After the Somali militant group al-Shabab carried out a gruesome massacre of 148 people in the Kenyan city of Garissa on April 2, two questions repeatedly surfaced among policymakers and analysts: Did this attack signal that al-Shabab would increasingly focus on Kenya? And did the horrific attack at Garissa prove the success or failure of Somalia as a counterterrorism model? After all, last September President Barack Obama trumpeted U.S. policies toward Somalia, where the United States had “successfully pursued” al Qaeda for years.
Some officials have continued to describe Somalia as a success. As one anonymous senior official opined to the Washington Post, the attack shows that al-Shabab is “desperate. And as much as we hate to think about it, this is what desperate groups do. They try to have smaller teams go out and [conduct] higher-impact operations.”
But this argument is not only overly simple. It also makes the mistake of conflating al-Shabab’s fate in Somalia with its activities in Kenya. It’s true that the group’s overall strength has declined since its peak in 2011, when it was the dominant force in southern Somalia and able to impose its harsh version of Islamic law on the population there. But al-Shabab’s strength, vitality, and lethality, have steadily risen in Kenya in recent years, an important part of the group’s long-term strategy.