July 28, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Terrorism in the Horn of Africa

• President Obama’s visit to Kenya renewed U.S. attention on the threat from terror group al-Shabaab, though not considerably

• An attack on a hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia while the President was in Nairobi demonstrated al-Shabaab’s capability

• But while Somalia makes slow progress against terrorism, Kenya has further to go; a succession of attacks in the country has exposed weaknesses in the response to the threat

• Kenya—and Somalia—may suffer more attacks if the Islamic State gains a foothold in the region.


Compared with the $9.4 million a day that the United States spends on the campaign against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the $40 million set aside for assistance to countering violent extremism in East Africa for the whole of fiscal year 2015 would seem rather insubstantial, even when added to the $100 million in bilateral counterterrorism assistance promised to Kenya. But despite President Obama’s four-day visit to Kenya and Ethiopia that ends today, U.S. concern about what happens in East Africa is limited, as are its opportunities to help.

Al-Shabaab represents the main threat, but despite its notoriety and recruitment of foreigners—including several from the United States—the group remains focused on Somalia and the countries that contribute to AMISOM, the international peace keeping force that is based there. In fact, although the previous leader of al-Shabaab, Ahmed Abdi Godane—who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in September last year—offered allegiance to Usama bin Ladin in 2009, and al-Shabaab was accepted as an al-Qaeda affiliate by Ayman al-Zawahiri in early 2012, it is hard to point with certainty to an attack by al-Shabaab outside the region.

This is not to question its ability, however, and the July 26 truck bomb that destroyed much of the al Jazeera, the main hotel in Mogadishu, confirms its capacity and determination. Timed to coincide with Obama’s visit to the region, and perhaps guessing that he might make a surprise visit to Mogadishu, the attack came as close as al-Shabaab felt able to demonstrate its presence during the trip. As the al Jazeera is also home to the embassies of key Somali partners, such as Kenya and China, and claimed a victim from each country, the attack has had additional international resonance.

Mogadishu will recover from the al Jazeera bombing, as it has from numerous previous attacks, many of which have targeted lawmakers and other Somali officials or the places that they stay. Overall, security is improving incrementally, and although most international partners are restricted to working from a well-protected zone around Mogadishu International Airport, intelligence-sharing and capacity-building have hovered around the country’s maximum absorption levels given its limited resource base after 25 years of instability. In addition, recent offensives by the Somali Army and AMISOM have shown that, despite apparent success during Ramadan, al-Shabaab is still unable to hold territory, preferring to melt away when AMISOM advances, and creep back when offensives are over.

But if Somalia has become more resilient to terrorism, that is less true of Kenya. The Westgate Mall in Nairobi has only just reopened after al-Shabaab's September 2013 attack that killed 67 people and exposed many of the weaknesses of the Kenyan security forces. In April of this year, al-Shabaab struck Garissa University, murdering 147, despite intelligence warnings that an attack was planned. The immediate government response was to threaten to close the nearby Dadaab refugee camp, the largest in the world, which holds around 400,000 Somalis displaced by the fighting over the border, and to clamp down further on the Somali Kenyan community, which numbers around 2 million. Resentment at the treatment of Somali refugees and discrimination against the Somali Kenyan community was the reason al-Shabaab gave for the attack, and the fact that one of the attackers was the well-educated son of a local Kenyan chieftain suggests that this resentment is widespread.

The Garissa attack was the worst in Kenya since the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi by al-Qaeda in August 1998—an event commemorated by President Obama when he met family members of some of the victims. But even before Garissa, the threat from terrorism had led to a 25% drop in tourism for 2015, hitting one of Kenya’s key foreign currency earners. President Obama’s visit may restore some international confidence in Kenya’s ability and determination to fight terrorism, but it will take a long time to generate a change in attitude from the most senior ministers to the most junior policemen. Relations between Kenya and Somalia at the practitioner level are improving as intelligence officers on both sides begin to recognize the benefits of cooperation, but politically, the relations between Nairobi and Mogadishu have a long way to go.

Some members of al-Shabaab have begun to discuss a switch of allegiance from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State. While Abu Ubaidah, the new leader of al-Shabaab, is for the time being opposed to this allegiance, it would not be out of character for the Islamic State to encourage a breakaway group to form. Until now, Somalis or foreign fighters within al-Shabaab who support the Islamic State have gone across to Yemen to join the group or have moved on to Iraq and Syria, but a reverse flow is not impossible. This would lead to still more ethnic tension between Kenyans and Somalis and would pose a heightened threat as the two groups compete for recruits and support. Already al-Shabaab is becoming a Kenyan problem as much as a Somali one, and however low a priority terrorism in the Horn of Africa may be for the U.S. compared with other global and regional threats, President Obama and his advisors will hope that the resources they have allocated will have some impact.


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