, NAIROBI, Apr 2 – Somalia’s Al Shabaab, who attacked a Kenyan university on Thursday, seizing hostages and killing several, have stepped up attacks in Kenya since its army crossed into southern Somalia in 2011.
The Islamist Shabaab, meaning “youth” in Arabic, are thought to be several thousand strong. But they are only one of a string of militia groups in the Horn of Africa nation, which has been at war since the collapse of Siad Barre’s hardline regime in 1991.
The Shabaab emerged out of a bitter insurgency against Ethiopia, whose troops crossed into Somalia in a 2006 US-backed invasion to topple the Islamic Courts Union that was then controlling the capital Mogadishu, and of which the Shabaab were a part.
– Al-Qaeda-links –
In 2010 the Shabaab declared their allegiance to Al-Qaeda, to which they were officially integrated in 2012.
In August 2011, they fled the capital Mogadishu, and continue to battle an African Union force, AMISOM, that includes troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
Led by Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah since the death in September 2014 of Ahmed Abdi Godane in an American air strike, the Shabaab control large parts of rural southern Somalia.
Despite having been driven from a string of towns in the south and centre of the country by AMISOM, guerrilla units stage regular deadly attacks in Mogadishu in their bid to overthrow the government.
The most deadly attack over the past several years was on October 4, 2011, against a ministerial complex in Mogadishu in which at least 82 died.
– Deadly regional attacks –
The group has carried out a string of revenge attacks in neighbouring countries, notably Kenya and Uganda, in response to their participation in the AU force.
Since Kenya sent troops into southern Somalia in late 2011, the Shabaab have stepped up attacks, including massacres and grenade attacks in the northeast border regions with Somalia, as well as on the coast and the capital Nairobi.
In September 2013 they launched a spectacular attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, which left at least 67 dead in a four-day seige.
In June and July last year Shabaab gunmen killed close to 100 people in a series of attacks on the Kenyan town of Mpeketoni and nearby villages.
On November 22, Shabaab gunmen held up a bus outside Mandera town, separated passengers according to religion and executed 28 non-Muslims. Ten days later 36 non-Muslim quarry workers were also massacred in the area.
In 2010 the Shabaab carried out twin bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala targeting a restaurant and a club where football fans were watching the World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain, killing 76 people.
On May 24, 2014, Shabaab rebels claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on a Djibouti restaurant packed with foreigners.
They said the attack was “part of the ongoing jihad against the Western-led crusade against Islam”.