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The al Qaeda-aligned terror group reportedly responsible for slaughtering dozens at a mall in Nairobi has many American members and could potentially carry out additional terrorist attacks on Western targets, according to a top terrorism analyst.
The Somalia-based al Shabaab terror group made international headlines over the weekend after its members reportedly seized a shopping mall in Nairobi, killing at least 62 and holding many more hostage.
The relatively unknown group is comprised of many American and British militants, and has claimed that at least three of the Nairobi mall gunmen were American.
Due to the large number of Western recruits, al Shabaab has the ability to send these militants back home to carry out terrorist operations, according to analyst Robin Simcox, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.
“I’ve always been surprised this wasn’t a group that conducted more operations outside its borders,” said Simcox, who recently released a research report outlining al Qaeda’s steady growth across the globe.
Al Shabaab’s American and British members “would make ideal recruits to return to the home country and wage attacks there,” Simcox said. “Their recruits are so plentiful, in theory,” they could slip back home and plot attacks.
Following its high profile and largely successful mall attack, al Shabaab could become more brazen and “act out externally to show [its] prowess,” Simcox said.
Al Shabaab has not historically garnered headlines in Western media outlets.
However, since officially joining al Qaeda in 2011, its strength and ability to carry out attacks like the one in Nairobi has grown exponentially, according to Simcox.
“The global wing of al Shabaab has gained more strength over the summer,” he said, noting that the group has close ties to the large Somali community in Minneapolis, where it has engaged in recruiting efforts.
The group currently has between 4,000 and 8,000 active members, according to Simcox’s report, which additionally found that, contrary to reports, al Qaeda’s global core is growing.
“In terms of numbers, rather than being ‘a shadow of its former self ’, [al Qaeda’s] core has actually grown,” according to the report. This conclusion runs contrary to multiple claims made by President Barack Obama and others in his administration.
While Al Shabaab has not carried out any successful attacks on the West, terrorism experts and government officials have warned of the group’s growing strength.
“In September 2010, Jonathan Evans (then head of [Britian’s] Mi5) spoke of his concern that it was ‘only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al Shabaab’,” Simcox noted in his report.
“Similarly, [National Counterterrorism Center] Director [Matt] Olsen has described al Shabaab’s ‘foreign fighter cadre as a potential threat to the United States,’ highlighting its public calls for ‘transnational attacks,’” according to the report.
“Others have returned to the West and subsequently been convicted,” the report states.
Michael Adebolajo, one of two men who cut the head off of a British soldier in May in broad daylight on a busy street, “had traveled abroad in 2010 in an attempt to connect with the group,” the report notes.
There is also evidence that al Shabaab was to factor into al Qaeda’s “international operations.”
When Fazul Mohammed, the former leader of al Qaeda’s East African operations, was killed, documents discovered on his body “included references to ‘international operations’ targeting the U.K.,” according to Simcox’s report.
“Mohammed proposed attacking either the Ritz or Dorchester hotels in London; the private school, Eton; as well as Jewish areas in London,” the report states. “The operatives for this mission were to be trained in Somalia for two months beforehand.”
Al Shabaab has also been promoting its American recruits.
Al Shabaab celebrated several Americans who were killed while waging jihad on the group’s behalf in a propaganda video released in August.
Titled “The Path to Paradise: From the Twin Cities to the Land of the Two Migrations,” the video appeared to be the first in a series of al Qaeda-produced propaganda videos praising Americans who have joined al Shabaab.
Al Qaeda’s other global affiliates have also been growing, according to Simcox’s report
“Al-Qaeda remains the pre-eminent terrorist security threat to the West,” the report states.
“Without doubt, the number of official al Qaeda groups operating today has expanded since 9/11,” according to the report. “Al Qaeda’s core leadership (aka al Qaeda Central) in Pakistan has helped facilitate the creation of several regional franchises, in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and the Sahel.”
The spread of al Qaeda’s extremist brand has afforded the group “a geographic reach that they arguably did not possess prior to 9/11,” the report says.
However, “the largest number of al Qaeda fighters currently appears to be based in Syria, followed by Somalia,” where al Shabaab is based.