Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorist group affiliated with al Qaeda, reached its long arm into Kenya again on Jan. 15. According to police, attacks began around 3 p.m. in which gunmen jumped out of a vehicle and opened fire to move through the security barrier, followed by explosions against three vehicles carried out in concert with a suicide bombing inside the foyer of the Thai-owned Nairobi Dusit D2 luxury hotel and office complex. Twenty-one people were killed, an American among them, with more than 30 wounded in the assault. Abdiasis Abu Musab, al-Shabaab’s military operations spokesman claimed the attack, announcing, “We are behind the attack in Nairobi. The operation is going on. We shall give details later.”
The attack occurred on the eve of a verdict in the trial of three men accused of assisting al Shabaab in carrying out its deadly 2013 assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, an area not far from the Dusit hotel, located in the Westland area of the city. Both sites cater to foreign guests and elite Kenyans. Sixty-seven were killed in the Westgate shopping mall attack.
Kenyan security forces were quick and effective in responding within minutes to quell the Dusit hotel attackers, who were clearly willing to die in their assault. Kenyan security forces managed to take one attacker alive into custody, a fact that will be useful in understanding how terror act was plotted.
Al Shabaab, a terrorist and insurgent group based in Somalia, has been fighting the UN-backed government in Mogadishu for decades now, having risen up in response to the 1991 collapse of the Siad Barre regime. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) first emerged in the leadership vacuum, followed by its youth militia wing, al Shabaab, meaning the youth (also known as Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen), who took control of large swaths of territories in Somalia.[i]
As the group later battled both U.S. forces and Ethiopian troops, it managed to attract hundreds of foreign fighters from the West, the Middle East, neighboring countries, and the Somali diaspora in Canada, the U.S. and Europe into its ranks.[ii] Since 2007, at least 22 American foreign fighters from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area were recruited at least in part, if not totally, through Twitter, direct messages, and other social media communications into traveling to join the terrorist group by friends who had gone ahead of them.[iii] Other Somali diaspora were similarly recruited from other states in the U.S. and in Europe.
In recent years, al Shabaab has also forged international links with other terrorist organizations, such as Boko Haram and ISIS,[iv] While al Shabaab is primarily linked to al Qaeda, ISIS has competed for the group’s loyalty and has functioned to recruit al Shabaab fighters into its ranks as well.
The group’s stated aim is to take control of Somalia and to create an Islamic State there, in which it will impose its strict interpretation of Islam upon the population. Al Shabaab, like other militant jihadi movements, also supports trying to spread out a “Caliphate” across the globe. It also seeks to punish anyone who stands in its way and to drum up support in neighboring countries, namely Kenya.
In 2011, the Kenyan government dispatched some 2,000 troops into Somalia in response to a number of cross-border attacks and raids into Kenya, including tourist and foreign worker kidnappings inside Kenya,[v] Operating as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Kenyan troops entered Somalia and successfully pushed al Shabaab out of most of its strongholds, although the group still controls territories and has presence in parts of southern Somalia and Mogadishu and holds considerable influence, in part due to their filling a vacuum of governance in some areas of the country. Despite the presence of AMISOM forces, political measures that serve to mediate clan disputes, improve religious education, and provide essential services for communities, and institutionalization of consultative bodies for local governance arrangements that have made significant inroads against al Shabaab’s ability to operate, the group still remains a serious threat both inside Somalia and to its neighboring countries of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Djibouti, where it has managed to carry out attacks.[vi]
Inside Kenya, al Shabaab has carried out hundreds of horrific cross-border attacks against the Kenyan government and also targeted civilians in stated retribution for Kenyan military involvement against the group in Somalia. According to the Global Terrorism Database, al Shabaab orchestrated or carried out a total of 409 attacks between 2005 and 2017 focused on the Kenyan capital Nairobi, as well as the northeastern cities of Mandera and Garissa, and Kenya’s tourist-filled beaches.[vii] In 2016 alone, al Shabaab carried out 48 attacks, while being a suspect in many others. The 2015 massacre at Garrisa University near the Kenyan-Somali border, which led to 148 deaths, the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack that led to 67 deaths, the 2017 attack in the village of Jima in the south-coast of Kenya, where al Shabaab forces from neighboring Somalia beheaded nine civilians, and recent killings of two Kenyan teachers in Mandera county near the Somali border represent the most notable attacks carried out by the group inside Kenya.[viii] The recent hotel attack now joins this group. (See Chart 1 below.)
Al Shabaab terror attacks inside Kenya have had significant economic impact, resulting in a decline in foreign investments, tourism and confidence among the general population. Al Shabaab has also capitalized on such attacks to show its strength to the vulnerable sectors of Kenyan society that al Shabaab tries to recruit and also by placing the group in the limelight of international media. As a hub of international activity and the home of most international press covering the Horn of Africa, attacks in Nairobi, or wider Kenya, generally garner good press coverage. Last week’s attack on a hotel that is used by Westerners follows the pattern of al Shabaab trying to demonstrate that Kenya is unsafe for foreign travel.
The fact that al Shabaab targets Kenya for terrorist attacks is explained in part by proximity and Kenya’s porous northern border with Somalia’s south, where the group is located, but the explanations involve more than simply geography. In 2011, the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) entered Somalia in reaction to al Shabaab attacks within Kenya and they have continued to be active in the fight that has pushed al Shabaab out of many of its strongholds. In response, al Shabaab greatly increased the tempo and frequency of its attacks inside Kenya.[ix] One of the features of al Shabaab attacks inside Kenya include making use of Kenyan citizens to support (through corruption, bribery, recruitment, etc.) or actually take part in them.
The U.S. military has increased its assaults on al Shabaab in recent months with five strikes already carried out in 2019 and 47 airstrikes occurring in 2018, this compared to 31 in 2017. Despite AMISOM and Somali troops unabatedly battling the group, alongside U.S. airstrikes, the group has proved itself resilient as a terrorist group and insurgency. It still controls large rural areas in southern and central Somalia and parts of markets in Mogadishu, and is said to compete with the largely ineffective Somali government in terms of providing courts and other services to the people.
Likewise, al Shabaab has also been busy recruiting among vulnerable populations inside Somalia and in neighboring countries, most notably Kenya. Controlling areas directly on the border with Kenya and disputing some of the land inside Kenya as rightfully belonging to Somalia, al Shabaab has long been active inside Kenya both mounting attacks and recruiting among its vulnerable populations along the Somali-Kenyan border, in the slums in Nairobi and along the coast.
During the past year, ICSVE researchers have been working with the Kenyan National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) interviewing and studying the pathways into terrorism of al Shabaab recruitees, defectors, and imprisoned cadres. ICSVE researchers recently made two trips into Kenya to in-depth video interview 16 al Shabaab recruitees thus far, covering the topics of their exposure to al Shabaab, recruitment patterns, pathways into terrorism, experiences inside the group and reasons for leaving it, if they left voluntarily. Of these interviews ICSVE has thus far constructed three counter-narrative videos and have begun distributing and testing their effects with the partnership of Facebook and NCTC. Likewise, ICSVE is working with the NCTC and local NGOs to use these counter-narrative videos to attempt to prevent al Shabaab recruitment among young vulnerable Kenyans and Somali immigrants living in the country.
From the research interviews with Kenyan recruitees it’s clear that al Shabaab tries to leverage local grievances with disenfranchised Kenyans and especially those of Somali descent (citizens and noncitizens) who may experience discrimination and frustration. In Kenya, al Shabaab recruitment targets Muslims specifically, including new Muslim converts, a group that excludes geographic, ethnic or nationality affiliation.
Specifically, al Shabaab has successfully promoted its ideology and recruited among disillusioned youth and communities in Mombasa, Garissa, Eldoret and other Kenyan towns,[xi] more recently reaching into the Western parts of Kenya as well. Likewise, areas along the coastal region of Kenya have been hotbeds for al Shabaab recruitment. Youth in the coastal regions (bordering Somalia in the north and Tanzania in the south) are reported to be vulnerable to al Shabaab recruitment due to the lack of educational opportunities, unemployment and historic marginalization by successive governments of Kenya.[xii] Kenya is also home to an estimated 2.3 million ethnic Somalis.[xiii] Nairobi’s Eastleigh, also known as “little Mogadishu,” has also long served as an al Shabaab recruitment center and was for a time a source of radical Somali preachers who supported the ICU.
William, a teacher who joined the group, explains that al Shabaab masterfully manipulates its recruits. “They are very intelligent and record what you like and what you hate. After recording what you hate most, they come behind you and hate the same things. They take your failures and show you how your enemies are responsible.” He related how his recruiters induced him to cross over into Somalia and began redefining his interactions with the Kenyan government and all non-Muslims, for that matter. “They told me, ‘Look at how bad they are paying you. In al Shabaab you will be paid better,” he said. “This is mistreatment of government that is not focused on shariah law. So [over time] you become automatically an enemy of law that is not shariah and any government that doesn’t support the shariah law. You also become an enemy of non-Muslims and of democratic government. You even become an enemy of your own parents if they are not in the religion.”
The group has been adept at specifically targeting Kenyan youth, by exploiting their socio-economic, political and cultural grievances, perceived and actually experienced, by many Kenyan youth.[xiv] Musa, who joined in part out of religious fervor and indoctrination, for instance, also explained the very real practicalities of how he needed a job. “I couldn’t get good employment without education. It’s very hard to get employed in my part of Nairobi,” he explains. “You had to come from one of the clans of the rich businessmen. [Furthermore,] I was looking for a formal and regular source of income. My friends who had gone said life was not bad there. As a young man with a widowed mother, the biggest motivation for me was to take care of my mother.”
Extremists preachers, who have for the most part now been shut down inside Kenya, previously framed political grievances in an Islamic manner that hooked some of the recruits with whom we spoke. These same preachers also helped facilitate their travel into Somalia.
Abu Shaheed recalls attending the Masjid Musa in Majengo. “The first lecture was about jihad,” he recounts. “I never heard of this before. I’d been reading the passages, and verses but I never understood it this way. My thinking was jihad was something in the past. This lecture awoke something in me, encouraged me and gave me a new direction, a zeal. [After this] my friends would find me in the mosque in the front, I got there early before the others.”
In 2016, the Kenyan State of National Security Annual Report to Parliament reported that al Shabaab terrorist recruiters are targeting university and secondary school students as well as prisons to breed terrorists ready for deployment.[xv]
The same report stressed that al Shabaab, similar to ISIS, has also been adept at using social media to recruit, indoctrinate, gain sympathy and stir inter-religious animosity. In the report, it was noted: “The radicals have developed an elaborate propaganda network which includes use of electronic media (videos and CDs) and mass media, and are more pronounced on social media to… justify their actions, intimidate moderate clerics and incite inter-religious animosity to derail the Governments deradicalization efforts.” [xvi]
While most terrorist recruitment relies on more than just online recruitment, with an interplay between online and face-to-face recruitment, one cannot downplay the importance of social media for al Shabaab’s recruitment efforts, particularly in attracting foreign fighters both from inside Kenya and farther abroad in the West. For foreign fighters, al Shabaab represented a duty to fight against western or non-Muslim invaders, to protect Somali women from rape and an opportunity to follow a jihadi path.
For instance, Jermaine Grant, who came from the UK to join jihad in Kenya and Somalia, explained, “Jihad for me is to strive for self, to make the religion of Islam victorious.” Citing what he believes is each individual’s duty to Islam [fard-al-ayn], he continued, “Every individual Muslim has to defend Islam. The religion of Islam is under attack, under threat by an enemy – Muslim lands, Muslims themselves.” Morten Storm, a Dane caught up in militant jihadi groups and ideology in the UK, also wrote about his desire to go and fight jihad and described how he tried to journey to Somalia to join al Shabaab. Apparently the group’s claim of creating an Islamic State and offering the opportunity for young men to fight jihad is attractive enough for some westerners to travel and join.
The majority of al Shabaab recruits have been young men, including teen boys, although older, more educated men have also joined the group and served in key leadership positions. In recent years, inside Kenya, young women have also been recruited into the group to travel to Somalia to become “jihadi” brides. Indeed, Kenyan security officials that we spoke to expressed deep concern over the recruitment of Kenyan females.
Aisha, a young Kenyan from the coastal areas, was broken-hearted after her divorce. She recalls finding al Shabaab and ISIS discussion groups on Twitter and Whatsapp and following them until she was seduced by a recruiter into volunteering for a suicide mission. “I was in love with him,” Aisha explained. “He was married. I wanted to be married with him. He said we would go to Iraq and marry and fight together and go to jannah together. Sunni Muslims had beards. I really love a man with beard. We used to call them lions.”
“I was thinking we’ll go fight together, die together,” Aisha recalled. “At that time, when you want to be a mujahida [female warrior], you always dream to have a man beside you. You cannot not be a lioness, unless you have a lion. You have to have a lion to be a lioness. Everything you have to do together. I used to dream to be with somebody, someone like me.”
While this article does not allow for a thorough discussion of all the reasons Kenyans joined al Shabaab, we were pleased to find that those who had been in the group and were now willing to talk to us were also in many cases willing to denounce both the group and its ideology.
Asmina, another Kenyan female taken into the group by her husband, advised: “Going to Somalia it’s not a nice place. You can be killed at any time. You are forced to get married. It’s not a comfortable place. If you try to run away, you can be killed. They will shoot you or behead you. There is nothing good in traveling to Somalia. You may never see your parents again and you have no connection to home. Even when you come home, you will hear this person died. You’ll just return in darkness. There is nothing good in Somalia.”
Abu Paul advised women, “My advice to women is that there is no life on the other side. There, women are married off regularly. You get there, you are married, your husband dies, you are given to another one, after a few months, he dies, and you are passed to another. There is no life there. Just stay home.”
Referring to the consequences of being caught, Thomas explained, “Life is tough in prison,” and added, “I’m suffering from what I did. These are the consequences. They should know that. Life is hard [in prison], being locked up 23 hours.”
At the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), we conduct our research interviews with returned, defected and incarcerated terrorist cadres for two purposes: to learn about their trajectories into and back out of terrorism and their thoughts and experiences in the group and to see if we can use that learning to create creative programs and products to prevent and rehabilitate those attracted to terrorist groups. In this case, 15 of those interviewed agreed to be video recorded and to have their video possibly made into a short counter-narrative clip. Three such video clips have already been made and are subtitled in English, Somali, and Swahili and are being actively distributed on YouTube, Facebook and in face-to-face interactions. These videos are “The Lioness and the Lion – traveling to Jannah together,”[xix] “Jihad is our Way,”[xx] and “Should I Join al Shabaab.”[xxi] The goal is to do the same with the rest of the video interviews. It is our hope that while governments take the longer route of trying to fix social problems that terrorist groups exploit, these tools will help break the terrorist brand – delegitimizing both the groups and their propaganda efforts to recruit vulnerable individuals into their ranks.