NAIROBI, Kenya The ferocious armed political movement kept Kenyan forces at bay through two days at the Westgate mall in Nairobi even as the militants mounted a coordinated attack against African Union forces in Mogadishu, according to senior U.S. counterterrorism and diplomatic officials.
What were witnessing is al-Shabab taking its asymmetric attacks into Kenya at the same time its intensifying its pattern of attacks in Somalia, said one senior U.S. official who has been monitoring classified intelligence reports and diplomatic cables since the attack started Saturday.
Counterterrorism officials say al-Shababs sophistication has only increased as it has made common cause with groups including franchises of al-Qaida in Yemen and Northern Africa and the Boko Haram organization in Nigeria, sharing tactics, techniques, training and financing.
The group was formed in the middle of last decade as the small, armed militia for Somalias Islamic Courts Union, which had risen to power after driving a group of CIA-financed Somali warlords from Mogadishu. Then, al-Shababs ranks swelled amid growing anger inside Somalia over the brutal urban tactics used by Ethiopian troops, who had invaded the country to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union from the capital.
In a few short years, the group consolidated its control over a large swath of Somali territory, then suffered setbacks as the African Union and Kenya, among others, became more deeply involved. Al-Shabab withdrew from the cities in the face of superior military forces fairly quickly, often in the space of a day, regrouping in the countryside.
But they preserved their core fighting force estimated by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea at about 5,000 and avoided direct confrontations. And since then it has seemed to gather momentum in terms of terrorist attacks.
But despite its threats to strike at U.S. interests and the propaganda value it has gained by showing the U.S. ties of some of its members most experts say the groups focus is still on getting foreign troops out of Somalia.
What we see is not al-Shabab turning into an international jihad organization, said one U.N. official who closely follows the group. This is Shabab still trying to carry out a Somali agenda, attacking countries that are contributing troops to the Somalia mission.