Twenty-one Kenyans have been killed by the Al-Shabaab terrorist group since December last year, a telling indication that the Somali-based criminally inclined group has rebooted its murderous streak, leading the Administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta to change track in countering the insurgents.
This January 17, the Kenyan President announced security officers will begin mounting sting operations to flush out Al Shabaab operatives in the North Eastern and Southern regions of Kenya which have witnessed a spike in terrorist attacks since December.
“We will respond robustly by mounting the operation against the operatives and sleeper cells especially in the North Eastern and Coastal regions. I also expect the officers to use proactive measures in dealing with the attackers,” said Kenyatta during a meeting with security bosses in Mombasa, the capital of the country’s southern region.
The president said key financiers would be called out and would be listed nationally and internationally in a bid to cripple their operations. “Illegal deals fund Al Shabaab. I also expect more on dealing with the sponsors and the recruiters,” he added while singling out trade in contraband as a direct contributor to the Somalia-based terror group.
He also directed the administration officers including regional and county commissioners to engage politicians and religious leaders within communities to ensure that terrorists do not get space to make inroads with locals.
“Government administrators and police are to engage local politicians, religious and opinion leaders within vulnerable communities as a proactive strategy to deny terrorism entry points into radicalization, especially of our youth.”
Arguably, Kenya is frequently attacked by Al-Shabaab militants because it hosts several UN agencies and is a regional economic powerhouse that once attacked draws international media attention, experts say.
“Kenya has many foreign diplomatic missions and is the wealthiest in the region, so an attack creates global attention,” Yusuf Serunkuma, a research fellow at Uganda-based Makerere University says.
He said Kenya has many media houses with foreign journalists located in its capital Nairobi, so an attack on the country receives wide media coverage, which Al-Shabaab exploits to spread its propaganda. “Frequent attacks on Kenya also confirm that al-Shabaab still can strike beyond its borders in Somalia,” he says.
The Somali-based Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group has previously stated that it attacks Kenya in retaliation for its contribution to peacekeeping in Somalia. Kenya initially sent its troops to Somalia in October 2011 after Al-Shabaab terrorists reportedly abducted aid workers in the country. But it later decided to contribute troops to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to help bring peace to its northern neighbour.
Other regional experts say the frequent attacks on Kenya are aimed at shaping public opinion in the country so that citizens pressure their government to withdraw troops from Somalia.
Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a security expert on the Horn of Africa, believes that withdrawing Kenyan troops from Somalia will not stop Al-Shabaab from continuously attacking its neighbour.
“Kenya is a major tourist destination and an attack on the country affects different nationalities that frequent is what Al-Shabaab wants,” he says. He also believes that high unemployment among Kenyan youths makes them vulnerable to extremist groups.
“The presence of sleeper cells and sympathizers of Al-Shabaab among radicalized Kenyans also makes it easier for the group to launch attacks in Kenya,’’ he says.
The recent increase in attacks by Al-Shabaab in northern Kenya has raised concern that the Somali terror group may be weakened but is not yet defeated and is still working hard to raise its profile in global jihadi circles.
Many analysts say different factions within the group have different objectives, though Al-Shabab as a whole continues to pursue its broad aim of establishing an Islamic state in Somalia. A major cleavage among the group’s leaders divides those known as nationalists, who largely seek to oust the central government, from militants with transnational aims.
Ms. Bronwyn Bruton, an expert on Al-Shabaab at the Atlantic Council, an NGO based in the US that galvanizes US global leadership and engagement in partnership with allies and partners, says hard-liners within the group have gained prominence in recent years.
“People who are still calling themselves Al-Shabaab are more and more committed to the idea of sharia law,” she says “The unifying idea of Al-Shabaab is opposition to the Western-backed government.”
In areas it controls, Al-Shabaab enforces its own harsh interpretation of sharia, prohibiting various types of entertainment, such as movies and music; the sale of khat, a narcotic plant that is often chewed; smoking; and the shaving of beards. Stoning’s and amputations have been meted out to suspected adulterers and thieves. The group bans cooperation with humanitarian agencies, blocking aid deliveries as famine loomed in 2017. This forced some eight hundred thousand to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
Counterterrorism experts say Al-Shabaab has benefited from several sources of income over the years, including other terrorist groups; piracy; kidnapping; and extortion of local businesses, farmers, and aid groups, among others. The Eritrean government has in the past been accused of financing the group but it denied these claims.
Presently Al-Shabaab has built up an extensive racketeering operation, with checkpoint taxation on illicitly traded charcoal bringing in upward of US $7.5 million annually despite a UN ban on Somali charcoal exports in place since 2012.
In recent years, Al-Shabaab has increased its reliance on smuggling contraband sugar across the border into Kenya, bringing in millions of dollars annually. Kenyan forces have been accused of involvement in the scheme since 2015.
The UN Security Council authorized the African Union to lead a peacekeeping force in Somalia, which is known by its acronym, AMISOM, in early 2007. Its primary mandate was to protect the country’s transitional government, which was set up in 2004 but had just returned to power in Mogadishu.
Neighbouring Uganda was the first nation to send forces into Somalia under AMISOM, and it maintains the largest contingent in the regional force, at more than six thousand troops. Other military forces come from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. In total, AMISOM comprises around twenty thousand troops.
It remains to be seen whether the current strategy by the Kenyan government will cripple the operations of Al-Shabaab within East Africa’s largest economy.