In historical terms, al-Shabaab just went "pro" regarding international terrorism. It has joined the ranks of Lashkar-e-Toiba -- the 2008 Mumbai raiders -- and al-Qaida. Al-Shabaab is now a more forceful threat for Africa, the international community and the United States.
From Sept. 21-24, a platoon-sized formation of 10-15 al-Shabaab fighters raided and seized the fashionable Westgate shopping mall, taking scores of hostages in the process. Several of the fighters were apparently locally recruited Kenyans. This suggests possible support or participation by al-Hijra, an al-Qaida-like organization in Kenya and Tanzania that has previously supported al-Shabaab.
At any rate, the terrorists reportedly breached the mall from at least two entrances, raking patrons with AK-47 fire and throwing grenades as they went.
What followed sounds like a bad horror movie. The assailants corralled civilians into different parts of the mall and quizzed them on their knowledge of the Koran and the Prophet Mohammed. Those who got the questions right were politely shown the door. Those who got them wrong were summarily executed. The victims included men, women and children.
There are also unconfirmed but copious allegations of torture and even sexual abuse.
Kenyan security forces later cleared the mall, killing as many as five terrorists and capturing the rest. The civilian death toll was 61 and approximately 200 others were wounded.
This operation was well-planned. Undoubtedly, al-Shabaab agents reconnoitered the target. They knew the best ways to enter the mall and barricade themselves once inside and they fully understood they would be killing people in a family environment.
There is some discussion of al-Shabaab prepositioning belt-fed machine guns in the mall to use against rescue forces. All these tactics indicate not only technical assault expertise but clandestine tradecraft as well.
Why did al-Shabaab do it? The first reason was ideological. In al-Shabaab's mind, Kenya had attacked Islam, which had to be "defended." How is this so? In October 2011-June 2012, Kenya (and Ethiopia) helped the Somali government fight and reduce al-Shabaab's control over Somalia via Operation Linda Nchi. Since al-Shabaab saw itself as fighting for the spread of Islam -- the Islamist jihadi version -- Kenya was guilty of assaulting God and the Prophet Mohammed. Islamist jihadi law asserts the punishment for such an offense is death.
Second, there were technical targeting reasons. Al-Shabaab needed a soft, high-profile target that would result in numerous dead civilians in the most horrific manner. The upper-class Westgate was perfect for this.
The third reason was over command-and-control issues. Al-Shabaab watchers assert that this past summer and fall there developed a leadership struggle in the group that resulted in one of its key personnel, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, (aka Godane), assassinating his rivals such as Omar Shafik Hammami, (aka Abu Mansoor al-Amriki), an American from Alabama.
Godane wanted to align al-Shabaab with al-Qaida and operate not just in Somalia but also regionally and internationally. His rivals wanted to establish a Taliban-like regime just in Somalia. Westgate likely signified Godane consolidating his command and demonstrating al-Shabaab's new end goals and operational regimen.
And while the Westgate raid signifies a dramatic coloring outside the lines for al-Shabaab operations geographically, it wasn't the first time it struck in a neighboring country that had participated in anti-al-Shabaab operations.
In July 2010, al-Shabaab suicide bombers attacked two sports clubs in Kampala, Uganda, packed with civilians watching the FIFA World Cup final. The explosions killed 74 and wounded 70 -- revenge and Islamist jihadi "defense" for Uganda's participation in the United Nation's African Union Mission in Somalia.
What does it all mean?
First, it means al-Shabaab has strengthened. While the group lost ground in Somalia, on the surface indicating weakness, in reality, al-Shabaab has adapted to new realities and taken on a more vicious cause and adopted more heinous tactics. Al-Shabaab's newly found will and blood lust demonstrate fervent non-capitulation in the name of Islamist jihad.
Second, it means Islamist jihadism has expanded in Africa. Aside from Somalia and Kenya, al-Qaida-related groups are increasingly active in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Nigeria and Tanzania. Al-Qaida isn't the least bit "on the run" as the White House has asserted. This was U.S. President Barack Obama's "mission accomplished" gaffe. Al-Qaida continues to morph, attract recruits and become more deadly.
Third, al-Shabaab has become a more serious threat to Africa and the international community. The Westgate raid demonstrates al-Shabaab has the ideological will to strike anywhere it has a clandestine network and it is good at setting up and running such networks.
For example, in the 2007 timeframe, al-Shabaab set up a clandestine cell in Minneapolis, reportedly run out of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center. This cell covertly recruited, indoctrinated and deployed at least 20 Somali-American youth from Minneapolis for combat missions in Somalia, which demonstrated considerable tradecraft prowess. One, 27-year-old Shirwa Ahmed, blew himself up in a terror attack in Somalia in October 2008. He is generally known as "America's first suicide bomber."
On Sept. 26, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asserted al-Shabaab didn't have the "capacity" to stage an attack in America. The good sir is well-meaning but wrong.
Al-Shabaab has dedicated ideologues and an effective clandestine network in America, so it can strike in the United States. The same goes for the United Kingdom, Europe and certainly greater Africa.
Al-Shabaab has adapted to new realities. So must Washington. The increased threat profile demands it.
(Jeff Moore, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Muir Analytics, which assesses threats from insurgent and terror groups against corporations.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)