A terrorist group named al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the deadly terror attack inside an upscale Kenyan mall that has left at least 68 dead and led to a two-day hostage crisis.
Who is al-Shabab?
Al-Shabab, Arabic for "The Youth," is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization based in Somalia. There are varying accounts of exactly when they formed, but most place it between 2003 and 2006. According to reporter Jeremy Scahill in his book "Dirty Wars," around that time many Somalis were fed up with the rule of warlords and stood up the "Islamic Courts Union" (ICU) to administer at least some form of justice in a country ruled less by the state, and more by warlords intent on remaining in power for their own ends.
The ICU was a disparate group of 12 regional courts used to govern specific clans around the country. Al-Shabab, formed by a number of jihadists, allied with the ICU as the 13th (and much more extremist) court to battle against the warlords.
How many fighters do they have?
There are a number of estimates. One defector says it's around 7,000 to 8,000, while an officer in the African Union says it's more like 4,000 to 6,000, according to the AP. Al-Shabab has been actively recruiting foreigners to join their ranks as well, and they had at least 40 or more Americans fighting with them in 2011, according to a House Committee on Homeland Security investigation.
Do they have al-Qaida links?
Yes. The U.S. alleges that one of their original founders, Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, received training at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, according to Scahill. The group has also openly pledged loyalty and support to al-Qaida and another affiliate group in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Why are they attacking inside Kenya?
A number of groups have been battling al-Shabab inside Somalia for some time now. Mainly U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) inside the country. Al-Shabab drew the ire of Kenya after conducting a number of attacks against foreign aid workers and tourists inside their borders around 2011.
That led to Kenyan military forces conducting their own battles against the group inside Somalia. The attack at the Westgate shopping mall is "retributive justice for crimes committed by their military," according to a posting the group made to Twitter.
Are they a threat to the United States?
The U.S. has designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization and offered rewards for the capture of its leaders. However, Shabab suffers from in-fighting and clan politics, and has been losing ground inside Somalia. They are a threat to U.S. interests, but not likely a threat to the mainland.
" Most of its fighters are predominantly interested in the nationalistic battle against the TFG and not supportive of global jihad," according to the National Counterterrorism Center.
What other attacks have they carried out?
Al-Shabab grabbed headlines in 2005 for carrying out a number of high profile assassinations in Somalia of ex-military generals, businessmen, activists, and professors, according to Scahill. U.S. counterterrorism officials also report the group is responsible for a number of bombings and suicide attacks.
The National Counterterrorism Center has some of their record:
— Likely responsible for five coordinated suicide car bombings, Oct. 2008, killed at least 26
— Claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings in Uganda, July 2010, killed more than 70
— Blocked aid relief from NGO's supporting Somalis, 2011 famine, tens of thousands killed
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