The sickening terrorist attack carried out in Nairobi is a reminder of one thing among several others; talking points will not suffice when such devastation needs to be properly explained to the public. As Americans are once again forced to brush away the dust atop their maps they hurry to locate Kenya. Yet, as this story has unfolded, Kenya has proven to be just the tip of the iceberg. In order to gain a richer understanding of the terrorist attack in Kenya and its explicit motivations one must dig deeper into an older conflict involving the immediate region’s key player, Somalia.

Without a constant national government from 1991 to 2006, Somalia was essentially a modern day example of a stateless society. Between rampant crime and poverty throughout Somalia, chaos became the norm. To correct this nebulous conception of rule the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was created in the middle of 2004. Designed to impose order and crack down on the escalating crime rates and warlord-style governance, the ICU had another crucial element which cannot go overlooked; it meant to enforce Islamic law on the areas that it controlled.

Further, the ICU gave rise to the same terrorist group that attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi, al Shabaab. Al Shabaab was a particularly fundamentalist, militant faction of the ICU. The remains of a previous Somali Islamist organization, al Itihaad al Islamiya (AIAI), al Shabaab helped lead the ICU’s expansion through much of Somalia’s southern territory and would eventually take control of the country’s capital, Mogadishu.

As this effort was ongoing in Somalia, however, Ethiopia grew restive. Ethiopian leaders’ fears were prompted by voices within the ICU who were referring to a “jihad” against Ethiopians. On top of a long history of hostility between the two states, tensions rose. Finally, on December 24, 2006, Ethiopia sent thousands of troops into Somalia. Al Shabaab, suddenly on the defensive acting on the ICU’s behalf, put up a fight but to no avail. Ethiopian forces quickly took control of Mogadishu without much effort. They would, however, withdraw their troops in 2009. This history thus marks the foundation and formation of al Shabaab as a terrorist group. With principled resistance to the Ethiopian intrusion, the al Shabaab cause was strict, narrow, and above all, nationalistic.

That resistance, opposition to foreign involvement in Somalia’s internal affairs, is precisely the narrative parroted by every major media outlet since the recent terrorist attack in Nairobi. Al Shabaab, having assumed credit for this ghastly attack, has explained their murderous rampage as a response to the Kenyan encroachment in Somalia in 2011. It would seem therefore, between Ethiopia and Kenya, that al Shabaab is nothing more than a nationalist terrorist organization aimed at ridding Somalia of foreign imperialists. While fitting the group’s history of resisting Ethiopia’s invasion in 2006, however, there is a much neglected and yet tremendously important piece of information that some have glossed over in analyzing al Shabaab.

Beginning in early 2008, al Shabaab dramatically changed its direction by tying itself to al Qaeda in rhetoric, practice, and structure. Al Shabaab was not only concerned with nationalist issues, but it was also aligned with a war against the West. Demonizing Western ideals such as secularism and freedom of expression, al Shabaab was in much deeper than it was previously. Also, the group began to adopt suicide bombing as a battle tactic. Before joining ranks with al Qaeda such activity was nowhere to be found in al Shabaab’s repertoire. The structure of al Shabaab was also altered as it began to incorporate core members of al Qaeda into its leadership.

All this should give great pause to those who maintain al Shabaab is merely a nationalist terrorist group concerned with Somali domestic issues. Of course, the Westgate terrorist attack had explicit motivations relating to Kenya’s involvement in Somalia dating back to 2011. But that is only a small part of the picture. The larger part is illustrated in al Shabaab’s recent transnational rhetoric and track record.

As Americans reflect on the tragedy that occurred in Nairobi, many will wonder why their interest should be provoked in the first place. Somalia is, after all, a distant country even if it does have all these issues. This mentality, while understandable to some degree, needs some reconsideration. The United States is home to many citizens of Somali ancestry. Moreover, Columbus, Ohio in particular is the city with the second largest population of Somali Americans. With these credentials unique to Columbus and international headlines consistently demanding a better depiction of al Shabaab, Columbus residents have every reason to invoke their curiosity concerning the Nairobi terrorist attack.