The Somalia-based insurgent group al Shabaab issued the following warning on 2 September:
“Let Muslims avoid going to the hotels where men and women misbehave…anybody engaged in this immoral culture is seen as part of the enemies that invaded Somalia.”
Sheikh Ali Jabal, the group’s commander for the Mogadishu area, issued the statement. The immediate meaning is this: al Shabaab is likely to attack a bar, restaurant, hotel, resort, and/or beach area in the near future.
Press reports say the warning was aimed at locations in Somalia as thousands of overseas-based Somalis that had previously left the country because of more than two decades of fighting have recently returned to a perceived lowered threat environment, and they are frequenting bars, nightclubs, hotels, and waterfront areas.
Muir Analytics has not seen any more of the threat statement issued, so at this stage, without additional information, it would caution against assuming Sheikh Ali Jabal meant to target only Somalia.
First, terrorists achieve sensational press from attacking hotels. These operations usually reap high casualties, and they subsequently spread fear by grabbing headlines for months on end. The ISIS attack on the Riu Imperial Marhaba in Sousse, Tunisia, on 26 June 2015 proves this point. If al Shabaab believes it can achieve similar headlines by attacking a regional venue such as a posh hotel in Kenya, then it might not geographically restrict itself.
Second, al Shabaab striking an international venue beyond the immediate region is possible (but less likely) as the organization has networks overseas in places like Minneapolis in the United States. This is demonstrated by al Shabaab’s covert recruiting cells there that have netted more than 30 Somali-Americans to serve as combatants in Somalia. It should be noted, however, that al Shabaab has not yet carried out such an international operation.
Third, al Shabaab might also strike regionally or internationally over competition with, or by being inspired by, the more audacious and headline-grabbling ISIS that also stages international attacks.
Fourth, the message from Sheikh Ali Jabal warns, 1) Muslims to avoid hotels and the like, and, 2) it admonishes “invaders” of Somalia – in part meaning the countries that have participated in the fight against al Shabaab, specifically AMISOM forces (African Union Mission in Somalia). The “Muslim” and “invader” terminology could apply to regional Muslim communities living in AMISOM countries that include Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria. (It should be noted, however, that the U.S. and other Western countries have also supported these operations.)
Finally, al Shabaab and its franchises have attacked targets in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Doing so again would be well within its operational capacity.
Having made these points, a strike local to Somalia certainly makes sense. It is al Shabaab’s primary battlespace. Beyond geography, al Shabaab sees returning Somalis as bringing an impure or haram (forbidden) “Western” or “party” culture to Somalia, an “invasion” of sorts. Al Shabaab perceives this as directly attacking the Islamist jihadist society it has fought to impose on the whole country for decades. It is logical and demonstrated by historical patterns that the group would attack local targets after losing domestic territory and influence to AMISOM and international counter terror and counterinsurgency operations.
Regardless of the strike location, the warning by Sheikh Ali Jabal satisfies strict Islamist jihadist law that requires warning enemies before striking them. The warning is official and should be taken seriously. History shows that when al Shabaab makes a threat, the vast majority of the time, that threat is carried out.
Al Shabaab recently increased its operational tempo by attacking the AMISOM Janaale military base in Somalia on 31 August, killing at least 12. Al Shabaab claimed it killed 50. It has the operational capacity, military momentum, and ideological motivation to strike again.
Sources and further reading:
“Uganda: Al-Shabaab Somalia Attack ‘A Game Changer’ – UPDF, All Africa.com, 3 September 2015.
“Somali Islamists warn against “immoral culture” at hotels, beaches,” Reuters, 2 September 2015.
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