Al-Shabaab Sets Sights on Kenya

August 8, 2023
Riza Kumar  —  Research Analyst

Since May 2023, Kenya has witnessed a surge of violent activity from al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorist group. The uptick in attacks began after Nairobi and Mogadishu announced a planned reopening of their borders, a frontier that has been closed since October 2011 due to al-Shabaab’s vicious campaign. However, under pressure from the Somali army, with assistance from neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, as well as successful U.S. targeted airstrikes, al-Shabaab has been ousted from a third of Somali territory they once controlled. The insurgent group appears to be regrouping in Kenya as their recent spate of attacks have targeted Kenyan security forces and civilians in border areas. Several factors relating to funding, tactics, and strategy, have also contributed to al-Shabaab’s new focus in Kenya. While Nairobi has previously confronted al-Shabaab within its borders, unlike Mogadishu, it has not yet experienced sustained attacks from the terror group. With a rising profile in Kenya, al-Shabaab forces Nairobi to contend with new security challenges and new solutions to upend an established threat in the Horn of Africa.

As one of al-Qaeda’s most successful, wealthiest, and resilient franchises, al-Shabaab has waged a ruthless insurgency across Somalia for more than 17 years. A dogmatic group, they seek to establish an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa that would encompass Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Since 2012, Kenya has been a major contributor to the regional African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM)—now African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS)—that militarily supports Somalia in its offensive against violent extremists. News of Kenya’s participation swiftly led to retaliatory attacks from al-Shabaab, including the 2013 Nairobi Westgate Shopping Center attack that killed 67 and the 2015 Garissa University College attack that killed 148.

Despite these high-casualty attacks, al-Shabaab has not carried out a protracted campaign in Kenya. The recent attacks have been small-scale and consistent with the terror group’s tactical strategy in Somalia. However, these small-scale attacks add up quickly. In 2023, despite successful offensives, Somalia still experienced an increase in fatalities 157 percent—around 8,000—linked to the jihadist group. The figures suggest Nairobi faces a long, gruesome battle ahead if enough of al-Shabaab’s 12,000 troops relocate their operations to Kenya.

In June 2023, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded at least 19 al-Shabaab attacks—more than twice the yearly June average. During that same time period, the International Crisis Group reported at least 30 casualties due to cross-border attacks. Targets were primarily Kenyan security forces, of whom on-the-ground interviews document as growing decreasingly resolute in the counterinsurgency. Media interviews with Kenyan security officers reveal that Nairobi reduced the stiped for some of their security forces, leaving some of these troops less eager to place themselves on the frontline. If confronted with reluctant troops, al-Shabaab is more likely to be successful in carrying out operations.

Quick and astute operation revisions have also allowed the insurgents to remain unyielding. Previously, when Somalia and its allies bolstered their counterterrorism contingents and clamped down on al-Shabaab hideouts, al-Shabaab responded with increased suicide attacks. The group also favors planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along border roads, a form of a passive attack that regularly results in casualties. In June 2023, there were at least four IED roadside attacks in northeast Kenya. On June 7, an IED attack on Mararani-Kiunga road in Lamu county killed four soldiers, and another on June 13 in Garissa county left eight police officers dead. Two other IED explosions killed seven on June 20 and 21. IED attacks continued into July, with three police officers killed in a July 10 explosion in Kiwanja, Garissa County.

The locations of al-Shabaab’s attacks have also been strategic, causing not only casualties, but long-term damage. On July 7, 2023, al-Shabaab militants destroyed a communications mast before ambushing a police station and killing three. By carrying out attacks on telecommunication masts and roads used by security personnel, regional security services will have a harder time responding to attacks. Unfortunately, as transportation and communications infrastructure are compromised, Kenyans will bear the brunt of these challenges. By blocking key connecting roads, Kenyan communities are marooned and left under the extremist group’s control.

Once established in a new area, the insurgents regularly impose taxes on local communities under their control. The Kenya-Somalia border is particularly lucrative, allowing the terror group to collect taxes on smuggled goods between the two countries. Should the border ever reopen, al-Shabaab would potentially lose a vital funding stream. The group’s response would likely involve increased violence to prevent the potential strain on both their finances and their command over border communities. The insurgents’ influence over local communities also presents the challenge of preventing recruits from joining their forces. Al-Shabaab has previously gained loyal supporters from protecting seemingly disenfranchised clans which has resulted in some of those supporters enlisting within their rank and file.

To better counter al-Shabaab, Kenya reportedly plans to modernize artillery used by the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF). In order to better detect IEDs—the terror group’s weapon of choice—Nairobi has also claimed investments in armored personal carriers. Additionally, the KDF has constructed 14 fully equipped operating bases on its border with Somalia in preparation of the AMISOM drawdown next year. As of right now, expanding kinetic military action remains Nairobi’s primary line of defense against a renewed al-Shabaab.

As of July 2023, Mandera County Governor, Mohamed Adan Khalif, has revealed that 60 percent of his eastern Kenyan county, which borders Somalia, is currently under the control of al-Shabaab. The security threat has become significant enough for Kenya to delay the planned border reopening. In response to the al-Shabaab threat, Kenyan Security Minister Kithure Kindiki stated, “we are going to upscale our partnership between the security agencies and the local communities to ensure that we flush out this enemy.” Kindiki’s statement reflects a whole-of-society approach that is a crucial component to defeating violent extremist groups in the long run. The coming months will be a critical test for Nairobi’s counterterrorism playbook, the goal of which should not only be stopping attacks in Kenya but preventing the terrorists from expanding into neighboring countries.

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On October 27, 2018, domestic terrorist Robert D. Bowers carried out an anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He fired on congregants as they gathered for worship, killing 11 people and wounding six others.

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