Scholar Paul Marshall: Al-Shabaab's Religious Ideology Similar to ISIS; Brutality Natural Direction, Not Only Due to Competition

(Photo: Reuters/Feisal Omar/Files)Senior Al Shabaab officer Mohamed Mohamud alias Sheik Dulayadayn addresses a news conference during clashes between Ismalist fighting and Somali government in Somalia's capital Mogadishu this file picture taken on January 1, 2011. The death toll in an assault by Somali militants on a Kenyan university is likely to climb above 147, a government source and media said on April 3, 2015, as anger grew among local residents over what they say was a government failure to prevent bloodshed. Within hours of the attack, Kenya put up a 20 million shillings (5,000) reward for the arrest of Mohamed Mohamud, a former Garissa teacher labeled "Most Wanted" in a government poster and linked by Kenyan media to two separate al Shabaab attacks in the neighboring Mandera region last year.

The Somali terror group al-Shabaab, which killed nearly 150 students in a targeted attack on Christians at Kenya's Garissa University College last week, is rooted in a religious ideology and is not too different from the Islamic State in its ambition, said religious freedom scholar Paul Marshall of Hudson Institute in an interview.

Terrorist groups, including al-Shabaab, follow different kinds of interpretations of the Quran, "but they are similar to the Wahhabi school in Saudi Arabia," Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., told The Christian Post.

Asked about the al-Qaeda-affiliated group's ambitions outside of Somalia, Marshall said its attacks in Kenya are partly in revenge for Kenyan troops fighting its militants in Somalia, "but its ambition goes far beyond that."

"Its ideology is a religious one, as is shown by its singling out of Christians for killing – not for the first time," added the author of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking. "It wants to gain control of Somalia, but if successful in that, it will seek to expand control to its neighbors—parallel to ISIS."

Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, is an offshoot of al-Qaeda and wants to establish a caliphate in the Levant region and beyond. It has gained control over large swathes of territories in Syria and Iraq.

A gunmen from al-Shabaab told students during last week's attack in Garissa that they were "here to make your Easter holidays better" and warned of further attacks to come, according to The Telegraph.

"If you were a Christian you were shot on the spot," Collins Wetangula, the vice chairman of the student union at Garissa, told FOX News.

It is estimated that al-Shabaab killed at least 400 people and injured over 1,000 in more than 100 attacks between 2011 – when Kenya sent its troops to Somalia – and 2014. On Sept. 21, 2013, al-Shabaab attacked Nairobi's Westgate Mall, leaving at least 68 dead and 175 wounded.

Asked if relatively smaller terror groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria have become more brutal because they are competing with ISIS to remain relevant to their supporters, Marshall said competition with ISIS is a factor "but its (al-Shabaab's) ideology would lead it in this direction anyway, especially as it has suffered defeats in Somalia itself where it has tried to act in a more military fashion."

Governments and groups from around the world condemned al-Shabaab's attack on Christian students in Garissa last Thursday. Pictures of students lying in a pool of blood at the site of the attack where they had gone to pray went viral on social media and people expressed their anger against terror groups.

However, the number of youth from Western nations joining groups like ISIS is growing. ISIS is believed to have hundreds of foreign fighters, including those from the United States and Europe.

Asked to explain this phenomenon, Marshall said, "For a young Muslim, feeling uprooted in the West, a group claiming to represent 'true Islam' and to provide exciting prospects can be a draw." It's not the poor that are drawn to ISIS but "the dislocated, the alienated," added Marshall, author and editor of more than 20 books on religion and politics. "There are similar draws to gang warfare or soccer hooliganism," he said, quoting Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at The Weekly Standard, who suggests that much of the draw is not to Islam but to "team Islam" – our team.

The United States gives millions of dollars in military and financial aid to Kenya and Nigeria to help fight terrorism, and an international coalition, led by Washington, has been launching airstrikes on ISIS bases in Syria and Iraq.

World leaders need to provide military, anti-terrorist and security training – with a human rights component – and support, Marshall said. But not just that, the world also needs to ensure that there is "economic development and exposure to alternative Muslim teaching" in terrorism-torn nations and regions, he added.