The Somali-based Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabaab) organization has been dramatically expanding its activities in Kenya since the start of the year. In January the group attacked a US airbase, and in April it killed six soldiers in the northeast of the country. Despite continued US strikes against the group’s strongholds, Al-Shabaab has continued to step up its operations, especially in northeastern Kenya.

This paper examines current trends in Al-Shabaab’s activities in Kenya, the dangers posed by the group’s expansion, and the challenges of combating the group, especially during the emerging coronavirus epidemic in the country. It also sets out possible scenarios for the group’s future activities, and examines efforts made by the Kenyan government to combat terrorism.

Al-Shabaab activities in Kenya: general trends and the risks posed by the group’s expansion

  • Al-Shabaab has been ramping up its activities in Kenya since the start of the year. Between January and May, it carried out more than 15 attacks[1], primarily in the coastal regions of Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu. It has mainly targeted the army and security forces[2]. The group is trying to put pressure on the Kenyan government, as Kenya has contributed troops to the African Union Mission to Somalia[3]. The attacks coincide with the escalation in the group’s efforts to retake its former stronghold of Janale in the Lower Shebelle region of southern Somalia, after Somali government forces seized the town with the support of AFRICOM and African Union peacekeeping forces in mid-March.
  • In response to continued US strikes and raids against the group, Al-Shabaab has continued to target US forces in Kenya. On January 5, it attacked Camp Simba in Manda Bay, near the border with Somalia. Three Americans were killed, and six civilian aircraft and three military vehicles were destroyed[4]. The group’s success in its attack shows that the offensive capabilities of its “Faith Army” wing are developing, having received support for its operations from the movement’s leadership from across the country’s fragile border with Somalia. The increasing intensity and range of the group’s attacks is another indication that it is gaining traction in Kenya, such as in the form of the Faith Army, which has established its base in the Boni forest area of Lamu and which has claimed responsibility for the attack on Camp Simba[5].
  • It seems increasingly likely that the group will expand throughout the region, especially in northeastern Kenya, where it is able to exploit existing religious divisions and sectarian conflicts. The group has already directed threats towards Christians in the region, and has killed several individuals. Al-Shabaab justified its attack on the US base in January as an attempt to retake an area that it claims was stolen from the Muslim population by the Kenyan government and Christian groups[6].
  • The group may be able to enhance its communications with cells in Kenya and Tanzania via the coastal cities and regions of Kenya, which would allow it to increase its operations, particularly by recruiting fighters. Northeastern Kenya has become a transit point for Al‑Shabaab operations in Tanzania and Uganda, where Kenyan and Tanzanian fighters numbering in the hundreds constitute the largest ethnic group among the movement’s ranks.

Kenya’s counter-terrorism challenges

Counter-terrorism efforts in Kenya currently face a number of challenges, primarily:

1. The country’s security services are currently involved in combating the recent coronavirus outbreak and enforcing social distancing measures in various regions[7]. This poses a challenge to counter-terrorism efforts, given the violent protests against such measures that have erupted in some areas.

2. Corruption among the security services is widespread, which has allowed Al-Shabaab to infiltrate the security services, transport weapons across the border, and even purchase weapons from security service personnel.

3. Following the discovery of oil in the region, there is continued tension between Kenya and Somalia over the maritime border, as there is no existing agreement that sets out where the border lies[8]. Mogadishu has continued to accuse Kenya of supporting Jubaland, as Nairobi is attempting to create buffer zone against Al-Shabaab. In late February, the Somali government also accused Kenya of harboring Abdirashid Janan in the Mandera region, which borders Jubaland[9].

Possible scenarios for the future of Al-Shabaab activities and counter-terrorism efforts

Scenario 1: Al-Shabaab intensifies its attacks on military bases and targets in Kenya with the aim of reducing the military pressure on the group in Somalia. The group is using its cells in Kenya, such as the Faith Army, to carry out such attacks. Kenya’s security apparatus appears preoccupied with combating the coronavirus epidemic, while widespread corruption among the security services has allowed Al-Shabaab to easily penetrate its ranks. Al-Shabaab has continued to pose a threat to Kenyan security, thanks to its flexibility and its continuous supply of fighters[10]. The group is, however, suffering from internal conflicts and from competition from ISIS[11], and has been repeatedly hit by US military strikes against its leaders and followers, which may limit its ability to expand its operations within Kenya.

Scenario 2: Kenyan forces withdraw from Somalia, particularly following increased demands from the domestic opposition to withdraw, and the military fails to defeat Al-Shabaab and end terrorism in Kenya. Tensions in Kenyan–Somali relations have continued to grow over the maritime border conflict, thereby limiting their willingness to cooperate on counter-terrorism. Kenya nonetheless appears reluctant to withdraw, as to do so would mean abandoning its allies in Somalia and allowing Ethiopia to increase its influence, thereby enabling Ethiopia to assume a dominant position within the African Union Mission to Somalia. This is the dilemma currently facing decision-makers in Kenya[12].

Scenario 3: Kenya continues to cooperate with the United States on military and security issues to prevent the expansion of Al-Shabaab, especially as the US military presence in Kenya has increased and as Washington has sent military reinforcements to Kenya in response to the targeting of US military leaders in the country. In February, Washington announced the creation of its first overseas Joint Terrorism Task Force, based in Kenya (JTTF-K). US military strikes against Al-Shabaab strongholds in the region have continued, despite the challenges associated with the high coronavirus infection rate in the United States and the targeting of US assets in Kenya by Al-Shabaab.

The first of these scenarios appears the most likely, based on the following considerations:

  1. Al-Shabaab is still attempting to compensate for its extensive losses in Somalia and to take revenge against the US and Kenyan forces responsible for those losses. The group is using the coronavirus crisis to expand its recruitment operations and increase its attacks against military locations.
  2. The African Union Mission to Somalia has been extended until February 28, 2021. Al‑Shabaab is therefore expected to continue to intensify its attacks against foreign and domestic interests.
  3. The US military intervention strategy is limited to airstrikes and coverage of ground operations. Although the United States has managed to liquidate many Al-Shabaab leaders during such strikes, the group has continued to strengthen and consolidate its presence in local communities by exploiting local grievances and the worsening social, economic, and health conditions.

Conclusion

Al-Shabaab continues to pose a threat to security and stability in the Horn of Africa. Regional and international efforts to combat terrorism need to be stepped up, and the mandate of the African Union Mission to Somalia requires continued support, especially as the Somali army is unable to combat Al-Shabaab without regional and international military support.

References

[1] Karen Allen, Why is the US ramping up anti-terrorism efforts in Kenya?, March 26, 2020, available at: https://issafrica.org/iss-today/why-is-the-us-ramping-up-anti-terrorism-efforts-in-kenya

[2] Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Tracking Conflict Worldwide, April 2020, available at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/crisiswatch/may-alerts-and-april-trends-2020#kenya

[3] U.S. Department of Defense, East Africa and North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operations: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress October 1, 2019 to December 31, 2019, p.17

[4] James Barnett, The Evolution of East African Salafi-jihadism, Hudson Institute, May 28, 2020, available at: https://www.hudson.org/research/16075-the-evolution-of-east-african-salafi-jihadism

[5] John Foulkes, Bashir Qorgab—al-Shabaab Veteran Commander Killed in U.S. Airstrike, Militant Leadership Monitor, Volume: 11, Issue: 3, April 2, 2020, available at: https://jamestown.org/brief/bashir-qorgab-al-shabaab-veteran-commander-killed-in-u-s-airstrike

[6] Idem.

[7] According to some estimates, although the COVID-19 outbreak in Kenya is in the initial stages, with the first case having been identified in March, Kenya could witness around 30,000 deaths at the peak of the epidemic unless social distancing measures are enforced. Kenya has a national shortage of intensive care beds and respirators, with only 518 and 297 units respectively. The infrastructure for transporting patients to healthcare facilities is also poor. See:

The Senate, Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Situation in Kenya, 3rd Progress Report, Thematic Area I: Health Issues, April 28, 2020, available at: https://www.theelephant.info/documents/3rd-progress-report-of-the-senate-ad-hoc-committee-on-the-covid-19-situation-in-kenya/

[8] Abdelrahman Aisi, “الأزمة الدبلوماسية بين الصومال وكينيا: قراءة في الخلفيات واستشراف المآلات” (Diplomatic crisis between Somalia and Kenya: Examining the background and anticipating the outcome), March 25, 2019, available at: https://somaliacenter.com/2019/03/25

[9] Tom Collins, Al-Shabaab renews focus on north-eastern Kenya, March 23, 2020, available at: https://newafricanmagazine.com/22592/

[10] Idem.

[11] U.S. Department of Defense, op. cit., p.18

[12] Stig Jarle Hansen, What Kenya stands to lose and gain by withdrawing from Somalia, April 30, 2020, available at: https://theconversation.com/what-kenya-stands-to-lose-and-gain-by-withdrawing-from-somalia-133640

 

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