Recent arrests have indicated that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group’s presence in East Africa is growing, with officials indicated that they are recruiting young Kenyans for jihad abroad and raising fears that some of them will return to threaten the country, which has already been affected by Somali-based al-Qaeda aligned al-Shabaab.
Kenyan intelligence agencies estimate that around one hundred men and women may have gone to join IS in Libya and Syria. This has triggered concerns that some may chose to come back in order to stage attacks on Kenyan and foreign targets in a country that has already been the victim of regular, deadly terrorism. According to Rashid Abid, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, which is based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, “there is now a real threat that Kenya faces from IS and the danger will continue to increase.”
The first al-Qaeda attack in Kenya was the 1998 US embassy bombing and the most recent large attack was a university massacre in Garissa in 2015. The IS threat however is new and as yet ill defined. In March, four men appeared in court accused of seeking to travel to Libya in order to join IS. Then in early May, Kenyan police announced the arrest of a medical student, his wife and her friend. All three have been accused of recruiting for IS and plotting an anthrax attack. At the time, two other medical students were said to be on the run. Kenyan police chief Joseph Boinnet described a countrywide “terror network” linked to IS and led by Mohamed Abdi Ali, a medical intern at a regional hospital, “planning large-scale attacks” including one to “unleash a biological attack…using anthrax.” Three weeks later, police announced the arrest of two more members of “the ISIS (another acronym for IS) network that is seeking to establish itself in Kenya in order to conduct terror attacks against innocent Kenyans.” Police indicated that they had found “materials terrorists typically use in the making of IEDs” – homemade bombs – as well as “bows and poisoned arrows.”
While some experts have dismissed the suggestion of an imminent large-scale attack in Kenya, they have noted that the threat of IS radicalization, recruitment and return in the East African nation is genuine, with one foreign law enforcement official, who has examined the anthrax allegation, disclosing that “we cant see either the intent to carry out such an attack nor any real planning of it…But there is something in it: there is IS here, mainly involved in recruitment and facilitation.” Other officials also note that the recent arrests show that radicalization continues to be an issue affecting the entire country. While officials note that recruitment into Somali-based al-Shabaab remains the primary danger, there are increasing credible reports that other groups, such as IS, are gaining ground.
For now, Kenyan authorities have struggled to manage the return of their nationals from Somalia, where hundreds of Kenyans make up the bulk of al-Shabaab’s foreign fighters. In the future, experts have noted that that they will also likely have to deal with returning IS extremists as well as self-radicalized “lone wolf” attackers who have been inspired by the group’s ideology and online propaganda.
Reports have surfaced that Somali-based al-Shabaab is heavily recruiting in northeastern Kenya. The news comes just days after the militant group targeted Somalia’s higher education ministry in the capital city, Mogadishu.
On the ground sources have reported that in the town of Isiolo in northeastern Kenya, twenty-six young men have disappeared, with officials suspecting that they have joined the militant group. Sources have indicated that here are similar concerns in other parts of the country. Al-Shabaab’s recruitment in Kenya marks a change of tactic for the group and highlights fears voiced by Kenyan intelligence services and MP’s that the Somali-based militant group is increasingly threatening Kenya and the wider Horn of Africa region. In the wake of a recent string of deadly attacks in northeastern Kenya, al-Shabaab has warned Kenyan officials that this is just the beginning, and that they will carry out further deadly attacks in the coming months. With al-Shabaab militants increasingly being force out of key areas in central and southern Somalia, increasing recruitments of militants in Kenya is likely to be seen as a way for them to not only replenish the group’s numbers, but for them to more power to stage deadly attacks.
On Tuesday, al-Shabaab militants attacked the higher education ministry in Mogadishu, Somalia. They used a car bomb before storming the building, killing at least fifteen people and wounding twenty others.
Police officer Mohamed Dahir disclosed that troops backed by African Union (AU) forces regained control of the building after around an hour-long attack, which began when “a car loaded with explosives rammed the gate.” Police and eyewitnesses reported that the car bomb caused a huge explosion that effectively allowed the gunmen to force their way into the fortified building. According to Mohamed Yusuf Osman, the internal security ministry spokesman, six al-Shabaab gunmen were killed in the attack, “the security forces and AU peacekeepers shot and killed four of the attackers, while the other two blew themselves up.”
Al-Shabaab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab claimed responsibility for the attack, indicating that al-Shabaab gunmen had been “fully in control” of the ministry and that they were also able to enter a neighbouring building that houses the oil ministry. Both buildings are located in the capital’s K5 district, which has been targeted by a string of similar attacks in recent months, with a car bombing to force entry into fortified buildings followed by an armed raid becoming the militant group’s trademark tactic. Last month, al-Shabaab gunmen stormed the fortified Maka al Mukurama hotel in Mogadishu. While earlier this month, the militant group carried out its deadliest attack yet, when al-Shabaab gunmen killed 148 people in a day-long siege at a university in neighbouring Kenya’s northeastern town of Garissa.
On Thursday, al-Shabaab gunmen stormed a university in Kenya, killing at least 147 people in what is now the worst attack to occur on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi.
The siege ended nearly fifteen hours after the Somali-based group’s gunmen shot their way into Garissa University campus in the pre-dawn attack. According to police chief Joseph Boinet, the attackers “shot indiscriminately” when they entered the university compound. Police later surrounded the campus and exchanged gunfire with the attackers however they were repeatedly repelled. According to Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery, four gunmen strapped with explosives were behind the attack – the same number of gunmen that killed 67 people during the 2013 attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi. On the ground sources have disclosed that the militants spared the lives of Muslim students and took many Christian hostages. Officials have indicated that the death toll stands at 147 however they have warned that this toll is likely to increase in the coming days as officers search the campus. At least 79 people were injured, with many airlifted to hospitals in Nairobi. More than 500 students managed to escape. Troops continued to search the campus for any possible insurgents until the siege was declared over late on Thursday, with the national disaster operations centre disclosing that the raid had “ended with all four terrorists killed.” Officials have offered a US $215,000 bounty for the capture of alleged al-Shabaab commander Mohamed Mohamud, a former Kenyan teacher believed to now be in Somalia. He is said to be the mastermind of the Garissa attacks.
Hours into the raid, al-Shabaab spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack on the campus in Garissa, a town located 200 kilometres (120 miles) from the Somali border. The attack comes days after the Australian government warned that it had intelligence that the militant group was planning to carry out attacks in crowded places in the capital city Nairobi.
The latest attack in Kenya has prompted officials from that country, and neighbouring Somalia, to call for closer cooperation. On Friday, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud stated that Somalia and Kenya must boost security cooperation between them.