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
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. 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. 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.
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. The group is, however, suffering from internal conflicts and from competition from ISIS, 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.
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:
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.
 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
 Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Tracking Conflict Worldwide, April 2020, available at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/crisiswatch/may-alerts-and-april-trends-2020#kenya
 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
 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
 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
 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/
 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
 Tom Collins, Al-Shabaab renews focus on north-eastern Kenya, March 23, 2020, available at: https://newafricanmagazine.com/22592/
 U.S. Department of Defense, op. cit., p.18
 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
Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi | 24 Sep 2020
Ahmed Zaghloul Shalata | 21 Sep 2020
Shereen Mohammed | 21 Sep 2020