What Does Al Shabab Want, Exactly?

The militant Islamist group Al Shabab stormed Garissa University College in eastern Kenya Thursday morning, killing at least 15 people and taking an unknown number hostage. 550 people reportedly remain unaccounted for. Initially Al Shabab was simply assumed to be the perpetrator, but representatives of the Somalian group have now claimed responsibility for the ongoing attack. But who is Al Shabab, and what do they want? Update: Officials have confirmed that 147 people have been killed and dozens more wounded.

Designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States and the United Kingdom, the group is fighting in the hope of transforming Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Militants of Al Shabab (meaning “The Youth”) are Al Qaeda-affiliates whose activity is mostly concentrated within Somalia. But they’ve been known to target neighboring countries before. In 2013, they carried out a raid on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, which lasted days and left at least 67 people dead.

On Thursday morning, gunmen entered a university in Garissa, a town in northeastern Kenya, and "shot indiscriminately," according to officials. Fifteen people have been confirmed dead, 30 wounded, and an unknown number are being held hostage. Al Shabab soon confirmed they had carried out the attacks. Mohamed Moalimu of the BBC reported that Al Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage said that the militants had “killed dozens” in the attack so far.

An Al Shabab statement also said that Muslim hostages had been separated from non-Muslims, and that 15 Muslims had been freed from the siege. BBC’s Africa editor Solomon Mugera writes that the Garissa campus is around 90 miles from the border with Somalia, but is likely to house students from across Kenya. This geographic diversity implies that many of the students are likely to be non-Muslim, Mugera says.

These religious identities are key, since the Muslim/non-Muslim division is apparently how Al Shabab demarcates victim from survivor. In December of last year, the group raided a Kenyan quarry, and proceeded to separate non-Muslims workers from their Muslim colleagues. The non-Muslims were summarily executed, and at least 36 bodies were discovered at the mine. That attack happened within around ten miles of the Somalian border.

A month before storming the quarry, Al Shabab militants ambushed a bus in the same region of Kenya. They demanded that the 60 passengers recite verses from the Quran. Those who refused were “sprayed with bullets,” according to CNN, resulting in 28 deaths. In the Al Shabab statement that followed the killings, the group claimed responsibility and said that the attack was retaliation for recent mosque raids in Mombasa, carried out in the hopes of weeding out extremism.

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Al Shabab described the victims of that attack as Christians (they are categorizing their Garissa hostages likewise), and threatened: “Our Mujhahideen forces are always ready to launch frequent deadly cross-border attacks against Kenya as a revenge.” Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta said at the time that the Al Shabab attacks amounted to “a war, and a war we must win.” Months later, that war continues, seemingly unabated and with no recognition of boundaries (moral or geographical). CNN reports that Al Shabab has been implicated in domestic attacks against international aid workers, journalists, civilian leaders, and African Union peacekeepers. They’ve carried out assaults in Uganda as well as Kenya.

The volatile, conflict-stricken, and poverty-racked environment of Somalia has provided the conditions for Al Shabab to flourish. Radical Islamist groups, predecessors of today’s Al Shabab, peaked in the country in the 1990s following the outbreak of civil war. Al Shabab grabbed control of Mogadishu in 2006, according to CFR. Ousted by Ethiopian forces shortly afterwards, the extremists fled south. Freshly energized and radicalized by the Ethiopian invasion, Al Shabab organized guerrilla activity from its southern enclave, gaining control over central and southern swathes of the country.

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Rob Wise, a counter-terrorism expert, recounts that in this period, the group transformed, “from a small, relatively unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement into the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country.” In 2010, Al Shabab conducted suicide bombings that killed 74 soccer fans assembled to watch the World Cup in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The next year, an unnamed U.S. official estimated that the group might control around a thousand fighters. In 2012, Al Shabab’s leader Ahmed Abdi Godane announced alongside Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri that the two organizations had formed an alliance.

Despite their swift ascendancy, CFR emphasizes that the group is not wholly united by one aim. Instead, there are pervasive rifts in the leadership. Nationalists are intent on ousting the ruling Somalian regime, and Gulf-backed extremists have less localized terror objectives. Mail & Guardian reports that the group is now divided on whether to follow Boko Haram's lead, and pledge allegiance to ISIS.

Nevertheless, Kenya seems increasingly on the group’s radar — particularly since the Kenyan government sent troops into Somalia to tackle the militants in 2011. Al Shabab attacks intensified in 2014, according to Kenya’s police force, and 173 people were reportedly killed in attacks in the country last year.

Once Al Shabab has wrestled control of an area, the militants impose their version of sharia (the legal system of Islam, based on interpretations of Quranic texts and the rulings of Islamic scholars). Al Shabab’s particular interpretation prohibits certain forms of entertainment (such as movies and music) and any sort of mind-altering substance (including khat, a chewy plant-based narcotic, and cigarettes). Men are not permitted to shave their beards, and crimes such as adultery and theft are punished with stonings and amputations.

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Like ISIS, Al Shabab reportedly has a sophisticated PR team with a Twitter presence and the ability to produce videos. CNN reports that the group is “an economic powerhouse,” with funds stemming from illicit activities ranging from extortion to illegal taxation to piracy to kidnapping. Governments of various Middle Eastern states (including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen) are purported to be financiers, but most of these actors officially reject the claims.

The CFR reports that U.S. policy in Somalia is dedicated to stopping the country from becoming a haven for groups just like Al Shabab. This policy is carried out through the use of proxy forces, drone strikes, and special ops raids — but Al Shabab’s increased presence throughout the region suggests that this “counter-terrorism” initiative is not proving particularly effective.

A Guardian article last month suggested that endemic corruption in Kenya had effectively “opened the door to Al Shabab.” Security contracts intended to safeguard the Kenyan border with Somalia were simply “eaten” up by corrupt officials, according to Kenyan whistleblower John Githongo. Western millions pumped into the country to prevent the spread of radical ideologies is useless if the money is not implemented appropriately with transparency and efficiency. Al Shabab has essentially been able to waltz right in.

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