Al Shabab’s war with Kenya

  • Mucahid Durmaz
  • 16 Jan 2019

The attack on a hotel complex in Kenyan capital Nairobi is not an isolated event but rather the latest episode in the continuation of the war between Kenya and Al Shabab.

Kenyan special forces take position outside a hotel complex following an explosion in Nairobi's Westlands suburb on January 15, 2019, in Kenya. ( AFP )

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said on Wednesday that all Al Shabab militants who stormed an upmarket hotel complex had been “eliminated” after an almost 20-hour siege that left 14 dead.

“As of this moment, we have confirmation that 14 innocent lives were lost,” Kenyatta said.

Al Shabab’s military spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack shortly after the two bombs went off and militants engaged in a protracted gun battle with Kenyan security forces.

Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab has been waging a catastrophic war for more than a decade to impose its interpretation of Islamic law. Emerging from the ashes of the anarchic failed state in Somalia, the group, with up to 9,000 militants, controls territory in southern and central Somalia.

In October 2017, a truck bomb in a busy neighbourhood of the capital Mogadishu killed more than 500 people, marking the deadliest attack carried out by the group in Somalia.

However, the hotel attack is the latest escalation in the war between Kenya and Al Shabab. Kenya currently has more than 4,000 troops on Somali soil, contributing 22,000 African Union troops in the battle against Al Shabab.

The militant group has repeatedly threatened retaliatory attacks for as long as Kenyan forces remain in Somalia.

The group vowed to carry out attacks against Kenya, citing economic, political and social marginalisation and the discrimination of Muslims in Kenya, which causes widespread frustration and radical discourse to flourish.

Special forces protect people at the scene of an explosion at a hotel complex in Nairobi's Westlands suburb on January 15, 2019, in Kenya.(AFP)

Kenyan intervention to Somalia

In 2011, after continuous cross-border attacks by militants in northern Kenya, kidnapping and killing civilians, including Western tourists in northern Lamu county, Kenya decided to intervene in Somalia.

However, although Kenya claimed hit-run attacks and kidnappings had been the driving force behind the invasion, its long-term investments and infrastructure ambitions for the north of the country also relied on its intervention in war-torn Somalia.

Since the 1998 attack on the US embassy in the capital Nairobi, Kenya has been a vital ally of the US in its counter-terrorism efforts in East Africa.

Military cooperation with the US and the UK has significantly improved the Kenyan army’s capacity. The regional giant has become of the biggest recipients of Western foreign aid and security assistance in Africa.  

However, growing pressure from Washington over its failure to implement political and economic reforms has pushed Kenya into a stalemate. Therefore the country presented the intervention as part of the US-led ‘war on terror’ in a bid not to lose its credibility as a reliable ally.

The continuous attacks on Lamu, which sits at the centre of the country’s infrastructure projects, alarmed the Kenyan government. The attractive tourist destination and potential economic hub for foreign investment have also been a focal point for the regional economy, as Kenya aims to link Kenyan and South Sudanese oil with the 80 million people of landlocked Ethiopia.

Despite the eight years Kenya has been at war in Somalia, Al Shabab is still as strong as it has always been. In fact, the militant group has returned to Kenya to cause more bloodshed.

A woman reacts as she is reunite with family after being evacuated from the DusitD2 compound in Nairobi after a blast followed by a gun battle rocked the upmarket hotel complex on January 15, 2019.(AFP)

Major Al Shabab Attacks in Kenya

In 2013, once a symbol of Kenya’s growing prosperity, the Westgate shopping mall came under attack by Al Shabab militants, who indiscriminately shot shoppers and killed 67 people in a siege that lasted four days.

The attack not only shook the country but also drastically discredited the country’s reputation as an economic giant and safe tourist haven in East Africa.

In 2014, the militant group hijacked a bus travelling to Nairobi from northern Mandera town carrying 60 passengers and, after separating out the Muslims, the militants killed 28 non-Muslims on board.

In April 2015, one of the deadliest attacks on Kenyan soil took place. Al Shabab raided Garissa University and murdered 148 people, mainly students. The university had to remain closed for nearly two years just to dress its wounds.

In January 2016, militants stormed a Kenyan-run military base for African Union peacekeepers in the southern Somali town of el-Ade, very close to Northern Kenya.

The death toll remained a mystery as no official figure was given by Kenyan authorities. However, the Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared the death toll as “about 200”, a figure Kenya rejected.

Following the latest attack, the question is how Kenya will react to yet more loss of life caused by its presence in Somalia and how long it can go on battling Al Shabab militants.