Al-Shabab Attacks Nairobi Hotel Complex, Killing 21

Somalia-based Islamist extremist group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the attack on a hotel complex in Kenya’s capital that killed at least 21 people.

Gunmen began the attack on January 15 with both gunfire and explosions continuing into the following day before Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the siege had ended.

One of the deceased was British-South African dual national, and another Briton was wounded in the attack. The British Foreign Office has advised visitors to the region to avoid the immediate area as well as advising against travel to areas within 60km of the Kenyan/Somalia border. An American tech CEO, Jason Spindler, a survivor of 9/11, is also reported to be among the deceased.

The attack came one day after a Kenyan court ruled three suspects must stand trial on charges they were involved in the deadly attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013.

67 people were killed in the Westgate Mall siege, for which al-Shabab claimed responsibility. In 2015, a further attack at a university was also attributed to the extremist group.

Kenya has deployed military forces along its border with Somalia. Soldiers have been pushing back al-Shabab fighters and preventing them from recruiting and operating within Kenya. Given the large numbers of determined al-Shabab fighters, the Kenyan counter-terror operation has been largely successful. New intel as well as assistance from overseas including the U.S. and U.K. and the deployment of advanced surveillance technology has enabled Kenya to reclaim territory previously used as an al-Shabab safe haven.

Recently displaced and armed Kenyan herders took over abandoned farmland to graze their animals and are now threatening anyone who tries to return, placing additional burden on the military in the area.

Who are al-Shabab?

Al-Shabab, or “The Youth” began as the radical youth wing of Somalia’s now-defunct Union of Islamic Courts. It is banned as a terrorist group by both the US and the UK and is believed to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters.

Al-Shabab’s leadership declared allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012 and its broad aim is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia as well as demonstrating general opposition to western backed government. There are numerous reports of foreign jihadists going to Somalia to help al-Shabab, from neighboring countries, as well as the US and Europe.

U.S. authorities are concerned about the group’s ability to recruit members of the Somali diaspora living in the United States. It has attracted dozens of American volunteers to fight in Somalia, many from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) states that since 2007, Washington has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to train and equip local security forces in the region, but it announced in late 2017 it was suspending aid to most Somali units over corruption concerns. In April 2017, President Trump authorized the first deployment of regular U.S. troops to the country since 1994, joining a small number of counterterrorism advisors already there. Defense officials say some five hundred U.S. personnel are now stationed there.

U.S. air strikes in Somalia have increased under the Trump administration. A single strike on a training camp northwest of Mogadishu in November 2017 killed more than a hundred militants, according to U.S. Africa Command.

CFR reports that al-Shabab has benefited from several sources of income over the years, including revenue from other terrorist groups, state sponsors, members of the Somali diaspora, charities, piracy, kidnapping, and the extortion of local businesses and farmers. The governments of Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, and Yemen have been accused of financing the group—although most deny these claims.

The Council adds that the group has built up an extensive racketeering operation, with illicit trade of charcoal bringing in an estimated $10 million a year despite a UN ban on Somali charcoal exports that has been in place since 2012. In recent years, al-Shabab has increased its reliance on smuggling contraband sugar across the border into Kenya, bringing in tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually. Kenyan forces have been accused of involvement in the scheme since 2015.

Incident response team deployed

INTERPOL has deployed an international team to Kenya to assist with investigations into the attack.

The expertise provided by the Incident Response Team (IRT) includes disaster victim identification, cyber analysis to decrypt seized mobile phones and other portable devices, biometrics, explosives and firearms, as well as photo and video analysis.

The IRT was deployed at the request of Kenyan authorities and its specialists will carry out real-time comparisons against INTERPOL’s global databases on evidence gathered from the crime scene.

In addition to INTERPOL’s IRT deployment, support is also being provided to Kenya’s national authorities via INTERPOL’s Regional Bureau in Nairobi, and the 24-hour Command and Coordination Centre (CCC) at INTERPOL’s General Secretariat headquarters in Lyon, France, as well as in Singapore and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

With a number of foreign nationals among the victims, and investigations on-going, the CCC will also act as a central liaison to the INTERPOL National Central Bureaus of all the involved countries to ensure any ante mortem data on those killed during the attack, both victims and suspected perpetrators, is received as quickly as possible by Kenyan authorities.

This report was originally posted on January 16 and updated on January 22 2019.

Kylie Bull has 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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