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Al-Shabab ambitions

But al-Shabab is an evolving organization, which U.S. intelligence sources say is less focused today on trying to take over Somalia than it once was.

Intelligence sources told The Times on Monday that the Kenya attack could have been motivated by a variety of factors. The group’s publicly stated reason was to send a message to Kenyan leaders about the presence of its military forces in Somalia, but the sources said it could mark a new chapter in the group’s development.

“Despite being severely weakened as an insurgency, al-Shabab’s lethality as a terrorist outfit has been fairly constant,” one U.S. official said. “Al-Shabab’s operational arm may be benefiting from additional resources now that the group is less preoccupied with governance.”

“The assault on the Westgate Mall in Kenya was the most prominent in a string of terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya stretching back over the past two years,” the official said. “It’s really too early to say if al-Shabab’s latest attack is the beginning of a broader campaign in Kenya or a desperate attempt to compel Nairobi to withdraw its troops from Somalia.”

Kenya’s foreign minister told CNN that al-Shabab clearly was not acting alone and said the attack resembled previous al Qaeda terrorism.

“This bears the hallmarks of al Qaeda. This is not just al-Shabab. In fact, the leaders are not Somali, as you may have heard. This was al Qaeda. It was a very well-coordinated effort; it was very well planned,” Amina Mohamed said.

Separately, U.S. law enforcement authorities have turned up a host of convictions against Somali-Americans since 2007 under a sweeping investigation that federal officials call Operation Rhino and which targets al-Shabab recruitment activities.

Intelligence assessments pointing to al-Shabab’s recruiting activities in Minnesota have prompted some influential Republicans on Capitol Hill to play up the threat posed by the group.

The “key finding” of a July 2011 investigative report on al-Shabab by Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee was that “there is a looming danger of American Shabaab fighters returning to the U.S. to strike or helping Al Qaeda and its affiliates attack the homeland.”

“U.S. intelligence underestimated the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in Yemen’s capability of launching attacks here,” the report stated. “We cannot afford to make the same mistake with Shabaab.”

In 2009, Philip Mudd, then a senior official in the FBI’s national security branch, told lawmakers, “While there are no current indicators that any of the individuals who traveled to Somalia have been selected, trained, or tasked by al-Shabab or other extremists to conduct attacks inside the United States, we remain concerned about this possibility and that it might be exploited in the future if other U.S. persons travel to Somalia for similar purposes.”

Al-Shabab’s claims

The wave of Twitter activity tied to the group and to the Kenya attack this weekend could amplify such concerns.

Several U.S. news organizations picked up on tweets about the Kenya attack claiming to have come from al-Shabab. While some reported that Twitter was working quickly to scrub the activity, al-Shabab apparently was moving equally fast to create accounts on the social media site.

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