Just over two months prior to the Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, the UN warned that Shabaab’s main ally in Kenya was planning “to conduct new and more complex operations.”
Al Hijra, the group in Kenya that was planning the attacks, has “suffered setbacks from disruptions” of its “operations by international and regional security services.” But the UN warned that the new plots may be part of Al Hijra’s attempt “to regain the initiative” and involved “fighters in Somalia returning to conduct” attacks in Kenya.
The warning was contained in a report published by the UN’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea on July 12. The report contains many details about Shabaab’s operations in Somalia and throughout the region.
Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate, “expected to exploit its strong ties with extremist groups in Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania to facilitate its external operations,” according to the “testimonies” of “serving and former” Al Hijra fighters, as well as “documents attributed to senior” Shabaab leaders.
Al Hijra “has suffered significant setbacks” and this has “impeded” Shabaab’s “threat capacity” in East Africa, as well as “affected the strategic-operational link between the two groups,” according to the UN. Yet, the threat from both groups remained.
The UN reported that a key source of Al Hijra’s problems is the “Al-Shabaab/East Africa Al-Qaida Disruption Initiative,” which is funded by the United States and assists “East African security services in combating terrorism.” The initiative has targeted Al Hijra and been responsible for “unexplained killings, disappearances, continuous ‘catch and release’ arrest raids and operational disruptions,” according to the UN.
The report identifies several Al Hijra leaders who have been killed or disappeared as part of the initiative, including Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, Al Hijra’s “ideological leader,” who was “inexplicably killed in Mombasa, Kenya” on Aug. 27, 2012. Rogo was designated a terrorist by the US government and the UN the previous month, on July 5, 2012. The Treasury Department said Rogo played a key role in recruiting Kenyans for Shabaab, among other nefarious activities.
Al Hijra has not been shy about its allegiance to al Qaeda. In February 2012, Al Hijra (then known as the Muslim Youth Center) declared it was “part of al Qaeda East Africa,” just one day after al Qaeda and Shabaab formalized their longstanding relationship and announced their merger. [See LWJ report, ‘We in MYC are now part of al Qaeda East Africa’.]
In response to the intense counterterrorism efforts focused on Al Hijra, the UN’s report says the group “has sought operational direction and guidance since the latter part of 2012 from individuals with former ties to Al Qaeda in East Africa and self-styled Al Qaeda affiliates.”
The UN named two al Qaeda-affiliated individuals Al Hijra has been consulting. One is Abubakar Shariff Ahmed (a.k.a “Makaburi”), who was designated a terrorist by both the UN and US in 2012. The UN noted at the time that Makaburi is especially close to Shabaab’s leadership and has preached “that young men should travel to Somalia, commit extremist acts, fight for al Qaeda, and kill US citizens.”
According to the UN’s July report, Makaburi “has exerted a growing influence over Al Hijra and is determined to redirect the group’s resources and manpower from hitting ‘soft targets’ to conducting complex, large-scale attacks in Kenya on behalf and in support of” Shabaab.
The other al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist guiding Al Hijra’s operations, according to the UN, is Jermaine John Grant. Even while imprisoned Grant has “effectively provided assistance, albeit remotely, to ongoing plots involving both Al Hijra” and Makaburi.
Grant, a British citizen, was arrested while allegedly planning a terrorist attack against tourists in Mombasa in 2011. Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of one of the July 7, 2005 London bombers, was reportedly involved in Grant’s plot as well.
Speculative reports suggest that Lewthwaite may have been involved in the Westgate Mall attack, but that remains unconfirmed. CNN reports that Kenyan authorities suspect Lewthwaite has plotted to break Grant out of jail.
According to the UN Monitoring Group’s July report, Grant has admitted to Kenyan authorities that he is a “member of al Qaeda and not” Shabaab, suggesting that he is part of Al Qaeda in East Africa’s operations.
Many of the details concerning the Westgate Mall attack remain to be filled in. But the UN’s July report warned that Shabaab and its Kenyan ally, Al Hijra, were planning a new wave of terror.