Attacks in Northern Kenya Highlight al-Shabaab’s Enduring Ambition

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 22

Soldiers from the Kenya Defence Forces (

Deadly al-Shabaab attacks targeting security forces, civilians, and government installations in northeastern Kenya have continued to unfold despite security forces’ intensified actions to counter the militant group’s activities in the region.

Since 2011, when the Kenyan Defence Forces entered Somalia—the base of the al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa—hundreds of small-scale terror assaults have been recorded.

In most of the attacks, the militants have used improvized explosive devices (IEDs) planted on roads to strike the military and police convoys on patrol. The consequence has been deadly with dozens of soldiers and police officers losing their lives. Civilians have also borne the brunt of terrorist attacks. The attacks have forced some of the region’s professionals, including teachers, nurses, public administrators, and construction workers to flee (Business Daily Africa , October 10, 2018).

The continued attacks are lending credence to suspicions that the militant group has existing cells in the region which it is using to radicalize and recruit Kenyan youths. In June, the group said it had recruited an army of fighters in Kenya. The mass recruitment strategy fits well with the latest attacks inside Kenya, including the DusitD2 office attack in January. Ali Salim Gichuge, the lead attacker on DusitD2, was an ordinary Kenyan youth who was born and raised in non-Muslim regions (Daily Nation, November 15).

Late last month, suspected al-Shabaab militants crossed into Kenya from Somalia to attack the Dadajubula Police Station in Wajir County. The attack left two terrorist suspects who had been detained at the station dead. Three police officers and a civilian were also injured in the attack. The heavily armed fighters had used rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) to target the station located only 13 kilometers from the Somali border (Standard Digital, October 30).

It later emerged that the militants had initially wanted to free the two terror suspects detained at the station. Analysts observed that by killing the two, al-Shabaab was trying to stop them from revealing useful information about the group to Kenyan intelligence. The two suspects had been handed to Kenyan authorities by the Somali government. When they were detained, one was in possession of an AK47 rifle belonging to Kenyan police, while the other carried one belonging to Somalian forces (Standard Digital, October 30; Daily Nation, October 30).

On October 12, al-Shabaab was also blamed for an IED attack that killed at least 11 members of an elite paramilitary police force known as the General Service Unit (GSU). The officers were patrolling the borderline when the IED hit their vehicle.

Reports accused Abdullahi Banati, an earlier unknown militant leader for planning the IED attack. Banati, who was recently operating along the Kenya-Somalia border, had allegedly planned the attack with the help of a thriving al-Shabaab cell in the Dadaab Refugee complex. The camp complex has frequently faced allegations that it harbors terrorist cells that radicalize and recruit youth for al-Shabaab (Nairobi News, October 19).

Since its emergence in 2006, al-Shabaab has continued to defy predictions of its defeat. Although it has lost key territories, cities, and towns in the battle against African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops and the Somali National Army, the group remains capable of launching successful and deadly attacks in both Somalia and Kenya.

While many al-Shabaab commanders have died in U.S military air strikes or defected to the Somali government, the group has also shown rare determination to rise again after every setback to threaten regional security.

For every commander who has been killed, a new one has emerged. Banati is a case in point. His rise has comes months after the death of Ahmed Iman Ali, a.k.a Zunira. Ali was a deadly and influential Kenyan-born al-Shabaab militant leader who is believed to have died in March in a U.S. airstrike in the town of Bu’aale in the Middle Juba region. Ali, being familiar with the people, terrain, and language found it easy to export al-Shabaab’s ideology into Kenya (Nairobi News, March 25).

At the same time, while the group changes its strategies, al-Shabaab has also been evolving new ways to raise revenue. The loss of key cities and seaports such as Mogadishu in 2011 and the port of Kismayo in 2012 meant the loss of funding sources needed to continue the war. Through the port of Kismayo, it exported illegal charcoal to the Gulf region. The returning ships brought in illegal weapons, including small arms and light weapons.

After an initial blow to revenue, the group has outgrown the loss, turning to local taxation, extortion and delivery of basic services to boost its war chest. Massive taxation measures have been easy to roll out for the group due to the absence of government administration, especially in southern Somalia where it controls large swathes of territory. More revenue is sourced through extortion, provision of security, and judicial services in these areas (Daily Nation, November 13).

Increased recruitment and revenue are critical for the group, which needs to maintain funds and fighters for regional expansion. Unless both local and international security agencies tackle the two, al-Shabaab will continue to wreak havoc while benefiting from its operations within Kenya.