What Is Al-Shabaab And What Do They Want In East Africa?

Al-Shabaab shot and killed 148 students at a Kenyan university. It's the worst terrorist attack in Kenya since 1998. So, where exactly did Al-Shabaab come from, and how strong are they now?

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As explored on this episode, al-Shabaab is an extremist group that grew out of the turmoil of Somalia's civil war. According to data compiled by the New York Times, more than 600 people have been killed since 2012. Recently, in 2013, the group orchestrated an attack on a Nairobi mall that killed 67 people. Just last week, the group attacked Garissa University College and killed 147 people.

The broad strategy to defeating al-Shabaab has centered on eliminating its leaders and safe havens. U.S. airstrikes and drone attacks have killed major figures within the organization, including its top leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Al-Shabaab fighters have been driven out of ports along the Somali coast and now remain on the move in between poor, rural villages. Its economic lifelines, exporting coal and importing cars, have all been cut off. The U.S. government has invested nearly $1 billion into forming an African Union stabilization force to combat al-Shabaab.

Still, the attack on Garissa University College shows that the extremist group is still a formidable threat. Al-Shabaab is surviving with next to no resources, adjusting its terror tactics accordingly. Massive car bomb attacks have shifted to more targeted and cheaper rifle assaults. In both the mall and university attacks, the fighters deliberately killed Christians. Leaders from al-Qaeda, a group that al-Shabaab has aligned itself, criticized the Somali extremists for killing so many Muslims in the past. Now, al-Shabaab is focusing on aggressive recruitment of youths in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Djibouti.

Learn More:
Somali Militants Kill 147 at Kenyan University (New York Times)
"Somali militants burst into a university in eastern Kenya on Thursday and killed nearly 150 students in the worst terrorist attack since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy here, laying bare the nation's continuing vulnerability after years of battling Islamist extremism."

Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounders on Al Shabab (Council on Foreign Relations)
"Al-Shabab, or "the Youth," is an al-Qaeda-linked militant group and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization fighting for the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia."

Al-Shabaab (National Counterterrorism Center)
"The Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin-commonly known as al-Shabaab-was the militant wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts that took over most of southern Somalia in the second half of 2006."

A weakened Al-Shabaab lashes out (CNN)
"This week's attack on Garissa University College is Al-Shabaab's fifth major assault in Kenya in the past year and a half."