By Jeff Kearns
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud said the al-Qaeda linked group al-Shabaab that besieged a Nairobi shopping mall is embracing guerrilla attacks as part of an “international jihadist agenda” and poses a global threat.
Somalia-based al-Shabaab, whose Sept. 21 mall attack in neighboring Kenya killed at least 67 people, is changing tactics after losing territory they held as a more conventional force, Mohamoud said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” show. The Islamist group preys on a lost generation of “desperate boys” who are vulnerable because of the dysfunctional nation’s extreme poverty, he said.
“They proved that they are a threat to the world,” Mohamoud said. The ideologically motivated leadership recruits local young boys “who have not the tools of life” and are attracted by “adventure into al-Shabaab,” he said.
Al-Shabaab has been fighting Somalia’s government since at least 2006 to establish an Islamic state and impose Shariah law in the Horn of Africa nation. The group targeted Kenya after that country’s army invaded Somalia in October 2011 to help African Union peacekeepers and Ethiopian forces battling al-Shabaab.
“Al-Shabaab has lost the military front” to African Union and Kenyan forces, Mohamoud said. “When they lost the military, they melted down into the society and then they started” watching people in the streets. “And there they attack.”
The Somali leader said that the military struggle against the group is becoming a civilian effort in which the nation is trying to re-establish order by rehabilitating those who joined the movement with jobs and education.
“Many of these boys, they are not employable because they lack skills, so the government is working on that,” he said. “On top of that, a functioning state in place that controls the territory is prerequisite for the elimination of Shabaab.
Without a state that controls the Somali territory, it would be very, very difficult to defeat completely Shabaab.”
Mohamoud has survived multiple assassination attempts by al-Shabaab beginning two days after his election in September 2012, when he escaped two suicide blasts outside his temporary office in Mogadishu as he met with Kenyan Foreign Minister Sam Ongeri. The latest attack was Sept. 3, when insurgents fired on Mohamoud’s motorcade in the port town of Merka.
Militants in the Nairobi mall attack sprayed automatic gunfire, threw grenades and seized hostages. Five U.S. citizens were among those injured, according to the State Department, which re-issued a warning yesterday against travel to Kenya.
The attack fulfilled a threat the militants made two years ago to retaliate over Kenya’s military intervention to back Somalia’s government. The U.S. designated al-Shabaab, whose full name means Mujahedeen Youth Movement, as a terrorist organization in 2008.
Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility in July 2010 for twin bomb attacks that killed 76 people watching the soccer World Cup final in Uganda, which it targeted because the country has troops serving in Somalia’s African Union peacekeeping force.
The Horn of African nation is rebuilding its economy from scratch after taking control of rebel-held territory over the past two years, bringing a measure of stability to the country.
Somali lawmakers elected Mohamoud president a year ago in the 16th attempt to establish an effective central government since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Prior administrations failed to stem clan-based fighting, defeat Islamist insurgents and halt piracy off the country’s coast.