Kenya attack a shift for Somali rebels?

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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 Americans.

Republican lawmakers Sunday said the attack showed al-Qaida is growing in size and strength, belying the Obama administration's claims that it has grown 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."

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 particularly high-value al-Qaida target comes into view, while relying primarily on assisting Somali and African peacekeeping forces to carry out the day-to-day fight.

The Somali rebel group has similarly limited its own target list to Somali official targets 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.

But the scale and technical sophistication of the Nairobi attack could signal a change in al-Shabab's aspirations, according to Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., possibly increasing the group's direct threat to the United States.

Mr. King said the State Department has not wanted to declare al-Shabab a terrorist organization because it saw the group focusing on tribal issues within Somalia.

Two former U.S. counterterrorism officials say the preference has always been to meet specific incidents with a specific response but to avoid getting too deeply involved in the continent of Africa.

"The 'don't expand the fight' argument has always won," one said.

They said the number of western citizens among the dead and injured in the weekend incident may change the U.S. calculation.

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