Inexplicably Agitated: Al Shabaab Menace Escalates in Northeastern Kenya

Inexplicably Agitated: Al Shabaab Menace Escalates In Northeastern Kenya

What’s happening in Kenya’s rural northeast is causing a lot of confusion and concern. Last month, there were roadside bombs and beheadings that left 24 people dead, and experts believe that this is part of an alarming escalation of violence by Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists. Kenya, a prominent economic powerhouse and a popular tourist destination, has not experienced a high-profile jihadist attack since 2019. However, these recent attacks, although small-scale and focused on minor targets, have raised fears that Al-Shabaab jihadists, who are believed to be responsible, are shifting their attention to Kenya as they face setbacks in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab, estimated to have between 7,000 and 12,000 fighters, has been facing a counterterrorism offensive by the Somali National Army and US-trained “lightning” commandos supported by clan militias in recent months. This militant group has been at war with the fragile government in Mogadishu for over 15 years and has been carrying out several attacks along Kenya’s lengthy and porous border with Somalia.

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Last month alone, there were six separate attacks that claimed the lives of 24 people, including 15 security officers. One particularly gruesome assault involved around 30 militants descending on two sparsely-populated villages, where they killed five civilians and beheaded some of them. The motive behind these attacks is unclear, as the remote forested mainland is not a typical tourist stopover, but analysts suggest that they serve as a signal to Kenya.

Nicolas Delaunay, the Director for East and Southern Africa at the International Crisis Group, suggests that these attacks may be a way for Al-Shabaab to demonstrate that they still have the firepower and are a force to be reckoned with, especially since Kenya has pledged to participate in the Somali government’s offensive against the group. Meanwhile, Roland Marchal, an Africa specialist at Sciences Po university in Paris, believes that the changes in Kenya’s security leadership after President William Ruto’s election last August may have emboldened the militants.

This violence not only poses a threat to Kenya but also has the potential to spill into Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country. Ethiopia recently revealed that it had foiled an attack by Al-Shabaab in the border town of Dollo. While Al-Shabaab was pushed out of Mogadishu in 2011 by an African Union mission, they still maintain a stronghold in rural central and southern Somalia.

Despite significant gains made by the Somali offensive, the situation remains fragile, according to African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat. Hassan Khannenje, the director of The Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies in Nairobi, believes that Al-Shabaab is currently on the back foot in Somalia but desires to demonstrate continued relevance and resilience.

A US official categorized the recent cross-border attacks by Al-Shabaab as a “manifestation of desperation.” However, Kenya is not taking any chances and is being cautious. The country has experienced major attacks in the past, such as the Westgate shopping center attack in 2013, the Garissa University attack in 2015, and the Dusit hotel complex attack in 2019. In light of the recent wave of violence, Kenya has postponed the planned reopening of its border with Somalia.

Analyst Hassan Khannenje emphasizes the importance of vigilance and warns that these attacks should serve as a warning to Kenya.

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