Al-Shabab: Who the Islamic Extremist Group Is and What They Want

A closer look at the terror group that claimed responsibility for Kenya attack.

April 2, 2015, 4:38 PM

— -- The Islamic extremist group Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Kenyan college early in the morning on April 2. That attack left at least 147 students dead and hundreds of others unaccounted for, according to Kenyan officials. The Somalia-based militant organization raided Garissa College, located in the eastern part of Kenya. So what is Al-Shabab and what do they want?

What is Al-Shabab?

Al-Shabab translates to “the Youth” in Arabic.

In 2008, the United States government designated the Somalia-based organization as a terrorist group. The U.S. alleged it was made up of a "number of individuals affiliated with al Qaeda" and some senior leaders who have trained and fought with al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced a formal alliance between the two groups in February 2012.

Kenya: 147 Killed in Attack on College

Al-Shabab first formed in the mid-2000s in Somalia, a country that has suffered from a weak government and internal fighting for more than two decades.

What is the group known for?

Al-Shabab is arguably best known to Americans for the September 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Four gunmen entered the mall, killing 67 people during what became a four-day siege.

During the attack, the fighters spared Muslims, while killing those unable to recite verses from the Koran.The Mall was seen as a symbol as Kenya’s increased prosperity and connection to western nations. Five stories high with glass elevators and sushi and yogurt shops, the mall housed expensive shops and was frequented by expatriates.

Al-Shabab has also claimed responsibility for several other deadly terror attacks in the region, including the 2010 bombing in Uganda that killed more than 70 people, among them a 25-year-old American, who had gathered to watch the World Cup on large-screen TVs. In 2011, the group bombed several tourist destinations in northern Kenya.

What has the U.S. done in response?

Over the past two years, the United States has conducted drone strikes to eliminate leaders of Al-Shabab.

In March 2015, a U.S. drone strike killed the Al-Shabab leader who allegedly planned the Westgate Mall attack. A Pentagon statement described the killing of Adnan Garar as a “significant blow to the Al-Shabab terrorist organization.”

In December 2014, the Al-Shabab intelligence chief, Emir Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a drone strike. In September 2014, a drone strike killed Ahmed Gobane, Al-Shabab’s co-founder.

In October 2013, just a month after the Westgate attack, the Pentagon said Al-Shabab’s lead explosives expert, Ibrahim Ali, was also killed in a drone strike.

What does Al-Shabab want?

Al-Shabab’s goals vary. As the group was forcibly pushed out of major urban areas in Somalia, analysts say it suffered its own political infighting about its long-term goals -- the group fractured between those who wanted to focus on taking back Somalia and those who dreamed of international jihad.

A hint of that struggle was revealed in an oddly public spat between Al-Shabab's leadership and one of its highest-profile American members, the rapping jihadist Omar Hammami. Hammami was reportedly killed by rivals in Al-Shabab last week. Months before he had released an online video in which he said he feared for his life after arguing with the leadership "regarding matters of the Sharia [Islamic law] and matters of strategy."

Still, the State Department estimated in a 2012 report that Al-Shabab has "several thousand" members "when augmented by foreign fighters and allied clan militias."

Is Al-Shabab a threat here in the United States?

In February 2015, Al-Shabab reportedly posted a video online calling for attacks against the Mall of America. But is this a legitimate threat?

Matt Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and now an ABC News consultant, said at the time that while Al-Shabab itself may not have the operational capacity in the United States to pull off such an attack, "this type of threat can't be discounted, and the FBI and local police departments will have to take appropriate steps in response."

However, that’s not to say such a video could not inspire domestic lone wolf actors. In an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said, “we also have to have a whole government approach through law enforcement, Homeland Security and frankly countering violent extremism efforts here in the homeland in communities."

The location of Mall of America is noteworthy. Minnesota is home to a large Somali-American community. As of 2013, federal officials told ABC News, Al-Shabab successfully lured approximately 50 Americans to their cause. According to federal officials, many of the American recruits came from Minnesota.

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