WAGING WAR AGAINST THE TERROR NEXT DOOR: HAS KENYA’S FIGHT WITH AL SHABAAB LED TO MORE ATTACKS?

After riding a wave of bad publicity arising from a spate of terror attacks, the Kenyan Government has launched a new offensive – this time painting a more positive image of the East African country. In a bid to attract more tourism and assure the international community that, despite its ongoing battle with the militant nuisance next door, al Shabaab, officials have reiterated that Kenya is still open for business. After the latest round of explosions which rocked the coastal city of Mombasa, in an event which left one person dead and four others injured on 15 May 2012, Tourism Minister Dan Mwazo announced that his country is committed to preserving its “unique position as a preferred tourist destination”, saying that Nairobi remains “unwavering even in the wake of periodic acts of cowardice characterized by grenade attacks”. Mwazo’s statements come as Kenyan authorities announced on 17 May 2012, that they have arrested the individual responsible for the Mombasa attacks, whilst Ibrahim Kibe Kagwa, a man accused of staging the al Shabaab-led strikes against God’s House of Miracle Church in the capital on 29 April 2012, is now facing trial. Although Kenya is positioning itself as East Africa’s main power (perhaps reluctantly so), capable of maintaining security whilst encouraging foreign direct investment, some international firms and travellers have indicated a reluctance to travel to the country. But how much of a threat are terror attacks in Kenya?

Nairobi Begins Its Assault on al Shabaab

Kenya as of 18 May 2012, is currently battling the militant Islamist organisation, al Shabaab, a group which may pose a risk to international travellers. Personnel are reminded that since 2006, the Somali-based al Shabaab organisation has been growing in strength, and has started using increasingly deadly tactics. It would appear that al Shabaab has become keen on attacking Kenyan interests, particularly following the announcement on 17 October 2011, by Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, that his country would initiate a major joint security operation with Somalia, in an effort to remove the region of the militant group. The Kenyan campaign against al Shabaab began after the terror group was blamed for high-profile kidnaps along its border with Somalia. These abductions included an incident on 13 October 2012, which saw gunmen kidnap two Spanish doctors working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from the Dadaab refugee camp. Another abduction occurred on 19 October 2011, when a wheelchair-bound French woman died after being held in captivity, again by pirates linked to al Shabaab. These two cases only further embarrassed the Kenyan Government, which was already trying to recover from the media frenzy surrounding an earlier kidnapping in September 2011, in which gunmen shot dead British publishing executive David Tebbutt, before taking his wife, Judith, also a UK national, hostage. These incidents not only devastated Kenya’s tourism industry, they further damaged the shipping routes along the already pirate-infested Indian Ocean, forcing the Kenyan authorities to react more harshly to al Shabaab by engaging the organisation at home and sending a reported 4,000 soldiers into neighbouring Somalia. However, Kenya’s response has arguably aggravated the al Shabaab nuisance even more, as the group has conducted a string of attacks since its official campaign launch in 2011. According to most analysts, the Kenyan Government believed that by pushing al Shabaab as far away from its own border as possible, it would lead to the annihilation of the terror organisation. The thinking behind this strategy was that if Kenya forcing the militants further into Somalia, the Somali forces that the Kenyan authorities helped train, would finish the job from there. However, this strategy has proven difficult. To begin with, Somali leadership has been reluctant to take part in the “joint-strategy” from the very beginning. After President Kibaki announced his country’s decision to initiate the security operation, Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed lashed out at Kenya, calling its plans to send its troops across the border into his country “inappropriate”, despite the fact that the Kenyan Government apparently had official documentation to prove the two had agreed to the operation. Furthermore, in a situation arguably similar to that of the Nigerian Government’s crackdown on Boko Haram, although many original members of al Shabaab are still active, it is conceivable that most of the attacks may actually be conducted by separate gangs with no affiliation to the group, which are simply committing acts of terror under the banner of al Shabaab. To put it more bluntly, in the words of David Shinn, the former US ambassador to Ethiopia, Kenya “does not have the capacity” to drive al Shabaab out of Somalia, or “keep them out”. According to Shin, “The best it can do is remove al Shabaab from the border area, and possibly Kismayu, and then try to replace al Shabaab with Somali forces friendly to Kenya”.

Kenya Personnel Advice

So how will this strategy affect those looking to travel to Kenya? Personnel are advised that there is largely an incidental risk with regards to terrorist activity, meaning that although international travellers may not in themselves be targeted, they may risk falling victim to attacks which are directed at Kenyan Government facilities. Although the US Embassy in Nairobi issued a warning on 23 April 2012, that it had obtained “credible information” regarding a possible attack on Nairobi hotels and other key Kenyan government facilities, further details regarding this attack have yet to be released, and the attack itself has yet to materialise. As a result of such a warning, security has increased in these targeted areas, thus reducing the likelihood of a large-scale attack in these areas. Nevertheless, personnel are advised to be vigilant, as small-scale attacks on commercial and religious centres are likely to continue in the long term, particularly as al Shabaab seems to have no shortage of potential recruits which may pour across the borders in Kenya, which are difficult to police. As indicated earlier, churches appear to be a higher risk to personnel, particularly as on 29 April 2012, assailants linked to al Shabaab launched a grenade attack on a church near Nairobi city centre, in an event which left one person dead and a number of others injured. Going forward, however, Mombasa appears to serve as a higher risk to personnel than that of Nairobi, particularly as Mombasa sits on the Indian Ocean, which is already a prime target for al Shabaab-linked pirates, many of which also tend toward kidnap as an additional means of funding. Personnel are also advised that bars, hotels and other “Western-style” facilities may be at a higher risk to terrorism, as indicated by another string of small-scale attacks, on 31 March 2012, when al Shabaab-linked militants detonated bombs in a bar outside Mombasa stadium.

(Image: somalilandpress.com)

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