Al-Shabab's attack on an upscale mall in Kenya could be a bitter taste of future violence from a surging international coalition of al-Qaida fighters, says a former top U.S. official for Africa.
This latest strike, which left more than 60 dead and hundreds wounded, could further destabilize the region, says former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson. It could allow for a resurgence of al-Qaida in East Africa, he says, and for Somalia to descend into an "international arms bazaar."
It requires a strong response from international supporters of the fledgling government in Somalia, which is still trying to rise above its "Black Hawk Down" history.
"This is not something the new Somali government will be able to do on its own," Carson tells U.S. News. The veteran Foreign Service officer, who also served as an ambassador, heralded Somalia's recent political transition as one of the continent's greatest success stories.
"We must do everything we can to continue the progress into the future. Much remains to be done there," says Carson, who retired earlier this year. "One should not look at the incidents over the weekend – as terrible and horrific as they are – as indicators of backsliding."
Somalia, the site of the notorious 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident, was drowning in lawlessness and influence from outside Islamic extremist groups for much of the last two decades. Efforts made by the U.S. State Department, USAID, the European Union, the African Union Mission in Somalia, as well as U.N. organizations were successful in propping up a new government, which in September 2012 conducted democratic elections.
Carson told an audience at the Wilson Center in January that the government, with peacekeeping support from this coalition, had significantly degraded al-Shabab by driving them out of the urban centers.
He spoke days after a disastrous rescue attempt by French special operations forces in January to rescue an intelligence officer held captive by al-Shabab. One commando died in the raid.
Other experts say al-Shabab will likely continue to make similar headlines.
J. Peter Pham is the director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, and frequently advises Congress and administration officials about African Affairs. He spoke Tuesday before a high-level meeting at the United Nations.
Removing al-Shabab from its traditional strongholds in Somalia has allowed it to focus on becoming an extremist organization with a broader reach, he says.
"The [Nairobi] attack is probably just the first of what is likely to be several from al-Shabab now that it has transitioned from a guerrilla force into a full-fledged terrorist outfit, with its hardliners having consolidated their control over the remenant of the organization," Pham said at the U.N. meeting, according to a statement provided to U.S. News.
Al-Shabab is also one of the only terrorist organizations that has successfully recruited Americans, both ethnic Somalis and non-Somalis, he says. Unconfirmed reports that Americans participated in the Westgate Mall attack would enforce this point.
"Future assistance to Kenya and other African countries will need to include a broader menu than just military aid," says Pham. "I do hope...that U.S. policymakers re-examine their overly optimistic assessments and pivot accordingly."
Al-Shabab likely had six goals in mind, Carson says, going into its attack on the Nairobi shopping complex: Punish the Kenyans' participation in the African Union Mission in Somalia; Inflict mass casualties over the Kenyan people; Garner international attention and support for their cause; Weaken international resolve in favor of the Somali government; Embarrass and intimidate the new Somali government; and demonstrate al-Shabab is alive and well and lethal.
This latest attack underscores to foreign supporters of the Somali government that there is more work to be done to stabilize it and help it deliver the services necessary to restore Somalia to some sense of normalcy.
A failure to do so will lead to Somalia returning to a safe haven for international branches of al-Qaida, says Carson, now a senior adviser to the president at the U.S. Institutes of Peace.
"We will see a resurgence of not just al-Shabab, but al-Qaida East Africa, which has largely not been discussed," he says.
"This is an international issue, not just a Somali issue," he says. "It shouldn't be seen simply as an attack on Kenya and the Kenyan people. It should be seen as an attack on all those who are peace loving and all those who are fighting violent extremists and all those who want to see a return of stability to Somalia."
News coverage of the Saturday attack has granted al-Shabab added publicity, says Carson, adding, "It should not in fact weaken international resolve. It should not undermine the Kenyan support and [support] for AMISOM. It should not undermine regional support."
"The alternative is for this to get substantially worse again," he says.