Suicide bombers and thwarting the changing face of Al–Shabaab by George Mandere Mochengo


The suicide bomber seems to be the preferred tactic of terrorist attackers of late, despite the popular notion by researchers that suicide attacks often prevent terrorist groups from achieving their political goals. Terrorist groups attack civilians as an effective coercive strategy to force governments to make policy concessions. When they attack; they aim for both operational and tactical success and like all organizations, they have two goals:-

  1. Outcome goals – which define the purpose or objective of the group existing.
  2. Survival – for the continuity and sustenance of the group.

Effectiveness of Terrorist Attacks

The effectiveness of any terrorist attack will be measured along two dimensions, that is:-

  1. How effective they were in engaging the counter-terrorism agents in combat in terms of casualties, firepower, and mass media propaganda.
  2. Strategic effectiveness measured by the extent to which the government is forced to surrender to their demands.

The former will be determined by how much damage is inflicted by the terrorists, which will in turn influence the action of the latter. However, on most occasions, terrorist groups rarely achieve their targeted objectives. This is mostly determined by the execution tactic as proved by the recent 14 Riverside (Dusit 2 Hotel) Office Complex terrorist attack. The quick response by the multi-agency counter-terrorism team in annihilating and neutralizing the threat denied the adversaries the much sought universal publicity and the lack of a negotiating chip or concession must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Why Suicide Bombers?

By using a suicide bomber at the Secret Garden – 14 Riverside Drive, Al-Shabaab (AS) wanted to send a message to its backers or potential backers, that they were ready for the continued adoption and perpetuation of fundamentalism as practiced by extreme conservatives like Al-Qaeda (AQ). This was clear from the inscriptions referring to ‘Al Quds’ or Jerusalem which were clearly marked on the black bandannas the attackers wore. According to Sunni Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is the third holiest site after the Kaaba in Mecca and Al-Masjid an Nabawi in Medina. This has become a central contention and propaganda tool at the heart of Al-Qaeda who have always stoked the embers of sympathy in the Muslim umma (masses) by flashing the trump card of ‘liberating Jerusalem from the non- believers’.

Initially, the primary objective of Al-Shabaab was to establish an Islamist state in Somalia based on Sharia Law and in extension, the elimination of secular and foreign influence.

Research and analysis on terrorism ‘modus operandi’ have indicated that adoption of such strategies is either an indication of the dwindling strength in numbers or dwindling fortunes in the funding of the terrorist groups. Al-Shabaab, therefore, wanted to exploit the 14 Riverside Complex suicide bombing and complex terrorist assault to raise the morale and or appeal, to their core supporters and funders, especially Al-Qaeda, for survival.

Al Qaeda and the Revitalization of Al-Shabaab.

Will Al-Shabaab succeed in their new cause? Well, this will depend on how their targeted audience reacts. From my analysis, there are two likely scenarios that can play out:-

  1. Al-Qaeda may not be impressed by the consistent and poor success rate of Al-Shabaab and decide not to fully support them with manpower and/or resources. This means that their influence will continue to dwindle with a concerted effort of the Somalia government, regional governments, African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), and the United States of America (USA) to eliminate them.
  2. Al-Qaeda’s risk appetite is aroused as they spot an opportunity to use a proxy to get close to ‘western interests’ placed at ‘arm’s length’ in the East African region and connect to the American- Somalia population that is a prize asset in terms of funding. With a large section of the population feeling discriminated against and disfranchised, Al-Qaeda will feel at home with their radicalization and propaganda strategy.

With the first option, our multi-agency counter-terrorism team and other stakeholders will have it easy in proactively infiltrating, anticipating and reacting to reduced adversarial power. In such a scenario, we tend to fall into a lull, especially if there are long spells of terrorism inactivity.

Conversely, the counter-terrorism team should always enhance its covert and overt intelligence capabilities to stay ahead of the enemy.

A simple and practical strategy here is for the multi-agency counterterrorism team to collaborate and work closely with the private sector to map out ‘soft’ and appetizing targets from a terrorist’s perspective.

In the second option, if Al-Qaeda decides to play ball then it means that we will be entering a new game altogether. Al Qaeda which in Arabic means “the base”, is a tested and entrenched militant group whose “theatre of operation” is anywhere in the world. Its inception dates back to the 1970s during the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan meaning that through the years it has spread its tentacles far and wide.

With more members, a greater geographic reach and a level of ideological sophistication and influence that has attracted operatives from as far as the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK) and North Africa, Al-Qaeda’s capability cannot be taken lightly. They are led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a shrewd Egyptian manipulator, and mostly operating from the Middle East and they are well known for the infamous 9/11 coordinated suicide attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York.

Simply, they have the muscles and firepower to execute multiple attacks and take out the best of the world’s counter-terrorism teams. My opinion is that AQ will relish the opportunity to transfer some of the heat they are facing, especially with the new interest on Osama bin Laden’s son by the United States, from their Middle East bases to the East African region.

Case Scenarios and Mitigating the Risk to As Low as Reasonably Practicable (ALARP).

Taming Radicalization:

There are underlying grievances affecting a section of the population touching mostly on the youth, communities and religious manifestations. Some of these groups have felt marginalized, discriminated against and left out in participating in key policies and programs that affect them. There is a large pool of idle youth who have nil or close to nil activities that can generate them some form of revenue instead they turn to crime and other delinquent activities. Some communities, especially in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL’s), have historically believed that they have been marginalized while a section of Muslim groups and claim to be targeted by the authorities.

These claims offer a fertile breeding ground for radicalization and perceive any antagonist against the state as a “redeemer and advocate” trying to correct the wrongs already perpetrated against them.

To avert such scenarios, a proactive approach where a combination of intelligence collection, surveillance, cooperation between various law enforcement agencies and other stakeholders, and most importantly resolving the group’s complaints, must take centre stage.

This way, people will be diverted from becoming or sympathizing with terrorists. Fostering a common ground, shared values and encouraging participation and empowering of communities with a balance in the needs of human rights and civil liberties drastically reduce radicalization efforts.

Closer Monitoring of Al-Shabaab:

The multi-agency counter-terrorism teams must keep a tab on Al-Shabaab’s activities and trends. With the entry or interest of Al-Qaeda actively partnering with Al- Shabaab, a deeper and concerted approach has to be undertaken. Inter-government cooperation to fight terrorism has to go beyond the regional players like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea but also tap the experience of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan who have tried to keep Al-Qaeda at bay.

Al-Qaeda has the ability to use its image to draw membership from the disillusioned young Muslims by playing the United States support of Israel as interference in the Arab world. The agencies must understand that whereas Al-Shabaab may struggle to recruit members who hate the west but are not motivated by the group’s local rhetoric, they may get a boost from Al-Qaeda’s popular propaganda, especially where they do not demand sole allegiance.

Another strength Al-Qaeda will come with is their ability to establish dormant sleeper cells extending for long periods of time, mostly camouflaging as legitimate missionaries, scholars and or humanitarian aid workers targeting the poor and impoverished. An example is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed; the Comoran mastermind of August 7, 1998, American Embassy bombing in Nairobi effortlessly established a sleeper cell in the Lamu archipelago by blending into the community as a preacher and aid worker.

Whereas Al-Shabaab has a rudimentary ideology, Al-Qaeda has a coherent ideology which if extended to Al-Shabaab through partnership can appeal to certain audiences.

If this new development comes to pass, even in a rudimentary form, it entails that adopting a paradigm shift in our counterterrorism strategy (we can take a cue from the twin US Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-el- Salaam) by the same group and envisions what that means to us.

Private Businesses Security Ownership.

Unfortunately, despite the recent terrorist attacks and the government’s concerted efforts to combat terrorism, the private sector has taken a lukewarm approach in embracing the concept that security is a shared responsibility and that ‘security starts with you’.

At most, we witness a lot of care and concern in the few weeks after an attack and once the emotions are over it is back to usual business. In between an effort to bolster the security of the businesses without undertaking vulnerability and threat assessments ends up in having the wrong solutions.

Walking around and about the capital, one will never fail to spot ‘sitting ducks’ with glaring security lapses mostly caused by the omission of best security practice. These lapses can easily be exploited by not so experienced adversaries to inflict serious damages which generate considerable fear within the citizenry.

Take the example of multi-storied office blocks sitting right on the highway/ busy streets, with popular first floor open restaurants, a small parking, an underground parking and an illegal bus stages nearby. A prize giveaway for a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED).

Fortunately, security experts regularly pass this information across to relevant stakeholders and buy-in from the decision makers should be taken seriously.

The banking and financial sectors should also be at the forefront in cooperating with the government to disrupt terrorist groups supply of funding.

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED):

According to the International CPTED Association, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a multi-disciplinary approach for reducing crime through urban and environmental design and the management and use of the built environment. Al-Qaeda operatives are experts in exploiting weaknesses in the built environment and are masters in using explosives be it improvised explosive devices (IED’s), vehicle borne-IED (VBIED), and suicide bombers. The dire state of disorganization in the central business district (CBD), characterized with crowded pedestrian walks and clogged traffic during rush hours, provides a fertile ground for disaster in terms of mass casualty attacks and marauding terrorist firearms attacks.

Utility services like petrol stations should be re-located from densely populated spaces. It is not only a safety disaster having oil tankers servicing these facilities competing for with vehicles and pedestrians in overcrowded spaces but also a security nightmare in the scenario terrorists use these tankers as decoys to deliver vehicle-borne -IED (VBIED) or vehicle-borne suicide IED (S/VBIED) to those locations.

There is an urgent need to de-densify the CBD and apply Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) by manipulating the physical environment to produce behaviour effect that will reduce the opportunity, incidence, and fear of crime. Natural surveillance with the aid of an integrated CCTV-Surveillance and natural territorial reinforcement should be given priority.

Government, Public-Private Partnerships and Awareness Training.

Security awareness and understanding the capabilities and abilities of terrorist groups should be part of our organizational culture. Citizens should be aware and sensitized on the threat of terrorism, more so on how to identify hostile reconnaissance, suspicious objects and behaviour, and unusual inquiries.

Winning Public Confidence in the War against Terrorism.

The government should build public reassurance and confidence by ensuring that it is government propaganda that is listened to and not that of the terrorists. A first step in achieving this is to enable the law enforcement agencies to have the confidence and trust of the public.


Finally, although cases of terrorists using unconventional methods like the 9/11 hijacking of commercial planes (whose two decades anniversary is coming in about two years), chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) materials, and cyber-security terrorism are extremely rare, we should be a step ahead by building capacity to anticipate such scenarios and simulate appropriate countermeasures. In the asymmetrical war against terrorists, the stakes are extremely high and a massive target, especially in the capital, will fundamentally cripple the national psyche and economy. Therefore, mandatory and voluntary elements should be put in place to always avert that ‘one horrible day’.

George Mandere Mochengo Dip. CSMP®, M.ISMI

George Mandere Mochengo

George is a Certified security management professional (CSMP®) with 12 years + experience and a proven knowledge of corporate security, asset protection and emergency preparedness. He rose through the ranks from security officer to contract manager in charge of blue chip corporate clients at G4S Kenya, including being in charge of Critical National Infrastructure in the form of the largest cement manufacturing plant in the East African region.