Containing Al-Shabab’s technology leaps key to terror fight

Containing Al-Shabab’s technology leaps key to terror fight

Containing Al-Shabab’s technology leaps key to terror fight
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Al-Shabab, the notorious Somali-based terrorist group, is seeking new technological advantages in its ongoing battles with Mogadishu and the country’s neighbors. Al-Shabab militants have shown a high level of sophistication and may be starting to use more advanced technologies, including drones, making their attacks on Somali government facilities even more dangerous and precise.
Knowledge transfer to Al-Shabab is a significant factor. In October 2016, the group was found to be using increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive device technology in its operations, facilitated by the continued arrival of foreign trainers and involving the transfer of knowledge from other conflict areas. These conflict areas included Yemen and a much more robust Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Counterterrorism pressure has helped to break some of these links.
Al-Shabab has a changing set of technological tools that it has used over time. It was one of the first Africa-based groups to use social media in advanced ways. As early as 2008, the group had created the capacity to put forth narratives about its prowess. It has used chat rooms and deep web capacities, as well as YouTube videos. Al-Shabab features regularly in what may be said to be its “media space.”
Al-Shabab has become one of Africa’s deadliest terrorist groups, primarily through a precipitous increase in its use of IEDs. When it comes to bomb-making and IEDs, the Al-Qaeda-inspired group is at the cutting edge of perfecting their destructive power. Research shows that the key evolution is that Al-Shabab has become more adept in its deployment of bombs, tailoring its IED attacks through refined tactics, techniques and procedures. The group ambushes security convoys and patrols along main supply routes, strategically positioning IEDs to stop vehicles in a predetermined “kill zone” that is exposed to small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Images of vehicles on fire are now an Al-Shabab staple. Interestingly, to defend its own camps, Al-Shabab sets out systems of multiple IEDs linked together like a daisy chain.
Research also shows that Al-Shabab’s external influences, reliance on local materials and refinement of bomb deployment all indicate the importance of local expertise in its IED campaigns. The group managed to carry out only the third recorded suicide terrorist attack on a commercial passenger flight, bombing a Daallo Airlines flight in February 2016 with an IED sophisticatedly disguised as a laptop (although only the bomber was killed and the plane was able to land safely). Al-Shabab also likes to carry out complex suicide attacks on hotels and government buildings.

Given that drones are now ubiquitous, they are likely to play a key role in the way Al-Shabab conducts its operations.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Terrorist groups are nowadays using modern technology to attack soft targets. Security officials are looking at new and emerging technologies, with unmanned aerial systems particularly exploited by terrorist groups to facilitate attacks, conduct intelligence operations and develop propaganda. It is in this arena that Al-Shabab may be using, or is about to start using, off-the-shelf drones in its operations.
Al-Shabab made quite a foray into Ethiopia last month, driving dozens of miles into the country. The ability of the group to advance in this way brings up the idea of drone use for reconnaissance. Reporting is spotty and not confirmed, but Al-Shabab using such capabilities needs to be closely watched because this group knows how to improvise. It — along with other terror outfits — is likely learning lessons from watching Ukrainian drones dropping mortars on Russian equipment in supply lines. Given that drones are now ubiquitous, they are likely to play a key role in the way Al-Shabab conducts its operations, just as other terrorist groups that are looking for more effective methods to spread their chaotic message have begun to do the same. This fact is an inevitable part of the drone revolution.
The Global Counterterrorism Forum, a multilateral counterterrorism platform, has noted that, in the past, terrorists relied on easy-to-operate weapons and vehicles. But with drones now more readily available at a low cost, they have become increasingly appealing to terror groups. If Al-Shabab fails to use drone technology, there will be a major debate as to why. Is it because of successful counterterrorism measures or another reason only known by Al-Shabab?
The use of drones by terrorists is not only a major concern in Somalia, but also in neighboring Kenya, another Al-Shabab target. Al-Shabab said it would continue to target Kenyan towns and cities until Nairobi moves its troops out of Somalia. Kenyan forces are part of the African Union mission covering a particularly sensitive part of what is considered to be Al-Shabab territory.
Preparation for Al-Shabab’s likely technology leaps is important for policymakers and practitioners as the campaign against the group by the US and other regional countries steps up. They aim to help Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s fight against the group, which was made more urgent by the “all-out war” speech he delivered in the wake of the Hayat Hotel attack last month. Escalation by Al-Shabab can be mitigated by preventing its technology leaps.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington. Twitter: @tkarasik
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