Al Shabaab shows – again – that it is still a terrorist force to be reckoned with

The attack still unfolding as I type in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi has been claimed by the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab terrorist group. At around 3 PM local time an explosion, apparently caused by a suicide bomber, went off outside an office/hotel complex followed by the incursion of armed men into the building. Casualty accounts are as of yet fluid although there were reports of a severed arm in the street (whether it belongs – belonged? – to the possible suicide bomber is not known).

Al Shabaab (AS) attacks in Kenya are not unheard of . This particular assault came three years to the day after AS overran a Kenyan army base in Somalia (more on that below), killing dozens, almost four years after the gruesome Garissa University siege (147 dead) and five and a half years after the Westgate Mall attack also in Nairobi (67 killed). Hence there is a history here.

AS sees Kenya as a target for a simple reason: Kenya is one of five countries contributing soldiers to the Africa Union’s Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Kenyan military forces regularly engage AS terrorists and are in turn targeted by AS. It is a stalemate at best.

Lest you see me as a supporter of terrorism, which I am most assuredly not, allow me to recognise that decisions to deploy troops to fight violent extremists is a ‘damned if you do damned if you don’t’ one’. Countries cannot allow terrorists free rein to plan and carry out attacks on their citizens safely from the confines of their extraterritorial bases and the international community has to act when it is aware of the absolute hell that is a terrorist-run society (think Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). So, in go the boys with the goal of routing the jihadis. Doing nothing risks being seen as deaf to the suffering of others.

And yet as I have just noted these expeditions feed jihadi narratives and raise support. Especially if the foreign military screws up and kills innocent civilians (which happens despite official denials). Hence the ‘damned if you do….’ dilemma.

I have no idea what the best solution to AS is, in Kenya or in Somalia. As with most issues a variety of responses is probably the ideal situation. All I know is that if we continue to prioritise the military hammer over other ideas we will be writing about attacks like today for a very long time to come. I, for one, do not want to keep penning these pieces. Do you?

As a bonus feature today, here are the thoughts of a friend of mine who works on Somalia, Erica Marsh, as well as a link to a video of the attack she found circulating on Kenyan social media platforms. I am grateful to Erica for her insight: she knows more about Somalia then just about anyone I know (you can reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter – @EricaMa16).

Today’s attack illustrates yet again the resilience of Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda’s East African affiliate, in the face of the decades long counter-insurgency campaign against them. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that the US carried out over 30 airstrikes in 2018 alone, more than any year so far. At least two more have been carried out against Shabaab targets already in 2019. Despite the volume and toll of these strikes, which allegedly killed approximately 240 combatants, according to official figures, the group clearly maintains its ability to plan and carry our large scale external attacks. This fact is important as the heavy use of airstrikes within Somalia has been noted a part of the new US administration’s plan to counter extremists within that country. The complex attack on the Dusit2D Hotel in Nairobi indicates that increased air campaign has not depleted Shabaab’s external operations network.

Al Shabaab also clearly maintains an operational capacity within Kenya. The Dusit2D attack clearly required preparation and planning, as well as the ability to either procure an explosive devise within Kenya or transport it in from Somalia, all without detection from the various national and international security agencies operating there.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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