WASHINGTON -- The White House is under pressure to ramp up counterterrorism action against al-Shabab in Somalia following the al-Qaida-linked group's deadly attack on an upscale Kenyan shopping mall that has killed and injured dozens, including Canadians and Americans.
Republican lawmakers Sunday said the attack shows al-Qaida is growing in, belying the Obama administration's claims it is weaker.
"They're not on the decline," said Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, on CBS' Face the Nation. "They're on the rise, as you can see from Nairobi."
Al-Shabab militants launched their assault on Saturday, storming the mall with grenades and gunfire. Kenyan security forces launched a major assault late Sunday on the mall, where the militants were still holding an unknown number of hostages, trying to end the two-day standoff that had already killed at least 68 people. The Kenya Defence Forces said their troops have rescued "most" hostages.
State Department spokesman Marie Harf said U.S. law enforcement, military and civilian personnel in Nairobi are providing advice and assistance as requested by the Kenyan authorities.
U.S. counterterrorism officials throughout the Obama administration have debated whether to target the Somalia-based rebel group more directly, especially after it merged with al-Qaida in early 2012. But U.S. action has been limited to the occasional drone strike or raid when a high-value al-Qaida target comes into view, while relying on assisting Somali and African peacekeeping forces to carry out the day-to-day fight.
That decision was partly driven by fear that directly targeting al-Shabab would spur the group to expand its own target list, striking at U.S. diplomatic posts overseas and calling on members of the Somali diaspora inside the U.S. to carry out attacks, according to current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials.
A White House official said Sunday the administration has taken a "balanced approach."
"Our approach has been to work to enable and support African partners," as well as prosecuting some al-Shabab members and supporters," National Security Council spokesman Jonathan Lalley said by email Sunday.
But that effort in Somalia pales next to, say, the hundreds of U.S. drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan.
The Somali rebel group has limited its own target list to Somali officials or troops, and African Union peacekeeping troops, to avoid drawing the U.S. counterterrorism machine into a full-fledged fight, the U.S. officials say. Though headed by hard-core Islamist militants, al-Shabab's more moderate membership has successfully argued to keep the group focused on overthrowing the U.S.-based Somali government, rather than taking on the mantle of al-Qaida's larger war with the West.
The group claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Uganda in 2010 that killed 70 people, but that was seen as a reaction to Uganda providing African peacekeeping forces in Somalia.
Similarly, al-Shabab said this weekend's attack was in retribution for Kenyan forces' 2011 push into Somalia.
-- The Associated Press