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The Kenya Attack by al-Shabaab: Lesson Learned and Lessons Still to Be Learned

A FEEEDS Series

The devastating attack on Kenya's Westgate Mall on September 21, in addition to the horrifying massacre and loss of life and the fear it has put in the hearts of Kenyans, also unfortunately underscores some strategic concerns that I have raised in many of my national security lectures both in the United States and abroad when it comes to asymmetrical tactics used by these ever-evolving terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, or the Al Qaedas in the Islamic Maghreb (Algeria's AQIM) or in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - more commonly called Al Qaeda Affiliates. I want to restate some of these strategic concerns in terms of lessons learned and not learned as a result of the Kenya tragedy.

Al Qaeda Affiliates and the Al Qaeda "Solos"

First let's define the term Al Qaeda Affiliates. They are terrorist groups which use tactics learned or inspired from the Al Qaeda syndicate that was led by Usama Bin Laden until his 2011 death, and now led by Ayman al Zawahri. To date these Affiliates mostly have focused on their political goals to establish local or regional Islamic Caliphates. Examples are Nigeria's Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, Algeria's AQIM, Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Taiba (2011 Mumbai bombings, some ties to 2005 London attacks) to name a few. I would add to this list of affiliates what I am calling the Al Qaeda solos - meaning individuals or duos, inspired directly (training) or indirectly via extremist social networking sites to commit unspeakable acts of terror. 2013 Boston Marathon Bombers, the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting by a U.S. army major and the December 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber - all fit my definition of Al Qaeda solos.

I have waited a while after the Kenya events to write this article because, as a long-time strategic thinker and political analyst, it is important to take a step back from the shear heart wrenching tragedy of the loss of 71 souls and scores injured to get a perspective on the next strategic steps against terrorism: what they should be; and, how they should be executed. We need to try to think 4-to-5 steps ahead of where we are right now -- today.

First I want to highlight a few analytical points, then provide some food for thought for a way forward. Note I said a way, not the way forward. As the latter thinking tends to put the West such as the U.S., and I might add France given its role in Mali, playing catch up as to how these asymmetrical extremist groups plan, reinvent, and execute these unthinkable acts of terror. First we need to begin to think about the terrorism we face as: a permanent battle --one we cannot win in the short term. We need to come to terms with this for the foreseeable future as scary as that is to all of us.

This is not the Cold War. Communism was a singular political and economic enemy, which also came with a host of human rights violations. Intellectually, we know we are facing a very different enemy, but in the West we have not fully translated that into long term adjustments on the ground outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Asymmetrical warfare or the "three block war" (where enemy tactics - IED's, snipers, suicide bombers - can change in a nanosecond in a 3 block conflict area) is the key difference between the communist enemy and groups like Al Qaeda, and its ever-evolving Affiliates.

This article is about lessons learned from Kenya and lessons still need to be fully learned. So let's look at the lessons learned:


Lessons Learned:

-- Never let our guard down, and a lot of security is never enough.

-- Security perimeters need to be further out for soft targets like malls.

-- Pay more attention to how weaponry can be disassembled to get past security checks, like in both the Kenya and Washington, D.C. September 16 Navy Yard attacks.

-- More and different types of security sector reform training is needed to further assist partner countries; Kenya's tragedy showed where its weaknesses were.

So what are the Lessons not Learned?

There was an assumption that al-Shabaab infighting and the group's 2011 routing from Somalia's capital Mogadishu by African Union forces weakened it. Instead, it appears that - Ahmed Godane - the apparent mastermind of the Kenya attack, prevailed eliminating a key rival such as the Alabama-born Omar Hammni (a.k.a. Al Amriki), on the direction of the group. There are likely still tensions in the group. The tenor of the relationship between Godane and Abdulkadir is not clear; Abdulkadir, the kill or capture target of the Barawe, Somalia October 6 raid by U.S. Seal Team Six. Below are some things on my lessons to be fully learned list:

-- Infighting, Periods of Silence: These periods should be considered scary; they can produce a more virulent enemy, different sub-affiliate, or Al Qaeda solos. Periods of silence should not be seen as golden. Al-Shabaab and Nigeria's Boko Haram are good recent examples of this. In 2009 when Boko's leader was executed, the group had infighting and went silent for 18 months. It reawakened with new leaders, bombing the UN Headquarters in Abuja, and on September 29, 2013, killed 50 students asleep in their dorms.

-- Extremist Reinvention: Can lead to transition from local, national, and regional goals to transnational ones. We will need to see if this is where al-Shabaab is headed.

-- Stop Declaring Successes too Early: We can certainly declare a "counter terrorist action completed." But, declaring successes or that we have defeated them when we have not fully, in my view, just embolden and challenges the extremists to do more, "spectacular" terrorists acts to demonstrate that we have not. The fact that we in the West have not yet figured this out really baffles me.

-- Think longer term - 20, 30 years: The extremists are. They can and have waited us out in the West. Evidence of returning extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq; Mali's north is not resolved. In the last 2 weeks, extremist attacks in northern Mali have returned. If we cannot develop a 20-30 year strategy, do we need to measure our success differently? Will it be Containment and uneasy Coexistence, or what I call a C2 option?

-- Extremists are as committed to their beliefs as we are to ours.

-- We need to learn to think (not act) like the extremists in order to try to be four-to-five steps ahead.

-- Addressing Youth Disaffection: Some young people in closed ethnic communities in the West, including those born and raised in the U.S., United Kingdom, Nigeria or Kenya are willing to kill their fellow citizens. All of these Al Qaeda affiliates or solos have followers who fit these definitions.

-- Don't sum up extremism to just poverty, lack of education or unemployment: Certainly these are drivers toward extremism, but in my view, not the entire picture. Terrorism is more complex than this. We need to factor in the more intangible philosophical aspect of a clash of civilizations or world views that makes these groups more lethal than anything we have faced before. Extremists want to see the world shaped quietly differently than it is and differently than we do. Many extremists leader are not only smart, but very smart, educated (even if not formally), and can be oddly-charismatic -- all which helps draw young people to them. American- born Iman and AQAP Al Awlaki, killed in a September 2011 U.S. drone strike and al-Shabaab's Godane are good examples of this.

-- Complicity: We have not been able to developed strategic approaches to stem this aspect of the problem. Sympathizers who provide information and access to targets are major challenges to counter terrorism. I have experienced this firsthand in my two ambassadorships on how complicity can undermine counter terrorism and law enforcement efforts.

-- Retaliation: Be prepared as possible for retaliation. What, for example, is the U.S. putting in place today to counter retaliation from Al Qaeda or al-Shabaab for the October 6, 2013, U.S. Libya and Somalia raids? Al-Shabaab has already stated it will. Remember, retaliation could come 6-10 months from now.

As we look at some of these lessons not yet fully learned, they are tough with no quick solutions. In sum, we need to have a sustained 20- to 30-year plans, step away from cookie cutter approaches on tactics and strategies, and unfortunately try to think like an extremist in order to be 4-to-5 steps ahead or just even two - analyzing the way forward for the long haul, but most importantly, in the end, we cannot be afraid.

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