Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based organisation terrorising both Kenya and Somalia appears to be getting bolder in the scale and scope of its attacks. Meanwhile, the local and foreign forces pitted against it seem to be pulling in different directions. Report by Tom Collins in Nairobi.
Two reasons were given by al-Shabaab, Somalia’s feared terrorist organisation, for its deadly attack on a US-Kenya military base in Kenya’s north-eastern Lamu County in January.
One was a response to Washington’s designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The other was due to its long-held desire to reclaim land near the Somali border, which it claims was stolen from the Muslim population by the Kenyan government and non-indigenous Christian ethnicities from southern parts of the country.
A chilling warning was issued by the group’s spokesman Sheikh Ali Dhere, who urged Christians to flee the counties of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera: “Muslim teachers, doctors, engineers, and young graduates from the north-eastern province are unemployed. Isn’t it better to give them a chance? There is no need for the presence of disbelievers.”
Along with frequent attacks on vehicles, shops, homes and telecoms infrastructure, the jihadist group has violently disrupted education as a means to reinforce the local population’s marginalisation from the Nairobi-based government in the richer south.
Hundreds of schools have closed following repeated attacks on educational facilities, often killing non-local teachers and creating further problems for a region that frequently suffers climate-related disasters.
Much of the population in the north-east is of Somali descent and a small minority support the al-Qaeda- affiliated group.
Some see them as a regional service-provider, whereas others support al-Shabaab’s ideological goal to replace the Mogadishu government with an Islamic state.
“There has been a rapprochement between the local population and al-Shabaab as of late,” says Stig Jarle Hansen, associate professor of international relations and an expert on African jihadist groups at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
“My local sources say that their infiltration into north-eastern Kenya is growing rapidly. You can see several leaders having to deal with al-Shabaab and having dialogue with them because they are getting stronger.”
The localised and mostly Kenyan al-Shabaab cell, Jaysh al-Ayman, claimed responsibility for the attack in Lamu County – operating from an expanse of woodland that extends to the Somali border called the Boni Forest.
The group was created in 2013 along with a less-successful Ethiopian counterpart as a tactical response to the strengthening of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) by Kenyan forces two years prior.
In 2011, al-Shabaab was driven from Mogadishu and a year later ousted from Kismayo, its headquarters since the group’s creation in 2006 and an important source of revenue as a coastal city.
Unable to challenge AMISOM in open warfare, al-Shabaab adopted the strategy of establishing local cells to carry out strategic terrorist attacks.
Yet al-Shabaab’s reach in Kenya not only extends to the counties straddling the Somali border, it has also spread to other cities like Isiolo and Mombasa.
Kenyans were shocked last year to learn that most of the assailants involved in the 22 January attack on the DusitD2 hotel in Nairobi, which left 21 dead, were home-grown terrorists from ethnicities like the Kikuyu, who are neither traditionally Muslim nor from the Somali border.
The attack was carried out by the Saleh an-Nabhan brigade, a terror cell which also operates from the Boni Forest and which is believed to be responsible for the July 2010 Kampala bombings and the January 2016 attack on El Adde, an AMISOM army base.
Local jihadists were also responsible for the 2015 attack at Garissa University Campus that left 148 dead.
By contrast, those who attacked the Westgate Mall in 2013 were largely foreigners.
Though the threat profile from al-Shabaab is constant – due to its resilience, steady supply of recruits and ability to adapt – Kenya’s north-eastern region has come under renewed focus from the group.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a warning that al-Shabaab may be targeting low-flying planes in the north-eastern region through the use of weapons and rockets.
“The threat level from al-Shabaab is changing; it’s still in Mogadishu and Nairobi but maybe in other areas too,” says Hansen. “I’m still very worried about the Lamu area because you have a lot of support for al-Shabaab there, due to the historical grievances.”
Another worrying development in the north-east is the ongoing fallout between Somalia and Kenya over a maritime border dispute and varying support for the Jubaland government, Somalia’s southern-most regional government, which sits across the border from Kenya.
In early February, Mogadishu accused Kenya of hiding a fugitive Jubaland minister – Abdirashid Janan – in Mandera, the Kenyan town which straddles the border with Jubaland. Janan had escaped from a Mogadishu prison in late January where he was being held for several crimes including human rights violations.
His presence in the Kenya border-town attracted Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) troops, who began scoping out and occasionally firing shots at the minister’s residence from the adjacent Somali town of Bula Hawo. The tension quickly escalated into open conflict between the FGS and Jubaland forces with support from the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF).
Kenya has a strong alliance with Jubaland’s President Ahmed Madobe, who was re-elected in a controversial poll last year to govern the autonomous region.
Despite creating tension with Somalia’s central government, which is currently at odds with Jubaland, Nairobi has sought to strengthen the local adminstration as an al-Shabaab buffer zone.
Madobe, who accused Somalia’s President Mohamed Farmajo of trying to manipulate the election, is the leader of the self-styled anti al-Shabaab militia, Ras Kamboni.
“Kenya continues to support Madobe and the Ras Kamboni,” says Ahmed Soliman, Horn of Africa researcher at Chatham House.
“It has been an approach which has paid some dividends but it has also not been wholly successful. That is because it’s not only al-Shabaab coming from Somalia and attacking Kenya but also because this is a fluid area and there are al-Shabaab units which are Kenyan.
“So the buffer ambition works to some extent but it has also been outdated and bypassed by what the broader al-Shabaab network is able to do.”
The border concern is made worse by the fact that the KDF is beginning to withdraw from Somalia after nine years battling the insurgents, as AMISOM prepares to wind up its peacekeeping and enforcement operations in 2021.
The withdrawal of foreign soldiers adheres to the Somali Transition Plan, which aims to transfer security responsibilities back to Somalia, though analysts doubt the capacity of the Somali National Army to combat al-Shabaab and many fear a resurgence from the group, which has anywhere up to an estimated 10,000 members.
These fears add to the internal disruption currently gripping Somalia as the regional governments clash with Mogadishu.
Since coming into office in 2017, Farmajo has adopted a rigid anti-federal agenda as he attempts to bring Mogadishu’s institutions under central control.
This policy has aggravated already-existing divides between regional governments and Farmajo’s administration, most recently leading to conflict.
While Farmajo is backed by Turkey and Qatar, players like Somaliland have looked to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while Jubaland has sought support from Kenya.
As the antipathy between Somalia and its regions continues, and Farmajo’s government continues to spar with Kenya, analysts are concerned that the squabbling will detract from the war on terror.
Aside from regional issues, the attack on a US military base has sparked debate over American involvement in the fight against al-Shabaab, as Washington mulls withdrawing its troops from Africa during a period where it removes itself from other military engagements across the world due to changing priorities.
“In the national defence strategy and security strategy there is a shift away from the global war on terror towards the concept of Great Power competition against Russia, China and currently Iran,” says Colin P. Clarke, senior research fellow at the New York-based Soufan Center.
Opposing any such move, Stephen Townsend, the commander of AFRICOM, the US’s military wing operating in Africa, visited Kenya and Somalia recently to rally support for continued engagement.
He noted that al-Shabaab was the terrorist organisation posing the biggest threat to American interests and added that it “must be dealt with before the network expands its reach to other places, to include their stated desire to strike US citizens in the US homeland.”
The US is fighting al-Shabaab by training local soldiers and operating drone strikes from the Baledogle Airfield in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, where the terrorist group is most active.
The US also has support bases in Kenya, like the one in Lamu County among others.
The Pentagon carried out 63 drone strikes in Somalia last year, up from 47 the year before.
The increased activity contrasts sharply with the Sahel region where AFRICOM is considering scaling back its provision of intelligence and drone support. The US believes that France is capable of fighting jihadism in the Sahel alone. The story is different in Somalia where a US withdrawal would leave only regional forces to fight al-Shabaab and Washington believes the threat level is worse in the Horn of Africa, Clarke says.
While the official forces battling al-Shabaab continue to disagree and pull in different directions, the terror organisation appears to be entrenching itself more firmly and becoming bolder in its attacks.