The January 15 terrorist attack on an upscale hotel and office complex in Nairobi’s Westlands, in which at least 21 people were killed, has left the region scrambling to reengineer its security arrangements to prevent further attacks.
Security experts in the region are seeking commitments to share intelligence to contain Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based Islamist militant group that is now believed to have split up into sub-groups, some of which are in competition in carrying out attacks in the region to catch the eye of bigger terror groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
The group uses its attacks in East Africa to raise its profile, seek new recruits and solicit funding, and Kenya has borne the brunt of these attacks, with the tourism sector being the worst hit.
Kenyan security officials were on Friday following leads to unmask the attackers of the dusitD2 Hotel, who were killed in the hotel. One of them, Ali Salim Gichunge, was the son of a Kenya Defence Forces soldier and was said to have lived in Kiambu County near the capital city for a while before the attack.
The revelation that the attackers were Kenyans in sleeper cells inside the country gives credence to reports by security analysts that Al Shabaab has changed tactics, combining old and new methods in their terror campaign in the region, while avoiding appearing on the radar of security agencies.
A report by the International Crisis Group released last September, says that the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall on September 21, 2013, triggered a recruitment drive by Al Shabaab, and now the country is being attacked by militants from local cells. ICG says that the Westgate attack, in which 67 people were killed in a four-day siege, demonstrated al Shabaab’s reach outside Somalia.
Kenyan authorities’ subsequent crackdowns fuelled Muslim anger and accelerated militant recruitment, says ICG’s report titled Al Shabaab Five Years after Westgate: Still a Menace in East Africa.
“In 2015, top officials switched approaches, better involving community leaders in efforts against Al Shabaab. The movement reacted by relocating operations, including forging closer ties with militants in Tanzania, parts of which saw more attacks,” says the report.
Security experts say that intelligence networks from the frontline states often report possible or pending Al Shabaab attacks through tips, but the lack of intelligence sharing and inability to analyse the myriad tips prevents countries from countering the threats.
The African Union Mission in Somalia, Amisom, has succeeded in restricting the operations of the Islamic militants within Somalia, forcing them to change tack and use local cells instead of crossing borders to stage attacks.
While Al Shabaab has lost all territories to Amisom, save for Middle Jubba, the militants have significantly increased the number of bombings in Mogadishu and Kenyan towns bordering Somalia.
In December 2018, the African Union Peace and Security Council approved a new programme, Concept of Operations (CONOPs), to flush out Al Shabaab from Middle Jubba from the beginning of 2019. But the militants have become versatile, employing both new and old tactics.
In Kenya, the Westgate, Garissa University and dusitD2 attacks were similar, with the militants first shooting the guards, entering the premises, taking hostages and killing them.
Harun Maruf, a Somali journalist and author of the book Inside al Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda's Most Powerful Ally, said that Al Shabaab is in for a long war, and they are patient in planning attacks, some of which take at least a year to complete.
He said that for the region to confront and defeat the militants, governments need equally meticulous planning on top of multifaceted, committed and longer-term strategies and approaches.
“Some downplay the threat of Al Shabaab, deliberately or otherwise, but Al Shabaab wants to be underestimated. As long as you don’t take the threat seriously, you’re delaying the solution and deflecting attention away from the group,” he wrote on Twitter.
It is alleged that the attackers of the Nairobi hotel subscribed to the Amniyat Division, led by deputy leader of Al Shabaab Mahad Karate. Many of the Amniyat commanders have been killed in US drone strikes.
According to a recent report by Strategic Intelligence, the role of Al Shabaab Amniyat is intelligence gathering, carrying out assassinations, planning and staging suicide bombings in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and other countries as assigned.
Its operatives are trained by foreign jihadists, but the unit rarely incorporates those foreigners into operations, as they need to blend with local populations.
Analysts say that the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama, which follows a radical Islamist ideology, has been recruiting Kenyans of non-Somali descent.
Houghon Irungu, executive director of Amnesty International, said that societies with high levels of hopelessness, lawlessness, inequalities and exclusion are fertile grounds for recruitment of terrorists.
The Amisom troop-contributing countries — Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia — have all been billed vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks, as the African peacekeepers intensify efforts to flush out the militants from their remaining strongholds and open up main supply routes in Somalia.
The weak links that expose countries in the region to attacks are porous borders, the war in Yemen which allows movement of the militants, corruption, which allows smuggling of weapons, and the political crisis in the Horn and the Sudans.
The ICG says that Al Shabaab aims to pressure regional governments to withdraw troops from Somalia, where Amisom has been battling the militants since 2007.
The ICG report says that despite losing territory in Somalia and cutting back recruitment in Kenya under pressure from the authorities, Al Shabaab has adapted by finding new areas of operation, including building relationships with militants in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique.
What should be done?
“Authorities should avoid blanket arrests and extrajudicial killings, involve local leaders in efforts to tackle recruitment, while taking steps to address broader grievances that al Shabaab taps into in its narrative, including the political and economic exclusion of Muslim minorities in East Africa,” said the ICG.
Security sources have told The EastAfrican that some Kenyan returnees from Somalia, who have escaped because they were suspected of being spies of the Kenyan government, have relocated to the Tanzanian town of Tanga, for fear of being hunted down by Kenya’s security agencies.
The ICG report also says that in Tanzania, the Shabaab has deepened its ties with local militants since 2011, when parts of the country suffered sporadic killings of Christians, Muslim clerics, police officers and ruling-party cadres.
Religious and political leaders in Tanzania contend that heavy-handed policing, including extrajudicial killings, risks driving young people into the militants’ arms and fuelling intercommunal tensions.
Also, Zanzibar’s protracted crisis, involving successive contested elections, is believed to have pushed youth toward militancy, as traditional leaders, who for years pursued reform peacefully, lose credibility.
In Uganda, the report says Al Shabaab has struggled to gain traction – in large part due to better integration of Somalis, and Muslims overall, into society. However, Ugandan security forces have in recent years rounded up some Muslims, creating the potential for militancy.
In Rwanda, though the country has not contributed troops to Somalia, the police say that security agencies have realised that young Muslims are the most vulnerable to terrorism propaganda, so they counter the threat of terrorism by collaborating with the public, particularly the Muslim leadership, in sharing timely information about radicalism and violent extremism.
Jean Bosco Kabera, the spokesperson of the Rwanda National Police told The EastAfrican that the police also conduct counter radicalisation programmes to deter any radical teachings by extremists as well as targeting radical youth and taking them through de-radicalisation programmes.
But of great help is that the police maintain co-operation with other agencies in the region and beyond, through Interpol, to share critical information regarding terrorism.
“Interpol enables police to get and share information on terror-related threats and networks, which helps police to formulate appropriate strategies to counter the terrorism threat,” he said.
Reporting by Fred Oluoch and Ivan Mugisha