by Nasser Weddady

Following an attack by a militant Islamic group al-Shabab on Kenya’s Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 21, which left at least 60 dead, a small group of ethnic Somalis peacefully demonstrated  in Minneapolis, Menessota primarily  to speak out against this terrorist group.  For many, this was personal, as al-Shabab targeted their family members.

Al Shabab’s attack raises questions for America’s security interests domestically and in East Africa. The attack did not come as a surprise to some experts, and could be an indicator that the group is growing.

Seth Jones, International Security and Defense Policy Center Director at RAND, believes that while the majority of al Shabab attacks have taken place in Somalia, and some in Kenya, there are reasons to be concerned about the group: al-Shabab has successfully recruited Americans, their leaders expressed interest in striking the U.S., and they possess enough capabilities to strike outside Somalia.

“Al Shabab does not appear to be plotting attacks against the U.S.,” he wrote in the New York Times on September 30, “But as the Westgate Mall attack shows, Al Shabab has the capability to conduct high-profile attacks in the [East Africa] region.”

While al-Shabab’s view is very unpopular throughout East Africa, the group posses a  highly  sophisticated set of powerful networks, including in particular business networks, which extend beyond its borders, possibly in the Middle East and Europe.

At the same time, the group has been, arguably, losing ground in Somalia, because it is still so unpopular.  It is possible that the attack in Nairobi was al Shabab’s way of reminding East Africa that they are still powerful.  One byproduct of this terrible act, however, is that wealthy Somalis in Kenya may push harder for eliminating al Shabab. These individuals have perhaps the most to lose from al Shabab. Arguably, these are the individuals who are Somalia’s best hope for an economic rebound because they contribute so much to the reconstruction of Somalia. And Al Shabab showed, with the attack on the Westgate Mall, that they are increasingly willing to target their interests and livelihood.

Certainly the attacks raise all the classical questions that surfaced since 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks: what do to now, how do we combat this group,  how do we prevent them from future acts of terror? At the same time, we in the West are have become numb, with so much news about attacks  every day. How do we break this cycle?

One thing is certain, however.  Somali Americans are our first line of defense against al Shabab.  And as some of the demonstrators in Minneapolis noted, they do not speak for the majority of Somalis—they only inflict suffering on them. Being more sensible to Somali Americans civil liberties will go a long way  in helping bring down al Shabab– here in America and in East Africa.

Nasser Weddady is Outreach Director at the American Islamic Congress.