Although the terrorist attack against Nairobi’s Westgate shopping complex in September 2013 fixed the attention of both the international community and international media on the threat of Islamist extremism and associated terrorist activity in Kenya, the threat was neither novel nor fully transnational. Through tracking the frequency and distribution of terrorist attacks, as well as both planned and foiled attacks in the country since 2011, the dynamics of Kenya’s terrorism threat, specifically that of the Somali-based Islamist sect al-Shabaab as well as an emerging domestic threat, are clearly apparent.
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Becoming a concrete target
Following a series of kidnappings targeting foreign aid workers and tourists in the north of the country, the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) launched ‘Operation Linda Nchi’ in Somalia in October 2011. The operation was mandated to eliminate al-Shabaab strongholds within Somalia in an effort to increase security along the countries’ shared border. Despite operating in conjunction with forces loyal to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia and subsequently the Federal Government of Somalia, which replaced the TFG in August 2012, Operation Linda Nchi was an independent intervention on the part of Kenya to address the protracted insecurity and high spillover potential in Somalia. Although there had been sporadic attacks linked to al-Shabaab operatives along Kenya’s border areas prior to the operation, specifically in the vicinity of the Dadaab refugee camp complex, the operation flagged Kenya as a direct enemy of al-Shabaab, leading to the group publically threatening to conduct reprisal attacks on Kenyan soil. From October 2011 into 2012, Kenya experienced an uptick in low-level attacks, including grenade attacks and improvised explosive device (IED) blasts along border areas, including in districts such as Mandera, Garissa and Wajir, as well as sporadic low-level incidents in Nairobi.
These attacks were predominantly directed at four target types, namely:
- Security interests
- Religious sites
- Entertainment establishments
- Crowed public venues
A Dynamic Threat: External and internal happenings
In the interim, KDF, Somalia and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces continued to advance on al-Shabaab strongholds in Somalia. In September 2012, the group withdrew from its last major stronghold in Kismayo, having been driven from Mogadishu in 2011. Rather than spelling defeat for the group, al-Shabaab quickly adapted, adopting increasingly guerrilla tactics within Somalia; this coincided with an increase in terrorist-style attacks within Kenya’s border areas. Although these attacks in Kenya were frequently attributed to Somali-based militants linked to al-Shabaab, it became increasingly apparent that the group had not only established and consolidated an operational presence in Kenya, but had developed a growing sympathiser community in the country.
However, in a related trend, disenfranchised youth among the country’s Muslim population were proving increasingly susceptible to religious fundamentalism. Most noteworthy was the formation of the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC) and subsequent emergence of the al-Hijra cell. The MYC was initially an informal advocacy group focused on voicing the socio-economic grievances of Muslim communities, particularly those of unemployed youth, and establishing branches in Nairobi, Mombasa and Garissa. The group’s ideology was heavily influenced by Sheikh Aboud Rogo, an open al-Shabaab sympathiser. Soon the group publically declared its allegiance to al-Shabaab; however, its overall rhetoric maintained an internal focus on perceived infidels within Kenya.Although Kenyan security authorities have yet to explicitly link the MYC to attacks in the country, the group continues to allude to its involvement in a number of incidents, having released a statement inciting jihad in December 2012.
Looking Beyond Westgate
Throughout 2013, low-level and crude attacks continued; however, it was in September 2013 that al-Shabaab exhibited its capacity to conduct a coordinated and sophisticated assault in Kenya. The four-day siege of the Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi, which resulted in the deaths of 67 people, re-established al-Shabaab’s position on the global terrorism map, since the group previously demonstrated its capacity to conduct transnational attacks in the 2010 Kampala, Uganda bombings. Yet, while the attack solidified the connection between terrorism in Kenya and al-Shabaab, the group has since only claimed responsibility for a further two assaults in the country; these include the recent grenade attack targeting a Chania Travellers bus at the Coast Bus Terminus, located on Mwembe Tayari Road, central Mombasa on 3 May and the grenade attack targeting the Tandoori bar in Diani Beach in January. In the period following the Westgate attack, there have been more than ten confirmed terrorism attacks and several more foiled and planned incidents, all of which remain unclaimed.
With a return to low-level assaults and al-Shabaab only publically claiming two attacks despite having explicitly established its campaign against Kenya in the Westgate incident, extreme consideration with regard to the domestic threat is warranted. Of particular concern is the rise of low-level attacks in Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb, seen in 2012 and subsequently in 2014. These have been often linked to al-Shabaab’s operational presence; the suburb hosts a predominantly Somali community and local security authorities connected the attacks to al-Shabaab-aligned operatives therein. That being said, al-Shabaab has never formally claimed responsibility for assaults in Eastleigh; moreover, it seems unlikely that the group would target a community which hosts a potentially lucrative source of diaspora revenue. While the group’s involvement cannot be entirely discounted at this point, contrary intelligence suggests that these attacks were a consequence of other dynamics fuelling terrorist activity in Eastleigh, including growing communal tensions between Kenyan and Somali residents, poor relations between small-scale Kenyan businesspeople and their Somali counterparts, or emerging turf wars between rival matatu (minibus) drivers.
Such community-based tensions are becoming more relevant amid accusations of growing prejudice against Somali populations within Kenya’s security authorities. This is particularly relevant in light of the recent large-scale security operation, ‘Operation Usalama Watch’, launched in Nairobi and Mombasa and aimed at identifying al-Shabaab operatives and sympathisers within the country. The operation commenced on 25 March with a refugee relocation programme stipulating that all refugees of Somali nationality residing in the country’s urban centres should return to Kenya’s two main refugee camps, specifically, the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Since then, security forces have conducted several security sweeps in the cities in an effort to identify individuals aligned with al-Shabaab and other Islamist extremist groups known to operate in the country. The sweeps have been met with much controversy and allegations of police brutality, specifically relating to the detention of some 3000 Somali nationals in the Moi International Sports Centre in Nairobi. The operations and ensuing allegations have increased tensions; these are assessed as having the potential to motivate reprisal attacks.
It cannot be denied that al-Shabaab remains a prominent threat to Kenya. Moreover, with Kenyan authorities reiterating the KDF commitment to operations in Somalia, the threat is unlikely to be nullified in the near-term. However, with growing tensions between Somali and Kenyan communities coinciding with more aggressive rhetoric by domestic Islamist extremist groups, taking place in a context of asserted prejudice within the security apparatus, Kenya may be increasingly vulnerable to a home-grown terrorism threat.