By NICHOLAS KULISH, MARK MAZZETTI and ERIC SCHMITT
NAIROBI, Kenya — The ferocious armed political movement known as the Shabab is on the ropes in Somalia, losing territory and influence in its home country.
Yet this weekend the Shabab showed that they are as dangerous as ever as a terrorist force, keeping Kenyan forces at bay through two days at the Westgate mall in Nairobi even as the militants mounted a coordinated attack against African Union forces in Mogadishu, according to senior American counterterrorism and diplomatic officials.
Some officials warned that the Shabab could be signaling a wider offensive, particularly within Kenya, despite their losses in recent years at the hands of the African Union and Kenyan troops in its home country.
“What we’re witnessing is Al Shabab taking its asymmetric attacks into Kenya at the same time it’s intensifying its pattern of attacks in Somalia,” said one senior American official who has been monitoring classified intelligence reports and diplomatic cables since the attack started Saturday.
Counterterrorism officials say that the Shabab’s sophistication has only increased as it has made common cause with groups including franchises of Al Qaeda in Yemen and Northern Africa and the Boko Haram organization in Nigeria, sharing tactics, techniques, training and financing.
Now, it is clear that the group is using those resources to punish Kenya on its own soil, mostly for its role within Somalia, but also, to some degree, because of growing American support for the Kenyan security forces.
In recent years, Kenya has worked closely with the Americans on military cooperation, hunting Al Qaeda and combating piracy. The C.I.A. station in Nairobi is among the largest in Africa. And the United States ambassador to Kenya, Robert F. Godec, was formerly the State Department’s deputy coordinator for counterterrorism.
American officials said they were working with the Kenyan authorities to learn more about the Nairobi attackers and how they carried out the attack. One focus was on whether the militants were Kenya-based or sent from Somalia; another was whether any had ties within the United States, as the attackers claimed on Sunday.
One senior American official said there had not been any increased “chatter” — electronic intercepts — in recent days about a possible attack against a major target in Nairobi. But the Westgate mall was one of at least three major shopping malls in the Kenyan capital about which American Embassy officials had expressed concerns over faulty security to Kenyan authorities.
The Shabab means the youth in Arabic. The group was formed in the middle of last decade as the small, armed militia for Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, which had risen to power after driving a group of C.I.A.-financed Somali warlords from Mogadishu.
Then, the Shabab’s ranks swelled amid growing anger inside Somalia over the brutal urban tactics used by Ethiopian troops, who had invaded the country to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union from the capital. Shabab fighters waged a bloody insurgency campaign against the Ethiopians, carrying out hit and run attacks and planting roadside bombs.
In a few short years, the group consolidated its control over a large swath of Somali territory, but then suffered setbacks as the African Union and Kenya, among others, became more deeply involved. The Shabab withdrew from the cities in the face of superior military forces fairly quickly, often in the space of a day, regrouping in the countryside.
But they preserved their core fighting force — estimated by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea at about 5,000 — and avoided direct confrontations. And since then it has seemed to gather momentum in terms of terrorist attacks.
There have long been concerns that the Shabab were increasing their ability to strike abroad, first stoked by its bombing attack against soccer fans in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010, killing 76.
But despite its threats to strike at American interests — and the propaganda value it has gained by showing the American ties of some of its members — most experts say the group’s focus is still on getting foreign troops out of Somalia. The attack in Uganda was explicitly for that country’s role in the African Union force operating in Somalia. And now the attack in Kenya was a blow for one of the group’s most constant military antagonists.
“What we see is not Al Shabab turning into an international jihad organization,” said one United Nations official who closely follows the group’s operations. “This is Shabab still trying to carry out a Somali agenda, attacking countries that are contributing troops to the Somalia mission.”
According to the United Nations official, late last year Western intelligence services had uncovered an effort by Kenyan militant groups linked to Shabab to scout locations in Nairobi for a possible terrorist attack. The Westgate Mall was one of the locations, the official said.
Matthew Bryden, the former head of the United Nations Monitoring Group, said that Westgate had for years been mentioned in intelligence traffic about possible locations for terror attacks inside Nairobi.
Mr. Bryden said the significance of the Westgate attack lay partly in how it seemed to signal a change of tactics for the Shabab — moving from coordinated suicide bombings with a high risk of being foiled toward more direct operations that still kill dozens, sow fear, and undermine support in Nairobi for the Kenyan mission in Somalia.
“Shabab is both far more fractured than it has been and arguably more radicalized,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in nontraditional security threats. “They are far more limited in what they can do in Somalia, and that drives spectacular attacks abroad.”
As rank-and-file members left, the result was a group that was even more radical. The military setbacks raised the stakes. “The leadership needs to demonstrate they are still alive, both abroad and to their own fighters,” Ms. Felbab-Brown said.
A 2011 report by the Monitoring Group described the deep well of support that Shabab had inside Kenya, with various religious and cultural organizations inside the country raising both money and fighters for militant activities.
“Al Shabab supporters in Kenya have established an extensive and complex financial support system to sustain their own activities, sponsor the travel of recruits to Somalia, support the Kenyan families of Al Shabab members in the field, and provide financial contributions to the jihadist cause,” the report concluded.
The United Nations group found that while Shabab’s presence in Kenya had once been concentrated within the country’s ethnic Somali community, since 2009 Shabab had greatly expanded its influence and membership among non-Somali Kenyan nationals.
“This is an international war and we have to join hands and work together to see it destroyed,” The Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, said in a national address on Sunday.
The United States has put an added emphasis on Africa as a battleground in the fight against terrorism. Representative Peter T. King, a Republican from New York and a member of the House intelligence committee , said on ABC television that the group has recruited some 40 to 50 American members, of whom 15 to 20 remained active. The Shabab claimed that several of its fighters in the Nairobi mall attack had lived in the United States.
“The concern would be if any of them have come back to the United States and would use those abilities here in the United States,” Mr. King said.
Nicholas Kulish reported from Nairobi, and Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
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