Al-Shabaab branches out into KenyaPosted: 22/08/2012
By Randolph Bell, Managing Director, IISS-US
Al-Shabaab has been spotted in Kenya more often recently. It has been just over a year since the Somali Islamist group was ousted from Mogadishu by African Union and Somali troops. The city is relatively peaceful for the first time in years (above), and although presidential elections due on 20 August have been postponed, its first official parliament in two decades was sworn in this week. After a ten-month campaign, Kenyan troops are poised to take the port city of Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s last stronghold in Somalia.
However, in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, al-Shabaab launched two new attacks recently, killing four and injuring eleven. That brings to around 30 the number of attacks it has been implicated in, or suspected of, in Kenya in the past year, since the high-profile kidnappings of first a British and then a French tourist in September and October 2011 respectively.
Since Kenya sent thousands of troops into southern Somalia in October 2011 during Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country) to root out the insurgents, the number of deaths caused by al-Shabaab inside Kenyan territory has grown to 60, from 12 the previous year. Injuries, meanwhile, have risen from 56 to 356.
Perhaps more telling, al-Shabaab attacks outside North Eastern Province, which borders Somalia and used to be the organisation’s prime Kenyan target, are up from five to 11. Seventeen deaths resulted from these attacks outside North Eastern Province. Twelve of them were in Nairobi.
Fortunately, al-Shabaab has never managed another large foreign attack after its twin bombings in Uganda in 2010, in which 74 died. However, its latest three attacks in the Kenyan capital have used a new technique in which its operative asks an unsuspecting pedestrian to help carry an innocuous-looking object that actually contains an explosive device. In a crowd, the operative separates themselves from the pedestrian, and then explodes the device via mobile phone. This technique is a marked increase in sophistication over the kidnappings, gunfights and grenade attacks earlier in the year.
The United Nations has documented a network of Kenyan funding for al-Shabaab. ‘At precisely the moment that al-Shabaab’s fortunes in Somalia have entered a phase of steep, and possibly irreversible, decline, the group’s credibility and appeal appear to be growing among non-Somali extremists,’ it adds. Indeed, the group has tightened its links with al-Qaeda, and has reportedly formed an association with the Ansaar Muslim Youth Centre in Tanzania.
Al-Shabaab’s efficacy inside Somalia has diminished since it was forced out of Mogadishu. The number of attacks attributed to the militant group in the past year, based on analysis from the IISS Armed Conflict Database, increased about 80% on the previous 12 months, from 99 to 180. Yet the number of deaths increased by less than 8%, from 911 to 986 – representing a drop from 9.2 deaths per attack to 5.5 deaths per attack. This change can be attributed to a shift in the way al-Shabaab engages in conflict, shifting from more extended military conflicts in 2010 and most of 2011 to terrorist attacks today.
If al-Shabaab is defeated in Kismayo, this will probably end the group’s ability to control territory meaningfully in Somalia or to pose a real threat to the Somali government. It could render the remainder of al-Shabaab’s fighters effectively impotent on home soil. The increasing number and sophistication of al-Shabaab attacks within Kenya, however, and the expansion of its network suggests it may be able to operate in small cells out of difficult-to-secure parts of Somalia and Somali strongholds in Kenya such as the Dadaab refugee camp and the Eastleigh neighborhood in Nairobi.
So it is unlikely that Kismayo will be the last we hear of al-Shabaab.