WASHINGTON — The Somali terrorist group behind the four-day attack on a shopping mall in Kenya presents a significant threat to U.S. embassies and interests in Africa and potentially on U.S. soil as well, counterterrorism analysts told Congress.
The attack on Westgate Mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, which began Sept. 21, demonstrated al-Shabab's growing capacity to conduct sophisticated operations requiring careful planning and reconnaissance, Seth Jones, associate director for international security and defense policy at the Rand Corp., said Thursday in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
That ability, coupled with the group's savvy use of social media and "Jihad rap" recruitment videos on Google's YouTube website to attract young Americans, is a concern, Jones said.
"First, al-Shabab has the capacity to strike outside Somalia," said Jones. "Two, they have an interest in targeting the United States, and three, they've been recruiting inside America. You put all those together and, yes, there's reason for concern."
The group is an affiliate of al-Qaida that controls large parts of the southern part of Somalia, where it imposes an extreme version of Sharia law in areas it controls, stoning women accused of adultery and amputating hands to punish theft. Even as the group has lost control of territory, Jones said, it has maintained operational capability.
By 2012, almost a quarter of its attacks took place in Kenya, which it has targeted for contributing troops to the UN Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, a United Nations-approved peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union. As part of its duties, AMISOM supports the Somali government that al- Shabab would like to topple.
While Jones said he hasn't seen interest by al-Shabab in exporting terror attacks to the United States right now, he and other witnesses told the committee about the risk that U.S.-based Somalis could become part of a plot here.
There are 50 known American members of al-Shabab and there may be more, said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
An Alabama man known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, or "the American," helped lead the group until internal disputes led to his death last month in an ambush in Somalia that the Associated Press reported was ordered by al-Shabab. The Somali population in the U.S. is estimated at 100,000 by the U.S. Census Bureau.
"The risk to the homeland is definitely there," said Don Borelli, chief operating officer of the Soufan Group, a New York-based consultancy that provides strategic intelligence services to governments and businesses. "I don't know if it's higher today than it was a month ago."
Borelli told the committee he fears that if radicalized Somali-Americans hold a U.S. "blue passport, they can come back and re-integrate and we have a very dangerous situation."
The militia's diffuse leadership structure makes it harder to dismantle or destroy, David Kilcullen, a former counterterrorism adviser to the U.S. State Department, writes in his book, "Out of The Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla."
In contrast to the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which placed its command center in Pakistan during the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, "the Somali militia made their command and control node invulnerable by not having one at all," Kilcullen writes.
Al-Shabab has carried out almost 550 terrorist attacks since 2007, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, in College Park, Md.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, chairman of the Foreign Affairs panel's terrorism subcommittee, expressed concern about the seeming ease with which al-Shabab opened accounts on Twitter's microblogging site, which it used to goad Kenyan officials even as the attack on the Westgate Mall continued, ultimately leaving 69 dead, hundreds wounded and dozens missing, according to the Kenyan Red Cross.
"Twitter claims it doesn't allow terrorists to use the account," Poe said, citing a law that forbids support for terrorist groups.
"Either way, Twitter should be taking down terrorist accounts," Poe said. "It's time for Twitter to stop violating the law."
Twitter spokesman Nu Wexler said in an email, "We do not comment on individual Twitter accounts, for security and privacy reasons."
Rules posted on the San Francisco-based company's website tell users, "You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others."
Witnesses before the House committee stressed the group's command of social media.
"Al-Shabab means 'the youth,'" said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and Independent Studies, a Washington policy group. "It attracts a lot of people who are media-savvy and uses media to powerful effect."
The Internet's reach allows al-Shabab to recruit globally. "The Internet does not know the boundary between Somalia and San Diego," Borelli said. The U.S. must not make the same mistake it made in the early days of al-Qaida and "see it only as a local group," he said.
- - -
With assistance from Bloomberg's Gopal Ratnam in New York.