The Somali militant group Al Shabaab dominated international news headlines and won the admiration of its terrorist peers with its attack last year on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
The attack on the Westgate Mall on September 21, for which the Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist claimed responsibility, killed 67 people and wounded 175.
One of the most revealing accounts on the mood inside Al Shabaab after Westgate came from London-based ITV journalist Osman Jamal, who gained access to the group’s training camp in the bushes of Bulo Burto.
In the video the public face of the Shabaab, Sheikh Ali Dhere, is effusive with praise for the Westgate attackers, and most ominously, promises Kenya that he will rain more fire on the country. He also dangles the mythical 72 virgins for the mujahedeen who will become martyrs.
Interestingly, in the last four years, hardly any terrorist organisations in Africa have been active outside their “home” country where either the group, or branch of international group, is based. That left the Africa transnational terror market to Al Shabaab, which carried out big attacks inside Somalia, but also in Uganda, Kenya and Somalia.
That gave it a global-regional brand that kept it in the eyes of the international media—and in the sights of US drones, the Kenya Airforce, and the mortar shells and attack helicopters of the African Union forces in Somalia (Amisom).
Enter Boko Haram
On the night of April 14 that changed dramatically. Nigeria’s Islamist group Boko Haram, that had been on a long run of terror attacks, kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a boarding school in the remote northeastern town of Chibok. They torched the school behind them. As of today, 223 of the girls are still being held hostage.
The abduction touched an international nerve, and led to the kind of global condemnation few African outrages have received in recent years. There have been weekly rallies held in Nigeria, and western capitals, demanding the release of the girls.
A Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls went viral, as celebrities and US First Lady Michelle Obama, joined the campaign. More celebrities than you can throw a hat at have joined the campaign.
Now Boko Haram has achieved something few other African terror groups have been able to do in the last two years – knock Al Shabaab off the top of the list of trending terror groups on the continent.
In common Boko Haram and Al Shabaab court Al Qaeda’s approval. In February 2012, Shabaab and Al Qaeda announced their formal merger.
However, by September 2012, as Al Shabaab was being beaten out of the strategic port city of Kismayu by Amisom and Somali forces, Al Qaeda criticised them for their heinous and anti-Islamic activities that are making them unpopular”. This was a reference to the fact that Al Shabaab killed and imprisoned foreign jihadists who join it from abroad.
Two months later in November, in a thinly disguised act of sibling rivalry, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, praised Al Qaeda, and said he and his fighters supported its international jihad.
There have been no public acts of competition between Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. Indeed, Amisom officials say that when they drove the Somali militants out of Mogadishu two years ago and took control of the main stadium outside the battered capital, they found evidence that Al Shabaab had turned it over to be used as a training ground for terrorist combatants from, especially, West Africa including several Boko Haram foot soldiers.
However, the more social media savvy Al Shabaab, clearly lives off international publicity more than Boko Haram, and with so many forces ranged against it – from 21 navies off its coast to all the regional military powers – Al Shabaab needs both the appearance and reality of being on top, to keep its regional and international support network motivated. It can ill afford to be eclipsed by Boko Haram.
On Tuesday, a day after the Nigeria military announced it knew where the Abicho girls were, Al Shabaab clawed its way back into the headlines, claiming responsibility for a weekend bomb attack on a Djibouti restaurant packed with Westerners, saying it targeted French “crusaders”.
The US base in Djibouti is used for operations across the region, including drone strikes against the Islamists in Somalia in support of the war-torn country’s fragile internationally backed government. France, the former colonial power, also has a base in the country.
Al Shabaab also urged Djibouti to expel foreign forces and shut down the United States’ biggest military base in Africa base, or else face a wave of more serious attacks.
“As part of the ongoing Jihad against the Western- led Crusade against Islam, Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahedeen forces have on Saturday night carried out a successful operation against the coalition of Western Crusaders based in Djibouti,” the group said in a statement.
The group said the attack “targeted a restaurant frequented predominantly by French Crusaders and their NATO allies from the US, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, resulting in 35 casualties”.
It said the main targets were “French Crusaders” because of their “complicity in the massacres and persecution of our Muslim brothers in the Central African Republic [CAR] and for their active role in training and equipping the apostate Djiboutian troops”.
The contrast of an Al-Shabaab taking on western infidel enemies and “Crusaders”, referencing the religious- cleansing of Muslims in CAR and, on the other hand, a Boko Haram abducting mainly Muslim schoolgirls, will not have been lost on close watchers of jihad politics.
By its choice of target and its words, Al Shabaab was positioning itself as more internationalist, and to the extent that it targets Muslims, it is only those serving anti-Islamic forces…not innocent girls. In short, it was differentiating itself and portraying itself as “better”.
Internationalist Al Shabaab
The Shabaab have always pursued a mixed local- international terror strategy. According to the Global Tourism Database covering the period 2007 to 2012, Al Shabaab carried out 483 attacks inside Somalia, killing 1,448 people.
However, it was also quite active outside Somalia, carrying a notable 108 attacks in Kenya, in which 137 people were killed; three in Uganda, including the July 2010 attack on a World Cup final watching party in which 70 people were killed. In all, over this period 75 people were killed in Uganda, including about six non-Ugandans.
It carried out two attacks in Ethiopia, in which 100 people were killed, and even ventured to West Africa, staging an attack in which seven people were killed. Since January 2013, at least 350 have been killed in Somalia in Al Shabaab terror attacks.
It carries out an average of three attacks a month. It carried out eight attacks on foreign nationals in 2013, its most famous being Westgate. In 2014 it has carried out four such hits.
Boko Haram, meanwhile has killed anything between 3,000 to 5,000 people since 2009, most of them inside Nigeria.
It has kidnapped foreigners, but, again, most of them from inside Nigeria. Recently, though, there have been signs that Boko Haram is diversifying its activities abroad, though nowhere the level of Al Shabaab.
With its neighbours Niger, Benin, Cameroon, and a tiny slither with Chad, Nigeria shares a 3,255 kilometre-long border, longer than the US and Mexico’s, plenty of space for Boko Haram to come and go.
It has started using the long border to its advantage. It operates in Cameroon’s Far North region and the Lake Chad Basin and has kidnapped Westerners and, just recently, Chinese nationals in Cameroon. From the arid plains of Niger to the forested mountains of western Cameroon, the Boko Haram might be taking up positions outside Nigeria.
Boko Haram envy
Al Shabaab probably envies Boko Haram. Boko Haram operates in a country that is also Africa’s most populous– 170 million people. Nigeria now also has Africa’s largest economy, so it is a critical nation internationally in its own right.
With rich pickings at home, Boko can do most of its terror work there. Boko Haram doesn’t have to work very hard.
Not so Al-Shabaab. To get to 170 million people, it has to lump together Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi (the whole of the East African Community) and a bit of the regional pit bull Ethiopia. To Al Shabaab it must be tough being Shabaab. It is unlikely to allow Boko Haram to steal what it sees as the glory for its hard work in just one day at the terror office.
There is a danger then that the weekend attack in Djibouti is just one in what could be other attacks in the region by Al Shabaab in the weeks to come.
By abducting the Chibok schoolgirls and hogging international attention, therefore, Boko Haram might just have made East Africa and the Horn a more dangerous place.
•The author is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA: Twitter:cobbo3