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A Threat Reawakened: Al Shabaab’s terror campaign in Kenya

On 15 January, four gunmen stormed the dusitD2 hotel and office complex in Nairobi, Kenya, in the first complex terrorist attack in the city in six years. Al Shabaab’s latest assault points to the persistent terrorism threat in Kenya, writes Gabrielle Reid.

Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the two-day assault against Nairobi’s dusitD2 hotel complex on 15 January, citing US President Donald Trump’s May 2018 decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as the motive for the brutal assault. While such a motive appears removed from Al Shabaab’s Somalia campaign, the recent increase in US drone strikes against Al Shabaab positions in Somalia has likely placed the Trump administration at the top of Al Shabaab’s list of adversaries. Although this should be a concern to US interests in the region, the 15 January attack speaks more to Al Shabaab’s threat to Kenya than the group’s interest in the international politics surrounding the Israel/Palestine dispute. The attack serves as a strong reminder that Al Shabaab and its Kenyan outfit, Jaysh Al Ayman, remain key threats to Kenya and international operators with local business interests.

The dusitD2 attack, which killed 21 people, marked the first large-scale terrorist attack in Nairobi since the prominent Westgate shopping mall siege in 2013. The latest attack followed a similar course. The militants successfully detonated at least two explosive devices outside the complex to gain access to the facility and then laid siege to the complex. However, unlike any prior attacks, the incident marked the first official suicide bombing reported in Nairobi, with one of the reported explosions attributed to a suicide bombing. The militants then engaged in a 20-hour standoff with Kenyan and foreign security forces, with the attack ending on 16 January after security forces killed the assailants. Since then, authorities have engaged in an ongoing investigation, arresting 11 people, including a Canadian citizen, and questioning dozens of others in connection with the attack.

Timeline of dusitD2 hotel attack

Although the January 2019 attack caught many off guard, Al Shabaab operations in Kenya have become more entrenched since 2013, where much of the group’s activity has been confined to the Kenyan counties of Garissa, Mandera and Lamu. Since 2017 rhetoric by Jaysh Al Ayman and Al Shabaab-proper has pointed to plans for another Westgate-style attack, and the latest investigations into the incident state the attackers had been scouting the dusitD2 complex since December 2016. Viewed retrospectively, the coinciding increase in attacks in Lamu County’s Boni Forest has served as Al Shabaab’s terror campaign in Kenya a useful diversion amid these efforts to plan a much larger attack in Nairobi. Furthermore, in light of Al Shabaab’s recent losses in Somalia following the ramped-up US drone strike campaign, the timing of the latest assault is not entirely unexpected. Al Shabaab has previously favoured emboldened terrorist campaigns, characterised by sophisticated and much-publicised attacks at times when its Somali insurgency has suffered. The US Africa Command (AFRICOM), for example, launched 45 confirmed airstrikes against Al Shabaab targets in Somalia in 2018, resulting in at least 190 militant fatalities. The group is simultaneously facing a significant offensive by Somali and African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) forces in Somalia’s Jubaland. In this regard, the latest Kenyan attack will serve to bolster the group’s international profile, while concurrently re-emphasising its role as a transitional threat, despite its domestic losses.

Al Shabaab in Somalia will be satisfied with the inroads made into Kenya and the success of its 2013 Jaysh Al Ayman project. Since its 2013 inception, Jaysh Al Ayman has played a leading role in highprofile attacks, including the June 2014 Mpeketoni attack in which 48 people were killed. The group now appears to have cemented its presence as the lead Kenyan outfit, recruiting Kenyan nationals, including Muslim converts from wider sectors of Kenyan society. According to ongoing investigations, one of the 15 January attackers, identified as Ali Salim Gichunge, was the son of a Kenyan military officer, while the remaining attackers were also believed to be Kenyan nationals. This tracks well with Al Shabab’s earlier strategy to secure domestic backing for its Jaysh Al Ayman-headed campaign in Kenya. Through Jaysh Al Ayman, Al Shabaab has been able to take advantage of grievances within Kenya’s own Muslim community to reinforce domestic support. Evidence suggests that non-Somali nationals have been involved in the majority of terrorist activity outside of Somalia, including those orchestrated in Kenya. Indeed, part of the success of the recent attacks in Kenya has been Al Shabaab’s ability to rely on local assistance, as demonstrated in the latest attack. 

Recent rhetoric by Jaysh Al Ayman and Al Shabaab-proper has pointed to plans for another Westgate-style attack since 2017.

Yet, while Al Shabaab has been successful in localising their operations, Kenyan authorities have previously displayed a tendency to externalise the issue of terrorism, placing blame on immigrant communities that have taken up residence in the country. This time around, authorities will need to face up to Kenya’s domestic vulnerabilities to terrorist activity. Kenyan authorities have failed to recognise that disenfranchised youth among Kenya’s own Muslim population have proven increasingly susceptible to radicalisation and extremism. As Al Shabaab continues to exploit domestic grievances in Kenya for its own organisational advantage, Kenya’s efforts to combat terrorism will yield few results unless these deficiencies, including the purported marginalisation of Muslim communities, are addressed. The January attack is unlikely to point to an increase in the frequency of high-impact attacks in Nairobi, as these assaults take significant time and resources to plan and execute. However, it does point to Al Shabaab’s ability to evade eradication and continue to present a persistent, albeit clandestine and oscillating, terrorism threat in Kenya.

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