Maalim Ayman: A Post-Mortem of al-Shabaab’s Commander Tasked with Attacking Kenya

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 3

Maalim Ayman. (Source:

Executive Summary

  • Maalim Ayman, one of al-Shabaab’s key commanders, was killed death in a US drone strike in December 2023. Ayman led the group’s push into Kenya. With Ayman’s death, the group’s ability to launch attacks like the ones against the Westgate Mall in 2013 or the Manda Bay Airfield in 2020 has declined.

In the last decade, al-Shabaab has grown from being a threat primarily to Somalia into a source of concern for Kenya as well. Kenya’s northern region—home to a large Somali population—has suffered from a number of major al-Shabaab attacks. One of the key commanders in al-Shabaab’s push into Kenya was Maalim Ayman. Before his death in a US drone strike in December 2023, the US government had placed a $10 million bounty on Ayman (US Department of State, January 5, 2023). Ayman’s death is the culmination of a three-year hunt.

Ayman is best known as the mastermind behind the January 2020 attack on Manda Bay Airfield in Lamu, Kenya. It should be noted that this attack, though high-profile, did not necessarily reflect Ayman’s abilities. The death of one US soldier and two American contractors had more to do with the base being woefully underprepared to defend against such an attack than cunning on Ayman’s part (Garowe Online, September 27, 2023; Department of Defense, November 29, 2021).

Three years after the attack, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited the Manda Bay Airfield and commended the progress that US and Kenyan forces had made since 2020 (US Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa, September 29, 2023). This was, in part, the result of additional US troops that had been brought into Kenya to prevent future attacks (Army Times, January 23, 2020). It had been reported previously that Ayman had been killed sometime after the base attack, though he had, in fact, survived until December 2023 (Nation [Kenya], November 27, 2020).

Ayman’s final location was in the city of Jilib in southern Somalia (The Star [Kenya], December 23, 2023). Jilib is 370 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu, making it an ideal staging point for cross-border attacks from Somalia into Kenya. Jilib is also close to the village of Haramka, where al-Shabaab commander Abdullahi Nadir was killed by US forces in October 2022. This emphasizes the extent to which the area has been an al-Shabaab stronghold, as well as its history of serving as a base for the group’s incursions into Kenya (X/@MOISomalia [Somali Ministry of Information, Culture, & Tourism], October 2, 2022).

Ayman’s death is likely to degrade al-Shabaab operations in Kenya. Ayman led Jaysh Ayman (literally, “Army of Ayman”), an al-Shabaab unit responsible for terrorist attacks and general operations in Kenya. Ayman himself was known to provide specialized training in the bush to new recruits (The Star [Kenya], July 13, 2015; US Department of State, November 17, 2020). Further, through his own group, Ayman commanded a number of dangerous foreign fighters from across the region, including militants from Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Yemen (Hiiraan Online, December 22, 2023).

While the threat of al-Shabaab activities in Somalia and Kenya has not gone away, the group’s ability to launch attacks like the ones against the Westgate Mall in 2013 or the Manda Bay Airfield in 2020 has declined. Nevertheless, US and Kenyan counter-terrorism forces must remain vigilant to ensure that a new militant does not rise to take Ayman’s place.