The lengthy statement from the Somali jihadist group al-Shabab about why it targeted on 15 January a Kenyan hotel did not make a single mention of Kenya or its role in fighting the jihadist militants in neighbouring Somalia.
Instead, al-Shabab surprised everyone with a statement titled “Jerusalem shall never be Judaised” that said the group’s attack on the DusitD2 hotel and office complex in the capital Nairobi was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a declaration Trump made in December 2017.
The Palestine-heavy statement also said the attack came as part of al-Shabab’s commitment to the instructions of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to target Israeli and western interests worldwide as a way to “support our people in Palestine”.
So what can we glean from al-Shabab’s choice of words and themes in this important statement?
Global vs local objectives
By invoking the Palestinian issue – a subject that strikes a chord with many ordinary Muslims and jihadists alike – al-Shabab is possibly trying to avoid being seen as local group with only regional objectives, which may limit its appeal beyond Somalia.
The rhetoric also seeks to put al-Shabab, whose regular attacks are focused in Somalia, back on the global jihad map – a thing it does also by affirming its link to al-Qaeda and its global jihadist agenda.
The al-Shabab statement addressed “our people in Palestine”, telling them that the hotel attack was “part of a series of operations particularly aimed at western and Israeli interests in Africa”, adding that “the mujahidin will help you no matter what it takes”.
It followed this by addressing “the Zionist Jews”, warning them of future attacks and saying that “the Americans and British will not be able to protect you against the strikes of the mujahdin”.
Although the statement made sure to point out early on that the targeted site was “a hub for tens of western companies, hotels, restaurants and bars that cater for expatriates living and working in Nairobi”, the target did not appear to have any obvious Israeli link.
In another possible effort to draw a link, even if faint, between the latest hotel attack and Israeli interests, the statement said the 15 January operation was carried out by al-Shabab’s “Salih al-Nabhani Brigade”.
Al-Nabhani, a Kenyan-born senior al-Qaeda operative, was said to have played a key role in the deadly jihadist attacks targeting an Israeli-owned hotel and airliner in Mombassa in 2002. He was killed in a US airstrike in Somalia in 2009.
Al-Shabab’s Palestine focus appeared to be pre-planned. At least one of the dead al-Shabab attackers whose image was shared in the media was shown wearing a red headband with the words “At your service O Aqsa” – a common jihadist battle cry – inscribed on it. Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is considered the third holiest site in Islam.
The group has in the past used the slogan, “We fight in East Africa but our sights are set on Jerusalem”. But such pro-Palestine slogans are common for al-Qaeda groups that exploit them to win support.
Al-Qaeda branches had been unusually quick in December 2017 to issue a coordinated response to President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. However, no notable jihadist action was attributed to the subject until now.
Despite the heavy focus on global issues in the latest statement, al-Shabab also addressed local issues in a separate statement in which the group’s spokesman cited Kenya’s role in fighting al-Shabab in Somalia as part of his justification of the hotel attack. This low-profile message appeared tailored for a local audience.
The al-Qaeda link
Through this statement, al-Shabab is also clearly seeking to affirm its strong ties with al-Qaeda and its commitment to its leadership’s overall objectives.
Such affirmation from al-Qaeda’s arguably strongest branch comes at an important time when the jihadist movement is suffering persistent fragmentation in Syria and infighting in Somalia and Yemen – thanks to the role of Islamic State group (IS).
Also, for a strong group like al-Shabab to say it is obeying the instructions of Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom some see as weak and out of touch, lends the al-Qaeda leader legitimacy. The message also seeks to highlight the unity of al-Qaeda, its far-flung branches and goals.
In this context, it is really al-Qaeda that is benefiting from al-Shabab’s name and actions, and not the other way around.
Another important context is the ongoing jihadist rivalry between al-Qaeda and its staunch rival IS.
The Nairobi hotel attack could be seen in that context as a win for al-Shabab at the expense of IS which has not managed to mount similar coordinated attacks inside or outside its turf in a long time. In December, IS and al-Shabab vowed to wipe each other out in Somalia.
The al-Shabab attack was widely followed and cheered by al-Qaeda supporters online.
Apart from its outcome on the ground – jihadist militants breaking into a guarded upscale hotel and business complex – it was seen as an important propaganda coup for al-Qaeda, and a much needed one given the absence of any substantial attacks by the al-Qaeda franchise in a long time.
Poems and articles were penned by al-Qaeda loyalists, singing the praises of al-Shabab and marvelling at its ability to strike hard targets.
The high-profile Syria-based pro-al-Qaeda figure Bilal Khuraysat (aka Abu Khadijah al-Urduni) wrote an article praising “the ingenious planning” of al-Shabab. He said the attack “astonished international intelligence agencies, making them [scratch their heads] as to where when and how” al-Shabab managed to execute such an operation.
Source: BBC Monitoring