Gruesome Mall Attack Highlights Growing al-Qaeda in Africa Threat

This was in too many ways a perfect target for Al-Shabaab. The upscale four-story mall, like its kin in America, has detailed maps of each floor posted online as a helpful guide for shoppers. The clientele fleeing from the chaos resembled an American melting pot: Africans, Americans, Asians, Europeans, taking each other's hands to escape danger and comfort one another.

It was a chilling reminder that al-Qaeda affiliates are growing unchecked in North Africa, and an attack that came just after Boko Haram killed 159 Nigerians in two roadside attacks this week: putting on army uniforms, stopping cars at checkpoints, dragging people out of their cars and killing them.

Last summer, U.S. Africa Command noted that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was inviting Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab to come train and join forces in a chunk of terrorist-controlled territory the size of Texas. The French pushed al-Qaeda out of some of its Mali territory, but the strength of the allied groups remains.

The State Department has conceded AQIM “played a role” in the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

At a December hearing about this unholy alliance, Subcommittee on African Affairs Chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.) noted that U.S. policy in the region might not be “forward-leaning enough.”

Coons said AQIM is reported to be “the best-funded, best-equipped, most potentially lethal A.Q. affiliate in the world” with sophisticated weaponry (including support from Iran) and juicy revenue from drug trafficking and kidnapping. They’re also believed to receive support and funding from Algerian expats and AQIM members around the world.

In late May, members of Congress received the State Department’s country-by-country annual report on international terrorism today with a warning that sponsorship of terror by Iran and Hezbollah has surged to “a tempo unseen since the 1990s” with attacks spanning three continents.

The report noted al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s plunge into Mali, Boko Haram’s continued attacks in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab’s “asymmetric tactics” after being driven out of some southern population centers in Somalia.

It came on the heels of a strategy speech by President Obama that largely advocated a return to pre-9/11 threat thinking, describing the new peril as “more diffuse.” The president didn’t mention Iran once in the lengthy counterterrorism strategy address at the National Defense University. “In some cases, we continue to confront state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals,” Obama said.

“And while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based,” the president added.

In July, Al-Shabaab claimed that it killed a veteran CIA official who oversaw the agency’s September 2001 plunge into Afghanistan as well as another CIA operative as U.S. officials accompanied an African Union convoy from the airport in Mogadishu.

Repeated attempts by PJM to get government confirmation or denial of Shabaab's claims were unsuccessful, and there was no public mention of the claim or of the attack by the administration.

Al-Shabaab recently released a PR video targeted at Somali-Americans in Minnesota, trying to lure them to jihad as more than two dozen have already done so through the state's "terror pipeline."

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Washington. The day before, the U.S. pledged $69 million to a "new deal" compact forged by the EU to help build up the failed Somali state.

Interestingly, Kerry downgraded the al-Qaeda affiliate to "tribal terror."

"The United States, obviously, has been engaged in helping Somalia fight back against tribal terror and the challenges to the cohesion of the state of Somalia," he said. Al-Shabaab officially became a part of al-Qaeda in an agreement last year.

"I’d just say that Somalia is working hard now to create its own ability to defend itself, to defend the state. We will continue to work. There is a United Nations mission there. We are committed to both – to the independent ability of the state of Somalia as well as the United Nations mission to help it in this transition," Kerry added.

Mohamud also met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel over at the Pentagon.

"Secretary Hagel broadly discussed the importance of continued progress on security reform and the importance of a stable and secure Somalia to the region," said the readout of the meeting from press secretary George Little. "Secretary Hagel and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud expressed their appreciation for both countries' commitment to normalizing and deepening the U.S.-Somali relationship, and agreed to continue efforts on military cooperation."

Mocking the multi-million-dollar rewards the U.S. is offering to capture the group's commanders, Al-Shabaab put a bounty on Obama's head last year: 10 camels.