In the last two weeks, al-Shabaab militants have conducted two attacks in Nairobi, Kenya. The first one happened on January, 15th. It was a horrific Dusit suicide bombing and an armed ambush that took lives of 21 people. It was soon followed by explosions at Odeon Cinema that injured two individuals on January 26th. With all the countries in the region on high alert for possible terrorist activity from the extremist group, it is important to understand the reasoning behind the attacks and the presence of al-Shabaab in the region.
The first question that must be asked is, what is al-Shabaab? Al-Shabaab is a terrorist organization that pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012. It predominantly operates in Somalia; however, it has also created “sleeper cells” throughout Northeast Africa. Moreover, recent reports indicate that al-Shabaab has made strong links with the extremist movement in northern Mozambique. Like many groups operating under the global Jihadist movement, al-Shabaab strives to create an Islamic caliphate in Somalia. By using nationalistic sentiment, such as striving to rid the country of foreign powers and reunifying Somali people under one flag, the extremist group has managed to attract radicalized youth to its ranks. In addition to this, al-Shabaab is known for kidnapping young boys and forcing them to become child soldiers.
Al-Shabaab has been staging insurgency against the Somali government and its allies such as The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) for more than 10 years. The organization has also conducted attacks against “uncooperative” groups in Southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab has carried out more than 3000 terrorist strikes within Somalia and its neighboring countries, especially targeting Kenya. In Somalia, most of the attacks have aimed at destroying military and government bases and buildings. Despite this, the organization’s most lethal acts have taken place in civilian-heavy locations such as restaurants and hotels. In Kenya, the group has mostly hit “soft” targets: public transportation and shopping malls.
The second question that must be asked is, are there potential reasons behind the attacks? Though analysts have suggested a myriad of theories explaining the recent terrorist activity, there are two factors that seem most important and plausible. As the 19-hour siege was taking place at Dusit hotel, many observers noticed that that the attack was being carried out on the three-year anniversary of the El Adde raid. On January 15th, 2016, al-Shabaab stormed Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) base in Somalia. Even though the Kenyan government is yet to publish the official records of the strike, experts believe that almost 100 soldiers were killed.
The second factor behind the two recent attacks in Nairobi is attributed to the increased number of airstrikes against the group by the U.S. Since the inception of AMISOM in 2007, The United States’ strategy has been to support the counterterrorism efforts by conducting targeted airstrikes, thus aiming to kill top al-Shabaab leaders. This strategy is known as “Decapitation” as it assumes that exterminating the organization’s top echelon will eventually lead to destabilization and destruction of the organization itself. In the case of al-Shabaab, U.S. airstrikes eliminated former leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, as well as other figureheads such as Aden Hashi Ayro, Mohamed Mohamud and Maalim Daud. Though this strategy is overwhelmingly unsupported by researchers and policymakers, “Decapitation” is still actively used by the U.S. in Somalia. Most importantly, the Trump administration has loosened strict Obama era’s rules on military engagement in Somalia. The U.S. can now pre-emptively strike any suspected al-Shabaab training camps and hideouts. Analysts say that the attacks in Nairobi were carried out to send a message to the United States that despite the targeted airstrikes al-Shabaab is still strong.
Paul D. Williams, one of the leading scholars on security issues in Africa, states that there are other reasons for terrorizing Kenya, “to hurt Kenya economically, to put the focus back on Kenya’s military involvement in Somalia and to hope for [a] brutal crackdown on the Somali community in Kenya to help gain recruits.”
I would also suggest that there is one more motivation for these terrorist attacks. That is to illustrate to potential recruits that they should join al-Shabaab rather than Islamic State in Somalia (ISS). In 2016, some members of the former organization declared their independence from the later, while operation in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. As a result, al-Shabaab and ISS fighters have been fighting amongst each other in that region. Since both groups are vying for the same recruits to join their ranks, they both must illustrate that their organization is better and stronger than the other.
As long as al-Shabaab’s keeps trying to create an Islamic caliphate in Greater Somalia, including parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, the extremist group will remain a threat to the region. On the flip side, as long as AMISOM supports the Somali Federal Government (SFG), al-Shabaab will continue to use its presence in the country as an excuse for all the attacks. In fact, Mr. Williams claims that al-Shabaab intends to conduct more terrorist acts in Somalia and neighboring countries, in hopes that the governments will respond by a brutal crackdown on Somalis both locally and abroad. Any violence from a government’s side will ensure that al-Shabaab will have a new recruitment drive. The terrorism researcher, Anneli Botha, explains,” [al-Shabaab succeeds in] areas where you have vulnerable communities, people feeling marginalised due to a number of reasons.”
Even though the group is plagued by internal conflicts due to its poor military strategy and a high number of deaths during its attacks in Somalia, as well as constant competition with other extremist groups, al-Shabaab remains a threat to Kenya and the larger region of the Northerneast Africa. AMISOM’s and The United States’ strategy to quell the terrorist activity over the past ten years has not stopped al-Shabaab’s ability to conduct deadly attacks in Somalia and other countries. Thus, Somali government and its allies must re-think their battle tactics.