The attack on the Westgate Mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi by Somalia-based terrorist organization Al-Shabaab shows that the group has reemerged after internal fighting and a newly-forged alliance with Al-Qaeda earlier this year. The group has been on the U.S. terror watchlist since 2008, and has largely focused its operations on consolidating its position within Somalia against various warlords. The attack in Kenya is only the second major operation the group has conducted outside of its home base, and it was revenge for Kenya's role in Operation Linda Nchi two years ago. America's role in the operation was limited to intelligence gathering.
The United States' operations in Somalia and East Africa have been limited for the past few years. Although U.S. drone operations were fairly frequent in the early part of the last decade, strikes have tapered off under the Obama administration as its focus has shifted to Yemen and Pakistan. While in the past two years there have been only nine confirmed drone strikes in Somalia, it is possible that the number could be higher. Is Al-Shabaab's relative strength due to limited U.S. strikes in Somalia? Should the U.S. shift its focus back to East Africa?
The answer remains no. Outside of the Al-Shabaab attack in Uganda in 2010, all major operations were conducted in Somalia as the group attempted to gain control of the country. In fact, Al-Shabaab's leadership has focused its efforts on overthrowing the Western-backed Somali government rather than expanding operations beyond its borders.
U.S. officials also fear that targeting Al-Shabaab could lead to backlash as Al-Shabaab leaders could call on Somali Americans to carry out retaliation strikes. If heavy drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan are any indication, a increase in drone strikes in Somalia would only cause more resentment and inspire aggressive Al-Shabaab recruitment efforts.
Additionally, the U.S. prefers to maintain a limited role in the region. National Security Council Spokesman Jonathan Lailly stated the U.S. is more or less keeping its distance. "It's not a question of either direct action or playing a supporting role. Our approach has been to work to enable and support African partners," he said.
However, strengthening ties to Al-Qaeda this year could be concerning as Al-Qaeda could train could aid the growth of Al-Shabaab, especially if Al-Shabaab launches more international attacks. The ties have already existed for several years. However, after a lengthy power struggle that purged much of Al-Shabaab's anti-internationalist leaders (including American citizen Omar Hammami), they are now deeper than ever.
Considering how no U.S. interests were harmed, and how the takeover of Westgate was a specific retaliatory attack against Kenya's operations in Somalia, it is the best course of action for the U.S. to maintain a low profile in this situation.