From Mogadishu to Nairobi: Al-Shabab’s shift in focus

Garissa (Caasimada Online) – In the remote Northeast region of Kenya, a troubling surge of violence has emerged, instigating growing concerns of an evolving threat from the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants, Al-Shabab.

A series of brutal attacks last month, culminating in roadside bombs and grim beheadings, claimed two dozen lives.

This sudden spurt of violence, directed at seemingly minor targets, signals a potential shift in focus by Al-Shabab, warn experts.

Amidst this backdrop, it’s worth noting that Kenya has not experienced a significant jihadist assault since 2019.

Back then, a devastating incident at a Nairobi hotel and adjacent offices led to the death of 21 people.

However, the recent surge in attacks has induced a palpable sense of fear that the insurgents, allegedly responsible for the attacks, are now setting their sights on Kenya.

According to estimates, Al-Shabab currently has a force of about 7,000 to 12,000 fighters.

Recently, they have come under increasing pressure due to a comprehensive counterterrorism operation led by the Somali National Army and US-trained commandos, bolstered by clan militias known as “macawisley.”

The onslaught on the border

The militants’ ongoing campaign against the unstable government in Mogadishu for over 15 years has lately seen a spillover along Kenya’s extensive and vulnerable frontier with Somalia.

Twenty-four people, including 15 security officers, were killed in six separate attacks last month alone.

In one ferocious assault confirmed by the group, approximately 30 militants targeted two thinly-populated villages in Kenya’s coastal Lamu county on June 24, resulting in the death of five civilians, some of whom were beheaded.

One resident, Hassan Abdul, recounted the chilling episode: “Women were locked in the houses, and the men ordered out, where they were tied with ropes and butchered.”

While these remote mainland villages are not tourist hotspots, the gruesome killings act as an ominous message for Kenya, experts suggest.

Analysts reflect on the Situation

“The attacks are a way for Al-Shabab to say that despite being under pressure, they still have the firepower and are a force to be reckoned with,” Nicolas Delaunay, International Crisis Group director for East and Southern Africa, told AFP.

“It could also be a way of warning Kenya has pledged to participate in the Somali government’s offensive against Al-Shabab,” he added.

Al-Shabab has capitalized on the changes in Kenya’s security leadership following President William Ruto’s election last August, notes Roland Marchal, an Africa specialist at Sciences Po University in Paris.

Marchal suggests there’s “relative disorganization at the border,” with Al-Shabab taking this as an opportunity to exact “revenge” against Kenya for deploying troops in the rural central and southern parts of Somalia.

Kenya, already no stranger to Somalia’s long-standing Islamist insurgency, faces an increased threat, especially as the violence threatens to spread into Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country.

Last month, Addis Ababa reported thwarting a jihadist attack in the border town of Dollo.

While the gains of the Somali offensive have been significant, the “situation remains very fragile,” warns African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat.

Hassan Khannenje, director of The Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies in Nairobi, opines that Al-Shabab is “on the back foot in Somalia.”

He added, “There is a desire on their part to demonstrate continued relevance and resilience.”

Kenya’s response: High alert

Despite a US official dismissing the recent cross-border attacks by Al-Shabab as a “manifestation of desperation” last month, Kenya is not lowering its guard.

Following several significant attacks in previous years – including the 2013 Westgate shopping center assault, the Garissa University attack two years later, and the Dusit hotel complex attack in 2019, which collectively resulted in hundreds of casualties – Kenya is on high alert.

Recently, Kenya announced a delay in reopening its long-closed border with Somalia due to the recent surge in attacks.

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki stated that the phased reopening would not proceed “until we conclusively deal with the recent spate of terror attacks and cross-border crime.

Khannenje, offering a final thought, said that the wave of attacks “should serve as a warning” to Kenya. He added, “Vigilance is key.”