Lawmakers discuss Somali militants after Kenya mall attack

Posted by Hannah Allam on October 3, 2013 

A Somali community activist, a former FBI agent who specialized in East African militant groups and a counterterrorism expert from the research center RAND Corporation were among the witnesses who told lawmakers Thursday that the U.S. needed to devote more resources toward the fight against al Shabab, the al Qaida affiliate in Somali and the Horn of Africa.

A House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing focused on a question that was hotly debated even before Shabab claimed responsibility for the deadly four-day rampage at an upscale shopping center in Kenya: Has Shabab been weakened by U.S. and other efforts, or is it growing stronger now that its most extremist wing is in charge and forging closer ties with al Qaida's central command?

That question was discussed, but a concrete answer was elusive. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, summed up the struggle to assess Shabab's strength: "It's difficult to say anything definitive about a group as shadowy as Shabab."

The hearing was prompted by the assault on Westgate Mall in Nairobi that began on Sept. 21 and ended with at least 69 people dead, according to a new death after two more bodies were pulled from the rubble. Recently released images show the extent of the devastation caused by the attack and subsequent shootout with Kenyan authorities.

RAND's Seth Jones, a counterterrorism specialist who's worked closely with U.S. Special Forces Command, told the lawmakers that the U.S. should pursue a "light footprint strategy," relying on covert and clandestine operations to fight Shabab. He also advised stepping up diplomatic efforts with Somalia neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia to better disrupt the group's logistics and financial chains.

But a main problem lay closer to home. Jones voiced concern that "disjointed information campaigns" among U.S. agencies was hurting the U.S. ability to "undermine extremist ideology." He also said the U.S. must realize that the fight against Shabab is as ideological as it is military.

That's where groups such as Ka Joog come in. The Minnesota-based nonprofit community group works to prevent Shabab from recruiting young, marginalized Somali youths from the diaspora, especially in large enclaves such as the Twin Cities and Phoenix. News reports said some of the Westgate Mall attackers were Somalis who'd lived in the United States.

Ka Joog's Mohamed Farah testified before the House panel that his and other groups were working hard to provide a counterweight to the lure of Shabab, which he said has tainted the image of ordinary, law-abiding Somalis and Somali Americans. But he warned that their efforts suffer from a dire lack of funding.

"We lack the vital resources to safeguard our children," Farah said.

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