After a lull of four years, the Somali extremist group al-Shabab has recently attacked the Nairobi. After a 19-hour siege that left 21 dead, the group claimed responsibility of the attack releasing an official statement. Was the attack in Kenya a surprise? Does it suggest a resurgence of the old extremist group or we see new trends among the terror outfit? What does al Shabaab attack indicate of the larger terrorist operations in the Maghreb and the Middle Eastern region?
Why is al Shabab’s attack in Kenya not a surprise?
The latest attack on Kenya is an addition to the past four major attacks that the group has continuously perpetrated in the past six years in the country. In 2013 Kenya’s economic centre the Westgate mall was attacked leaving more than 67 dead, in 2014, the coastal city of Mpeketoni was attacked where 60 was killed and the deadliest attack was in 2015 when the Garissa University was attacked killing 180 students. Since 2015, the Kenyan air force has joined the African Union coalition in conducting airstrikes on al Shabad held region bordering Somalia and Kenya. This has subsequently caused damaged and routed the extremist group thereby containing the group’s activities in the border region. In response, al Shabab has frequently attacked the neighbouring country.
Three reasons have always been behind al Shabab’s frequent targeting of Kenya. Firstly, Kenya has higher international coverage with a relatively free media who reports on the groups’ attack giving them the much-needed visibility. Secondly, Kenya’s economy has developed owing to its lucrative tourist business. Hence this month’s attack on the hotel was to hurt the prime economic nerve of Kenya. Third and the most significant one is among Kenya’s minority population al Shabab gets its highest number of recruits. There are a high number of Kenyan-born fighters within the group. With every attack, the Kenyan government has come down heavily on the border region in Somalia which particularly radicalised many Somalis in the Somalian minority community in Kenya. This remained as new recruit point for al Shabab. In addition, in spite of the warnings, the Kenyan government has underestimated the group’s operational extent. Secondly, corruption in the Kenyan government has also deterred in containing the group’s attacks. A UN investigation report, published by the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, details how weapons with the al Shabab team have been let go the border security forces for a bribe of US$20.
Al Shabab’s attack may not be a surprise but it was a significant message to the US for its larger anti-terrorism operations in the MENA region. It should be noted that al Shabab’s attack came amid an escalation of American airstrikes, which are supported by Kenya. According to US Africa Command data, the unmanned US drones based in Somalia have conducted 47 strikes in 2018. In the most recent US strike on 8 January, 62 al Shabab fighters were killed. But in spite of continued American air strikes and African Union Mission in Somalia, the strikes have done little to hamper the group’s capability to recruit and replenish in men and machines. In a decade al Shabab’s hold in Somalia has been reduced to a few rural pockets but the capacity of the group to unleash large violent damage remains constant. The US under Trump’s administration has carried out more drone attacks on al Shabab and destroyed their leadership recently. The attack has been deemed as al Shabab’s way of “getting back” but both the attack and the official statements indicate two things: the groups’ resilience to the US policy of air strikes and al Shabab’s rebound to Al Qaeda.
Is al Shabaab re-surging or being resilient?
According to several media reports, the attack on the Dusit D2 hotel has the marks of al-Shabab’s previous tactics: detonating explosives, followed by suicide infantry. But this attack may not necessarily indicate that the group is resurging rather the attack is symbolic to demonstrate that the group can survive and execute planned attacks. Secondly by labelling its operation as Operation Al -Qudsu lan Tuhawwad (Jerusalem will never be Judaized), al Shabab’s statement that made reference to a two-year-old American policy in the Middle East. A question could be raised as to does this indicate a commitment to the instructions of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri’s instruction to keep the Jerusalem issue alive? If the statement is read closely, the use of words such as “our people in Palestine” indicates a global appeal that al Shabab may be trying to equate itself with beyond trying to survive in Somalia alone. But more than al Shabab, the statement echoes the motive of al Qaeda.
As an affiliate of al Qaeda, al Shabab since 2006 had expanded to Kenya, Yemen, Tanzania and Mozambique. With years it emerged as an independent operational group less need to echo al Qaeda’s objectives from time to time. However, in recent times the group has been fragmented. The group was being fairly hierarchical and consolidated strongly under Ahmed Abdi Godane aka Mukhtar Abu Zubair who carried out the 2013 Westgate attack. But after his death in 2014, al Shabab has been atomised indicated by the smaller attacks in Somalia and Kenya. But the 15 January attack was elaborately planned and the first attack outside Somalia since 2015 thereby hinting at al Shabab’s desire to revive and need to associate with al Qaeda again.
Why revivalism of the terror groups a trend in the Maghreb?
After a brief glimmer with the Arab Spring, violence and rise of radical groups has returned in the Maghreb. According to the statistics by the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, the terror attacks by radical groups in Africa have increased by 200 per cent and fatalities by more than 750 per cent during 2009-2015. Boko Haram’s violence in the past 8 years has increased substantially, so has the violence in the Sahel due to a resurgence of al Qaeda. Terrorist groups like Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine and Macina Liberation Front have merged to become Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (Group for Support of Islam and Muslims). Since 2014, pro-ISIS terrorist groups have been active in Tunisia and Libya.
As the stronghold of Islamic State in Syria is dwindling, Maghreb is slowly emerging as the most fertile ground and older groups are merging to emerge as an affiliate of the IS.
Sourina Bej is Research Associate at International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP), National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)