AL-SHABAAB ATTACK ON PEACEKEEPERS CANNOT HIDE GROUPS’ DISARRAY
The Somali Islamist militant organization al-Shabaab carried out one of its most lethal attacks in years on September 1, when it bombed a Ugandan military base in the Janale district of the lower Shabele region, southwest of the capital Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab claimed that the attack killed around 50 Ugandan soldiers, who are in the country as part of an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission, although official AU statements have not announced the casualty toll (AU, September 1). The attack began when a suicide bomber drove an explosive-packed car into the base’s entrance, after which a large number of other militants stormed the facility (Horseed Media, September 1). A statement issued by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) said that the Ugandan troops “undertook a tactical withdrawal” and later regained control over the base (AMISOM, September 1). Following the attack, AMISON troops, backed by helicopters, undertook searches in the region to locate both missing troops and any of the al-Shabaab attackers (Horseed Media, September 2). Following the attack, security was strengthened in the capital, particularly at the presidential palace (Horseed Media, September 2).
The attack underlines that al-Shabaab remains capable of conducting occasional devastating attacks in Somalia, as well as in neighboring countries like Kenya. However, there is also a risk of reading too much into the heavy casualties apparently inflicted by the latest attack, which seems more likely to indicate that while the group remains capable of mounting deadly attacks when circumstances permit, it is not necessarily making a longer-term comeback. In addition, such high-profile attacks are now relatively rare, and the group’s attacks are more commonly conducted against soft targets as shown, for instance, by the group’s killing of an off-duty female government official on the evening of August 29, near her home in Mogadishu (Horseed Media, August 30). The attack also does not materially alter the fact al-Shabaab currently controls only limited amounts of Somalia, having been driven out of all its major urban centers in the country during the last several years. Moreover, AMISON and its Somali and international partners continue to undertake projects intended to build up the capacity of the Somali security services, which should in time reduce al-Shabaab’s operational freedom further. For instance, on August 22, AMISOM announced the training of 200 additional Somali police who will be deployed to towns in the country’s southwest, which largely lacks any formal law enforcement presence (AMISOM, August 22). In other regions, AMISOM has launched community policing initiatives, although these are likely to take time to bear fruit (AMISOM, August, 30).
At the same time, however, abuses committed by AU troops in Somalia continue to stir popular resentment of foreign forces and to potential create new support for al-Shabaab. For instance, on August 21, AMISOM publicly acknowledged that its forces had killed seven civilians in an incident in the port town of Marka on July 21 (Horseed Media, August 21). In the incident, AMISOM troops had stormed a wedding party, separated the men from the women and then shot dead the men. AMISOM originally denied that the incident had occurred, but was later forced to back down amid growing evidence of its troops’ actions. Separately, Somali elders in El-Qooxoole, in Galgaduud region in central Somalia, recently accused Ethiopian troops of killing four local teachers and 11 tribal elders, although the Ethiopian government has not yet acknowledged this accusation (Dalsan Radio [Mogadishu], September 1). Such abuses threaten to undermine the gains made against al-Shabaab, which, in Somalia at least, increasingly resembles a degraded insurgent group kept continuously on the back foot, rather than the formidable political and military machine that it was in former years.
FRENCH TRAIN ATTACK ILLUSTRATES THREAT AND LIMITATIONS OF ‘LONE WOLF’ OPERATIONS
The latest “lone wolf” to strike in Western Europe launched his attack on August 21, on a high-speed train travelling from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Paris, the French capital. The perpetrator, Ayoub el-Khazzani, a 25-year-old Moroccan national who had previously lived in Spain, was armed with a AK-47 assault rifle (with 270 rounds of ammunition), a pistol and a box-cutter knife (France24, August 21; France24, August 25). Prior to launching the attack, El-Khazzani hid in a train toilet where he watched some jihadist videos on his phone for last-minute inspiration and prepared his weapons. Exiting the cubicle and entering a passenger carriage, he fired several shots with his assault rifle, injuring a number of passengers. However, El-Khazzani’s gun rapidly jammed and two off-duty U.S. servicemen and their friend rushed down the carriage, tackling him before he could un-jam it. Within seconds, he had been beaten unconscious by the three men and then further restrained with a tie provided by a nearby 62-year-old British IT consultant (France24, August 22). For El-Khazzani, the jihad was over.
The brief and unsuccessful operation, the latest in a series of attacks by so-called “lone wolves” in Western Europe and North America, highlights a number of factors. Firstly, the attack underlines that the “lone wolf” threat, hyped by jihadist groups, various governments and some independent researchers, while real, often fails to live up to its dramatic billing. In particular, “lone wolves” clearly face a number of operational challenges that repeatedly hinder their attacks. In the case of the Paris attack, the gunman’s lack of familiarity with his weapon, combined with the fact that he lacked any form of support or back-up, meant that as soon as he encountered any problem, unarmed individuals were able to swiftly engage and neutralize him. Indeed, even larger self-radicalized teams, so-called “lone-wolf packs” who have attempted to train themselves, usually via online sources, sometimes have little more success. For instance, in May, two radicalized gunmen attempted to attack a Muhammad cartoon competition in Garland, Texas; exiting their vehicle they began firing wildly, and were immediately shot dead by police guarding the event, having succeeded only in injuring one security guard in the ankle (CNN, May 4). Similarly, the October 2014 attack on the Canadian parliament by a lone radicalized Muslim convert killed only one person, despite the gun-wielding attacker getting into the heart of the facility (CBC, October 22, 2014). Such cases underline that while online training and recruitment videos produced by jihadists may be able to inspire attackers, their virtual training has clear limitations in the real world.
A second issue is that even if such attacks are successful they generally do nothing to advance the attackers’ political cause. For instance, the 011 gun and bomb attack in Norway by Anders Breivik, a far-right activist who is arguably the most successful “lone wolf”—his attack killed 77—actively set back and discredited the country’s so-called “counter-jihad” movement, which Breivik had hoped would be strengthened and galvanized by his attacks. Similarly, the fatal “lone wolf pack” on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January, while it succeeded in killing the targeted cartoonists, also triggered a four-million strong solidarity protest, the largest such gathering in post-World War II France, in support of the freedom of speech that the gunmen had sought to suppress (France24, January 11). The attack also triggered a wide range of French policy initiatives that are designed to reduce the threat of radicalization in the long-term. Likewise, the latest train attack has already triggered increased security across Europe, including armed patrols and more spot-checks, that aim to thwart future attacks (BBC, August 29). In addition, as the French train attack dramatically showed, another outcome of such repeated attacks is that societal preparedness—and the willingness of civilians to engage suspected armed jihadists—increases with such attack; each attack therefore reduces the potential for successive attacks to succeed.
On the other hand, however, jihadist groups are able to inspire such “lone wolf” attacks at minimal financial cost, or direct risk, to themselves, or without depleting their own active pools of trained fighters. Such attacks also allow groups that are largely contained in battlefields such as Syria and Yemen to overcome borders and physical checks on their movements. For this reason, jihadist organizations are likely to attempt to continue to seek to encourage such attacks for the foreseeable future, even if such attacks routinely fail to achieve their objectives. Moreover, the French train attack also arguably showed jihadists learning from previous lone wolf attacks; one striking element of the attack was that the gunman chose a venue—a high-speed moving train—where a rapid intervention by the security forces would be extremely difficult. As a result of this, the “lone wolf” threat, while often overstated by a range of actors, is nonetheless liable to continue to pose a challenge to law enforcement for the foreseeable future.