Washington D.C. – Congressman Eliot Engel, the Senior Democratic Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following statement, as prepared for delivery, at the Full Committee hearing “Al Shabaab: How Great a Threat?”
“Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing, and welcome to our panelists. We are here today to discuss al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based terrorist organization that continues to threaten the Horn of Africa and Western interests there.
Two weeks ago, a group of heavily-armed terrorists stormed the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, intent on killing innocent civilians. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for this heinous attack, as punishment for Kenya’s involvement in the AU Mission there. After a four-day siege, the attackers were finally overpowered, but not before murdering at least 67 men, women and children. Among them was the wife of a U.S. Foreign Service National, who was seven months pregnant.
While attacks by al-Shabaab in Kenya are not new, the Westgate Mall attack was particularly ruthless. It was the worst terrorist attack Kenya has seen since the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassy. And it raises important questions for Kenya, the international community, and Members of Congress about al-Shabaab’s size, strength and intentions. For many years, al-Shabaab controlled most of Somalia and imposed a brutal form of sharia law. As just one illustration of their complete disregard for human life, al-Shabaab banned most international organizations from gaining access to large parts of the country during a devastating famine in 2011, leading to the deaths of thousands of Somalis.
In late 2011, Kenyan forces joined AMISOM—the AU Mission to Somalia—and helped to finally turn the tide against al-Shabaab. AMISOM has had a number of successes against al-Shabaab, first by expelling the group from Mogadishu and later from Kismayo, a port that had provided a significant source of revenue for the terrorist group. Despite these successes, it seems that AMISOM has reached its physical limit of expansion in Somalia. While Al-Shabaab has been deprived of valuable territory, it continues to cause military and civilian casualties inside Somalia with new guerilla tactics. And now we have this brazen attack by the group in Kenya’s capital.
All of this must lead us to ask—is al-Shabaab as weak as we thought it was? Can we expect more attacks of this scale in Kenya and possibly other countries contributing to AMISOM, such as Uganda? Have internal struggles in al-Shabaab made the group more focused on global jihad today than in the past?
I understand that it is difficult to say anything definitive about an organization as shadowy as al-Shabaab. But given this latest attack, we must re-examine what we thought we knew about the organization.
Finally, I would like to take a moment to highlight the significance of the very large Somali refugee population in Kenya, which represents another facet of this complex picture. After decades of war and instability in Somalia, it is not surprising that there are between 1and 2 million Somalis living in Kenya today.
It will be tempting for the Kenyan people and government to blame Somalia for their insecurity and call for Somali refugees to be sent home. I sincerely hope that it does not come to this. Kenya has long been one of the world’s most generous host countries. The fact that the Dadaab refugee camp constitutes the second largest city in the entire country is evidence of this. I hope Kenya will continue to provide a safe haven to those fleeing from violence, hunger, and constant fear.
I mention this not only because of the humanitarian implications, but also because it has a very real bearing on al-Shabaab’s ability to grow its network, recruit, and operate in Kenya. I think it will be valuable to hear from our panelists on what they think Kenya can do with respect to its Somali community that would help impair al-Shabaab’s operations, and conversely, what actions could make the terrorist threat even worse.
I’d like to thank the Chairman once again for holding this hearing, and I look forward to the testimony of our witnesses.”