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.
On 17 May, Finland tightened its restrictions on giving residence permits to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, stating that it was now largely safe for them to return to their war-torn home countries.
Authorities in Helsinki, where anti-immigration political groups have been on the rise, disclosed that security had improved to such an extent that refugees would generally not be at risk in any parts of the three countries, despite ongoing conflicts. While there was no immediate reaction from refugee agencies, the statement released by the Finnish Immigration Service comes in the face of a string of international assessments of the scale of the ongoing bloodshed and refugee crisis. In its statement, the immigration service disclosed that “it will be more difficult for applicants from these countries to be granted a residence permit,” adding, “it is currently possible for asylum seekers to return to all areas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia without the ongoing armed conflicts of such presenting a danger to them only because they are staying in the country.” Under the new rules, asylum seekers will only be allowed to stay if they can prove that they are individually at risk. In 2015, around 32,500 people applied for asylum in Finland. This was up from 3,600 in 2014. Most of those applying for asylum were from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. This year, the numbers have declined significantly.
Somalia has been slowly recovering from more than two decades of war. The internationally-backed government, which is based in Mogadishu and which has little control outside the capital, continues to fight an Islamist insurgency by the militant group al-Shabab, which regularly launches gun and bomb attacks in the capital and in other areas of the Horn of Africa country. In Iraq, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group continues to hold key cities and vast swathes of territory in the northern and western regions of the country, which it seized in 2014. Furthermore, despite battlefield setbacks over the past year, IS militants have continued to attack civilians in areas that are under government control. This includes a string of attacks that occurred earlier this month in and around the capital, which killed more than 100 people. In Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a spring offensive last month, vowing to drive out the Western-backed government in Kabul and restore strict Islamic rule.
On Friday 6 May, the Kenyan government announced that refugees from Somalia will no longer be accepted in Kenya, citing security fears.
According to a statement that was signed by interior ministry official Karanja Kibicho, “the Government of the Republic of Kenya, having taken into consideration its national security interests, decided that hosting of refugees has come to an end.” The statement further indicated that under the directive, newly-arrived asylum seekers will not automatically receive refugee status and the government will step up efforts to have those who are already living in the country removed. Mwende Njoka, interior ministry spokesman, disclosed that “the message is clear, we are closing the camps and we will not accept more refugees in the country,” adding that new regulations were aimed at refugees from Somalia but that those from other countries may also be affected, noting “the problematic ones are the Somalis. They’re the ones we’re starting with.” Kenya hosts around 550,000 refugees in two camps in Kakuma and Dadaab, the world’s largest, many of whom have fled decades of war in neighboring Somalia. In 2013, the governments of Kenya and Somali, along with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) signed a so-called tripartite agreement, which was aimed at encouraging Somali refugees to return home voluntarily. However since then, only a few thousand have taken up the offer, which has left Kenya frustrated at the slowness. According to Kibicho, “Kenya has been forced by circumstances to reconsider the whole issue of hosting refugees and the process of repatriation,” adding that the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA), which s responsible for refugee registration and management, had been “disbanded.” However a DRA employee reached by phone at work on Friday afternoon expressed surprise, stating that he knew nothing of the directive.
Government and security officials regularly asset that Islamic militants from al-Shabaab thrive and recruit among Somali refugees. These claims however have been denied by independent observers and by the refugees themselves who point out that many of them have fled al-Shabaab’s depredations. Following deadly al-Shabaab assaults on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre and Garissa university, senior officials threated to close Dadaab camp and remove the refugees. In April 2015, just days after that attack in Garissa, Deputy President William Ruto promised to close Dadaab “in three months,” however that deadline, like the previous ones. Friday’s statement again conflated refugees and terrorists emphasizing, “the immense security challenges such as threat of the Shebaab and other related terror groups that hosting of refugees has continued to pose to Kenya. New arrivals from Somalia will no longer receive ‘prima facie’ refugee status but will have to argue their cases individually. However the agency that has been tasked with processing those applications, the DRA, is to be shut down.
On Monday 9 May, the United Nations warned that Kenya’s decision to stop hosting refugees could have “devastating consequences” for hundreds of thousands of people. It has urged the country with the world’s largest refugee camp to reconsider the move. The UN agency has voiced alarm at the announcement, warning against “the potentially devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people that premature ending of refugee hosting would have. A statement released by UNHCR disclosed that “the safety of hundreds of thousands of Somalis, South Sudanese and others has (long) hinged on Kenya’s generosity and its willingness to be a leading beacon in the region for international protection,” adding, “tragically, the situations in Somali and South Sudan that cause people to flee are still unresolved.” UNHCR has appealed to Kenya to continue hosting the refugees, warning that it risked worsening the current global refugee crisis if it did not. In its statement, the agency reported that “in today’s global context of some 60 million people forcibly displaced, it is more important than ever that international asylum obligations prevail and are properly supported, “adding, “in light of this, and because of the potentially devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people that premature ending of refugee hosting would have, UNHCR is calling on the government of Kenya to reconsider its decision.” A group of charities working in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya added their voices on Tuesday to those calling on Nairobi to reconsider a decision to stop hosting Somali refugees. The eleven charities described the Kenyan government’s decision to close Dadaab and Kakuma camps as “unfortunate, adding, “the recent announcement will have far reaching implications for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who have called Kenya a place of refuge.” The eleven non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which together provide basic services including healthcare and clean water in the two camps, acknowledged Kenya’s burden in hosting refugees from around the region, however they urged the government not to implement its ne plan. The NGOs, which include the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Save the Children and the Norwegian Refugee Council, warned that closing the camps “violates the general principle of voluntary repatriation” and puts the refugees at risk, many of them women and children. Despite fears raised by aid agencies, human rights group sand the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), Kenya has insisted that it will go ahead with the plan however no timeline has been released.
On Wednesday 11 May, the interior minister announced that Kenya is drawing up a timetable to close Dadaab refugee camp, which hosts about 350,000 Somalis, because of security concerns. According to Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery, the country has set up a taskforce to handle the closure plan. Speaking at a news conference, the minister disclosed that “they will present the timetable based on all the resources required,” adding that state funds had been allocated in order to proceed with the programme. He also disclosed that “the government has commenced the exercise of closing the complex of Dadaab refugee camp,” without specifying what new action had ben taken beyond a voluntary repatriation programme that is already in place.
On Monday, 15 February, officials reported that Islamist militant group al-Shabaab killed Somalia’s former defense minister with a car bomb in the capital city Mogadishu. The latest death of a Somali official comes just days after the militant group claimed responsibility for the 2 February bombing of a plane that had departed the airport in Mogadishu for neighboring Djibouti. It also comes as insecurity in the capital city and across the country has intensified in recent months, with the militant group launching a number of deadly attacks, particularly targeting troops with the AMISOM contingent.
Hours after Monday’s attack, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, stating that it planted the car bomb that killed Muhayadin Mohamed, who was also an adviser to the speaker of Somalia’s parliament. Pictures taken by a photographer from the scene depicted the passenger seat took the brunt of the damage, with the passenger-side doors blown out. A police official confirmed that Mohamed was killed, adding that a second person in the car survived the blast without any serious injuries.
Mohamed was briefly defense minister in 2008, during Somalia’s transitional federal government, which was backed by the United Nations and had fought alongside African Union (AU) peacekeepers to push al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu and other major cities.
Meanwhile on Saturday, al-Shabaab insurgents claimed responsibility for a bomb attack, which ripped a hole in a passenger plane shortly after takeoff from the capital Mogadishu earlier this month. In a statement issued by the group, al-Shabaab stated on 2 February, Shebaab “mujahideen carried out an operation targeted dozens of Western intelligence officials and Turkish NATO forces aboard an airplane bound for Djibouti.” Al-Shabaab added that the bomb attack was “retribution for the crimes committed by the coalition of Western crusaders and their intelligence agencies against Muslims of Somalia.”
The blast left a metre-wide (three-foot)hole in the fuselage of the Daallo Airlines plane shortly after it took off from Somalia’s main airport, killing the suspected bomber and forcing an emergency landing. Two of the 74 passengers aboard were slightly injured. Investigators later reported that a passenger believed to be the bomber, identified as Abdulahi Abdisalam, was killed, probably after being propelled out of the aircraft in the explosion. The man had initially intended to board a Turkish Airlines flight however the Turkish plane did not turn up and Daallo Airlines agreed to fly the passengers onwards to Djibouti. Somali intelligence officials have released surveillance footage appearing to show a passenger being given a laptop in which the bomb was concealed.
In recent months, the number of deadly attacks carried out by Islamic extremists has increased across Africa, which has prompted questions about the resurgence of armed groups that operate in the region.
- 21 January 2016 – Al-Shabaab fighters stormed and took over a beachfront restaurant in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. When the siege was over, more than 20 people had been killed in the attack.
- 15 January 2016 – Gunmen stormed a café popular with foreigners in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. They fired at people and set the café ablaze and then attacked a nearby hotel. At least thirty people were killed after a more than 12-hour siege. The North African branch of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claimed responsibility, stating that fighters from al-Murabitoun, an affiliated terror group, had carried out the assault.
- 15 January 2016 – Al-Shabaab gunmen attacked an African Union (AU) base in Somalia, killing an unknown number of Kenyan peacekeepers. Al-Shabaab has since claimed that it killed about 100 Kenyans, adding that they had also captured several soldiers. Kenyan authorities have not released a death toll. Kenya has provided a major contingent to the AU force that is fighting al-Shabaab and assisting the elected government of Somalia.
- 28 December 2015 – Boko Haram Islamic extremists struck a city and a town in northeastern Nigeria with rocket-propelled grenades and multiple suicide bombers. At least eighty people were killed in Maiduguri, the state capital of Borno.
- 20 November 2015 – Islamic extrmeists seized dozens of hostages at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako. At least twenty people were killed along with two gunmen during the more than seven-hour siege. AQIM and al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was their first joint attack.