Nairobi’s DusitD2 Attack: Is al-Shabaab Engaged in a Tactical War or is it a Desperate Force?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 3

Despite facing increased pressure from Africa Union (AU) troops and constant U.S. military airstrikes, al-Shabaab successfully staged a deadly strike in Nairobi, further illustrating the militant group’s resilience and its ability to strike across the border.

On January 15, four gunmen armed with AK-47s and grenades and backed by one suicide bomber stormed DusitD2, an upscale business complex on Nairobi’s 14 Riverside Drive, killing 21 people and injuring 28. When the siege ended, the government announced that more than 700 people had been rescued (Pulse Live, January 16; Standard Digital, January 16).

Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa, claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement attributed to al-Shabaab spokesman Abdiaziz Abu Musab, the group claimed it had sent its gunmen to attack the complex as retaliation to U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Kenya was among the countries that joined the opening of the U.S. Embassy in the Middle Eastern city in May last year. At the time, analysts warned that Kenya’s presence at the opening put the country at risk of attack by terrorists. Ten days before the opening, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi issued a travel advisory warning of possible attacks (The Star, January 17).

Analysts have debated why al-Shabaab chose to target DusitD2, which is considered one of the most secure hotels and business complexes in Kenya. It was likely chosen due to its proximity to Western embassies and the presence of Westerners. Three foreign missions—German, Dutch and Australian—share the neighborhood with the complex, making it a popular spot for diplomats (Daily Nation, January 17).

As the dust settles on yet another terrorist attack in Nairobi, questions are emerging of whether al-Shabaab is engaged in a tactical war or if it is a declining force that is desperately seeking relevance.

Five years ago, al-Shabaab staged a similar attack at the Westgate, an upscale shopping mall in the same district. The gunmen killed 67 and injured more than 200. In 2015, the militant group also struck Garissa University College killing 148, mainly Christian students. Al-Shabaab later claimed that it ordered the attack as revenge for Kenyan troops’ continued presence in Somalia. The troops are part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISIOM), the military campaign seeking to eliminate the Islamist group from Somalia.

With the DusitD2 attack, it is also evident that Kenyan security agencies have learned key lessons on the execution of operations in response to such attacks. A quick and well-coordinated response disrupted the terrorists’ actions, resulting in countless lives being saved.

According to security experts, the response to the Westgate Shopping Mall attack was characterized by confusion and chaos, while agencies were delayed in responding to the Garissa University attack.  The lack of coordination and the delay in the two resulted in a higher number of casualties. In the DusitD2 response, all security units were put under a singular command, allowing for a smooth execution of the operation (The Star, January 17; Daily Nation, January 18).

Before the latest attack, the militant group’s activities were concentrated in the north-eastern region near the border of Somalia. The militant group had targeted police on patrol, communication installations, and other soft targets. Its presence at the border region is attributed to the ongoing AMISOM military campaign in southern Somalia, which has pushed al-Shabaab toward the Kenyan border. More activities had also been witnessed in Boni forest in the coastal area of Lamu, where the group is believed to have bases (Standard Digital, October 15, 2018). While the attacks in these areas have passed as low-level, news reports indicate the al-Shabaab militants had also been attempting to strike Nairobi without success.

In February 2018, the police arrested gunmen traveling to carry out an attack in Nairobi and found a cache of arms including 36 grenades and five automatic rifles. The militants had assembled a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) to strike soft targets in Nairobi (Nairobi News, February 18, 2018).

Recently, Kenyan security services have made crucial gains against the terrorist group and its sympathizers. The services have curtailed cross-border movement, communication, and slowed down recruitment from Kenya. The latest actions at DusitD2, however, show that al-Shabaab is far from being defeated (The Star, October 3, 2018).

Under the police’s watchful eye, the militant group has adopted new recruitment strategies. This has involved recruiting non-Muslims or recent converts from mainly poor neighborhoods and slums. That became evident after the DusitD2 attack, when two of the attackers were identified as recent converts to Islam who had been brainwashed and sent to Somalia for training. It has emerged that Ali Salim Gichunge, the lead attacker who was killed by security forces during the attack was from non-Muslim communities. He had lived in an informal settlement in Nyeri town, known as Majengo, where he is believed to have been recruited and radicalized (The Star, January 17).

Al-Shabaab’s latest recruitment strategy can be traced to the activities of the group in Mombasa and the interventions of the Kenyan security services. In 2014, the agencies raided four mosques in Mombasa in a move intended to stop the breeding of terrorist cells in the coastal city. The mosques (masjid)—Musa, Sakina, Swafaa, and Mina in Majengo and Kisauni—were believed to be centers of youth radicalization and recruitment. In the raids, hundreds of radicalized youth were arrested, but a large number, many of whom are well-educated, also fled to Somalia to join al-Shabaab. After a few years of training, many of them snuck back to the country, where they recruit for the group (Daily Nation, January 3).

The returnees no longer recruit from mosques but have moved to other discreet places, such as informal settlements. Another recruitment channel is through social media networks and cyber cafes. Reports indicate that recruiters are targeting youths between the ages of 15 and 24 years old.  The recruits are being enticed with a promise that they will be funded to join religious schools or madrassas. Others are promised lucrative jobs, but when they reach Somalia, the promise of well-paying jobs has turned out false (Daily Nation, February 3).

Overall, al-Shabaab has been weakened and disrupted after losing key territory, strategic towns, and seaports to AMISOM troops. The loss of territory has also meant the loss of crucial revenue needed to sustain its fighters, leaving the group desperate. At the same time, internal discontent and leadership disputes have left the group divided into factions. The division has also come at a bad time as Islamic State (IS) is shaping into a major competitor.

In recent months, the two militant groups have clashed in Bari, a mountainous region in the northeast. According to reports, al-Shabaab snuck its fighters into the mountains in December to reach IS hideouts. The ensuing fight forced IS fighters to retreat further into the mountains (Mareeg, January 28; Intelligence Briefs, January 29).

Apart from the battles with IS, al-Shabaab has continued to carry out attacks in other parts of Somalia. Although the group has been forced out of Mogadishu, it continues to mount frequent attacks in the city.  On February 4, the group detonated a car bomb in a Mogadishu shopping mall, killing at least 11 people. A day before, gunmen had shot dead a senior manager of DP World, the Dubai-based global port operator, in the city of Bossasso in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. Claiming responsibility, al-Shabaab said it had killed the official as part of its action to eliminate mercenaries who are looting the country’s resources (Daily Nation, February 4). In January, the group used mortars to target a UN base in Mogadishu. Three people were injured in the afternoon attack (Daily Nation, January 2).

Al-Shabaab continues to strike military, government, and civilian targets in southern Somalia and controls large swathes of the region. Generally, the militant group remains lethal, with the ability to strike inside and outside of Somalia. As the threat it poses to its neighbors became visible once again with the DusitD2 attack, the danger al-Shabaab poses is not likely to diminish in the near future. This is partly due to competition, corruption, and poor coordination among Somali security services. Moreover, Somali government institutions are still weak, meaning they cannot effectively deliver services in all parts of the country. Where the government is not present, people turn to al-Shabaab for services it provides, such as food aid to drought-stricken communities.