreover, this competition for support among jihadist groups will increase as new groups emerge and as the landscape of international jihadism continues to grow more fractured. The success of the United States in attacking al-Qaeda has decimated the organizations senior ranks and its ability to operate but it has not eliminated violent jihadism. Moreover, by reducing al-Qaeda’s control and command capabilities the U.S. has inadvertently contributed to the continued fragmentation of the international jihadist movement. Today we can see a broad arc of jihadist violence and instability that extends from West Africa across North Africa and the Middle East all the way to the foothills of the Hindu Kush in South Asia. There are literally hundreds of different jihadist organizations operating within this broad swath of violent instability, all of which compete with each other for material and financial support.

From a practical standpoint al-Shabaab has little capability for organizing or staging terrorist attacks against the American homeland. For that matter, neither does Islamic State or the remnants of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is probably the best equipped to carry out such attacks but even its capabilities have been significantly reduced. Instead both al-Shabaab and Islamic State have resorted to exhorting would be supporters to independently mount their own attacks against targets in the United States and Europe. The terrorist attack at the Canadian parliament in Ottawa and the Paris attacks against the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher supermarket are examples of this kind of strategy.

It is likely that these kind of random, “attacks of opportunity” will increase over the next several years as jihadist organizations like al-Shabaab and Islamic State find themselves being steadily rolled back. Such attacks, represent both a low cost way of attacking its opponents in the west while at the same time highlighting their effectiveness and their continued relevance on the front line of the jihadist struggle in their search for material and financial support. Fundamentally it is a sign of weakness not of strength and the weaker these organizations become the more they will exhort would be sympathizers to engage in such acts of terrorism.

This type of terrorist violence is difficult to anticipate and control. Unlike complex operations it does not require a great deal of planning. It does not generate travel or chatter that tips off security agencies of an imminent threat. These attacks do not represent an existential threat to the United States, but they contribute to a climate of fear and apprehension. They may well produce a counter reaction against Muslim communities in the United States and may result in the radicalization of some members. That is certainly one of the primary results that jihadist groups are hoping for.

The attack at the Clackamas Town Center in Oregon is, unfortunately, a perfect template for how these kind of spur of the moment, “lone wolf”, attacks might play out. Moreover, while the collateral damage of such attacks is low, though no less tragic, a sustained pattern of such attacks, especially if they are clustered during key shopping periods could have a measureable impact on the U.S. economy. While governments speak of “defeating” jihadist terrorism, the reality is that this phenomenon will continue to metastasize into other forms, some more virulent other less. Regardless of our effectiveness in waging war against jihadism however, it will continue to persist. In the end, the most enduring legacy of jihadist violence will not be terrorism or even murder, but chaos.