AL-SHABAAB ATTACK KEEPS PRESSURE ON KENYAN MILITARY AND GOVERNMENT
On January 15, the Somali militant group al-Shabaab carried out one of its most significant attacks on the forces of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), when it attacked a remote Kenyan military forward operating base in El-Edde, located about 50 miles north of the Somali capital Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab later said that its fighters, from the group’s Saleh an-Nabhani battalion, had overrun the base and killed "over 100" Kenyan soldiers and captured others. The Kenyan military has not yet released any casualty figures for the attack, although 30 survivors and the bodies of some of the slain have since been repatriated (The Star [Kenya], January 19). One survivor of the attack said that al-Shabaab had used a suicide car-bomber against the base’s gates, after which the militants swarmed inside (The Star, January 19). Somali media sources reported afterwards that in the wake of the attack, the Kenyan military had carried out a number of airstrikes against suspected militants, inflicting civilian casualties in the process (Mareeg, January 20).
Although the extent of the attack is still unclear, it is seemingly one of the largest attacks against African Union (AU) or Kenyan forces in the country for at least a year. The attack underlines several themes. Firstly, it shows that although al-Shabaab has largely ceded the country’s cities to the Somali government and its international supporters, it remains able to deploy significant forces in some rural areas, notably in some areas around Mogadishu and in southern parts of the country, particularly in Jubaland. At the same time, al-Shabaab’s retreat to rural areas has allowed the group to choose its targets and to fight at a time and place of its choosing. Conversely, however, it is a sign of AMISOM’s success that its deployments into such remote parts of Somalia are forcing al-Shabaab to fight in these locations, while allowing the Somali government to strengthen its presence in the country’s cities.
At the same time, recent weeks have revealed fresh evidence that al-Shabaab is continuing to plan significant attacks inside Kenya itself. On January 20, Kenyan police shot and killed four suspected al-Shabaab supporters in the coastal resort of Malindi, as they were believed to be planning an attack (Geeskaafrika, January 20). The police recovered five grenades and one pistol from the individuals, who were shot after resisting arrest. Two weeks earlier, in another operation, Kenyan police had arrested one individual in Majengo, a slum in the capital Nairobi, and discovered an assault rifle and chemicals used in making explosives (Daily Nation [Kenya], January 1). These developments underline that a key part of al-Shabaab’s strategy, as well as keeping pressure on Kenyan forces in Somalia, is to also pressure the government through carrying out attacks on civilian targets at home.
Following the al-Shabaab attack in Somalia, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said the assault would not deter Kenya from continuing to operate in Somalia, asserting that "our soldiers’ blood will not be shed in vain" (Horseed Media, January 15). While this may the case, if such attacks continue, they will increase pressure on the Kenyan government to show that its long and costly intervention in Somalia has produced ostensible and positive results. In the absence of this, further attacks – especially if carried out in conjunction with more attacks inside Kenya – may eventually lead Kenyans to conclude that their military’s intervention in Somalia has done more harm than good and should be discontinued.
ISLAMIC STATE PLOT IN MALAYSIA UNDERLINES GROWING THREAT
On January 15, the Malaysian police arrested a 28-year old man in the capital of Kuala Lumpur on suspicion of planning to carry out a suicide bomb attack in the city. The head of the country’s police force, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, said that the individual had "received order from an IS leader in Syria to target Malaysia", referring to the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State (IS) militant group (Malay Mail Online, January 16). The man had a knife and Islamic State-related documents on him when he was arrested at a metro station. There was no official statement on the intended target, although local media cited anonymous security sources as saying that he may have planned to target a pub or karaoke bar. The individual is also believed to have been responsible for putting up Islamic State flags in various locations in Peninsula Malaysia, including in Johor Perak Selangor and Terengganu states (Malay Mail Online, January 16; AsiaOne, January 17).
While the incident is one of the clearest indications so far that the Islamic State is seeking to inspire or organize attacks in Malaysia, it also showcases the group’s significant support among Malaysian radicals. Just a few days before the arrest, two Malaysian fighter with the Islamic State were reported to have recently carried out suicide bombings. In the first incident, on January 3, 31-year old Syazwan Mohd Salim was one of seven suicide bombers who attempted to attack a police training centre in Iraq at Speicher military base, located north of the capital Baghdad. Reports suggested that the Malaysian shot before he could detonate himself (New Straits Times, January 11). In the second incident, 26-year old Mohammed Amirul Ahmad Rahim carried out a suicide car-bombing at Ain Issa near the Islamic State capital of Raqqa on December 29 during a simultaneous Islamic State attack on the 44th Syrian Democratic Forces coalition. As a result, 17 Malaysians are now believed to have died in the last 18 months while actively fighting for the Islamic State, local media reported (Straits Times, January 12). The government is also reported to have arrested 100 radicals seeking to travel to join the Islamic State, and it has also estimated the group has around 50,000 sympathizers in the country. Adding to the complexity, there are also reports that whole Malaysian families have moved to the Islamic State’s territories, and Malaysian police have also reported that they believe that eight Malaysian children are being groomed to become fighters for the group (Straits Times, January 12; Straits Times, January 13).
Malaysian government fears have been further heightened by the recent Islamic State-inspired attack in neighboring Indonesia. This attack, which took place on January 14, involved four attackers launching a coordinated gun and bomb attack in the center of the capital, Jakarta. Although the attack only killed four, underlining the limitations of self-radicalized or self-starter militant cells, the incident highlighted the potential for Islamic State actions in the Middle East to nonetheless inspire attacks in Southeast Asia. Although the security services appear to be relatively able to disrupt plots and identify radicals – as demonstrated by the latest arrest – the country appears less able to challenge the Islamic State’s viral ideology. For example, in one recent interview, Datuk Othman Mustapha, the director-general of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim), which is responsible for the regulation and promotion of Islam in Malaysia, said that the organization was finding it challenging to counter the Islamic State’s message, particularly online (Malay Mail, January 15). Such challenges may increase as the organization, which has annual budget of around $300 million, faces sharp funding cuts in the coming year, partly as a result of the state’s falling oil revenues (Malaysian Insider, January 15). This, combined with the Islamic State’s success in carrying out attacks abroad – as demonstrated by the recent Jakarta and Istanbul attacks – means that Malaysia may see an increase in domestic plots during the coming year.