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Kenya: Analyzing the Future Threat of al-Shabaab in the Context of the Garissa Attack

Published On May 21, 2015 | Africa

Although al-Shaabab began as the militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia, the Ethiopian invasion of late 2006 and subsequent events would transform this group from an insurgent movement to a regional al-Qaeda-affiliated organization capable of carrying out global jihad.

Al-Shabaab, meaning “The Youth,” is an Islamic terrorist organization fighting for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Somalia (Masters & Sergie). Its most recent international attack occurred this year on April 2, involving the massacre of at least 147 people at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya (“Where the Shabab”). The Garissa attack is emblematic of the future of the organization, and the burgeoning international aim of the organization in recent history culminated in the event. The Garissa attack occurred within the context of an increasingly marginalized ethnic Somali minority in Kenya due to historical feuds between the Christian-dominated government and the Muslim minority and scapegoating counterterrorism policies enacted by the Kenyatta administration. The April 2 attack marks the emergence of conflict in Kenya symptomatic of the terror-counterterror-terror cycle, as “al-Shabaab violence against civilians in Kenya has doubled between 2012 and 2013 and then again between 2013 and 2014,” often in response to extrajudicial killings and corrupt policies (Abdelgadir). The effectiveness of counterterrorism strategies in integrating frequently-marginalized Somali and Muslim populations will be crucial to the cessation of the conflict between al-Shabaab and the Government of Kenya.

The structural causes of the most recent attack in Kenya and al-Shabaab’s reorientation toward Kenya and international attacks lie in the lack of equal socioeconomic opportunities for ethnic Somalis and Muslims in Kenya’s northeastern and coastal regions bordering conflict-ridden Somalia. Moreover, the Kenyan government’s recent legacy of overzealous counterterrorism policy and inability to enact security policies legally can be considered equally responsible. The proximate cause and initial trigger of conflict can be considered the 2011 Kenyan-led invasion of Somalia, as was evidenced by the counterbalancing Westgate Mall attack by al-Shabaab as perceived retribution for the invasion. The most likely triggers of the current attack are the shrinking territorial possession of al-Shabaab in Somalia and the internal purge of the terrorist group in 2013. The following events related to the causes will be discussed chronologically, although it is important to remember their relationship to the structural, proximate, and trigger factors in causing the current conflict.

The Kenyan invasion of Somalia in October 2011 and subsequent capture of the strategic port city of Kismayo served as the initial trigger for shifting al-Shabaab’s focus from the borders of Somalia to its neighboring country of Kenya. After the 2008 capture of Kismayo by al-Shabaab, the port city had become the predominant source of revenue for the organization, which relied on an estimated $35-50 million annually from customs and taxes on it and other strategic ports in Somalia (Kambere). However, the joint AMISOM-Kenyan military force eventually captured Kismayo in late 2012, nullifying al-Shabaab’s last major stronghold in Somalia. The organization’s shrinking territorial control forced it to launch increasingly risky attacks into Kenya to maintain visibility and legitimacy. The most notable of these was the 2013 attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, where 67 were killed (Bruton). Following the Kenyan invasion of Somalia, al-Shabaab has increasingly focused on civilian attacks within Kenya. By 2012, in fact, 22.7 percent of the group’s attacks occurred in Kenya, and al-Shabaab accounted for nearly 65 percent of all terrorist attacks in Kenya between 2008 and 2012 (Miller).

Following the capture of Kismayo, Emir Ahmed Abdi Godane would enact an internal purge that would establish global jihad as a prominent facet of al-Shabaab once and for all. As al-Shabaab continued to lose territory to the AMISON forces, the competing interests of nationalism and global jihad nearly tore the organization apart. While some members, especially many leaders, are drawn to al-Shabaab to enact international terror attacks, many of the lower-tier members are primarily in the organization to further nationalistic aims of toppling the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government in Somalia. As these competing goals seemed increasingly contradictory, the late Emir Godane conducted a purge of members sympathetic to populist and nationalist sentiments (Anderson & McKnight). This vital decision seemed to unanimously settle the group’s ideological identity as a Salafist organization bent on liberation of the “Eastern and Horn of Africa community who are under the feet of minority Christians” (Bybee) (Downie). Al-Shabaab was now on course to eye higher priority targets abroad, and recent attacks in Kenya have confirmed this proclivity. In November 2014, terrorists boarded a bus headed to Nairobi and executed all those unable to recite the Muslim profession of faith; the group executed 36 Christian quarry workers the subsequent month in an effort to demonstrate its commitment to international jihad (Meservey).

The above events serve as watershed moments in the transition of al-Shabaab from a nationalist insurgent movement to an outward-looking Islamic terror organization, and the recent Garissa attack encapsulates both the past and future of al-Shabaab. As mentioned earlier, Kenya has become the international target of choice for al-Shabaab, and this is not without reason. Multiple terror attacks in the northeastern and coastal regions, exacerbated by overzealous counterterror responses by the Kenyatta administration, have left Kenya with a marginalized Muslim population that is able to be radicalized and mobilized. Immediately following the Garissa attacks, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta claimed that “[his] administration shall respond in the severest way possible,” and it is this attitude that might signify a growing foothold of al-Shabaab in Kenya as it loses territory in Somalia (“Kenyan President”).

The explosion of recent attacks in northeastern Kenya has signaled the exodus of non-Muslims from the region, underlying the larger socioeconomic marginalization of Kenyan Muslims, who comprise 10 percent of the population. Regional variations in poverty and access to healthcare are intertwined with religious undertones. Because inland Kenya is predominantly Christian, the Central Province near the capital of Nairobi experiences a higher standard of living and societal influence than do the coastal provinces, which are decidedly Muslim (Hidalgo). For instance, while the Central Province has a 30 percent poverty rate, 74 percent of northeastern residents live below the poverty level.  Moreover, although there is one doctor for every 20,715 residents in the Central Province, this ratio plummets to one doctor for every 120,823 residents in the northeastern region. The lack of social services and the socioeconomic marginalization of the northeastern provinces, provided that most residents of these areas are ethnic Somalis and Muslims, fuels the religious tension on which al-Shabaab can capitalize (Mutiga).

Alongside lower standards of living for Kenyan Muslims, counterterrorism policies have increasingly contained ethnic and religious dimensions. The suppression of civil society in order to bolster internal security has provided security and police officers with an astounding amount of operational freedom at the expense of constitutional protections. For instance, in response to an uptick in terror plots in Nairobi, Kenyan police officers arrested and detained 4000 citizens, mostly Muslims, without charge in April 2014 under Operation Usalama Watch (Hidalgo). Many of these security officials targeted ethnic Somalis and Muslims in the primarily Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh, using tactics such as raiding houses and extorting residents. Moreover, there have been numerous instances of extrajudicial killings and police brutality toward Muslims (Anderson & McKnight). During the past year, the coastal city of Mombasa has experienced many drive-by police killings; the beating of elderly people and children outside of a Mussa mosque last February serves as a divisive event in alienating Muslims from support of the government (Meservey). These policies, presumed to be fighting the spread of al-Shabaab into Kenya, are facilitating the spread of al-Shabaab by marginalizing Muslims and ethnic Somalis. The marginalization and accusatory nature with which the government treats these groups, in fact, may be one of the strongest reasons that al-Shabaab develops a stable base in Kenya.

As discussed above, the dynamics of the conflict are heavily dependent upon the continued success of the AMISOM forces in Somalia and the counterterrorism strategy of the Kenyatta administration in the wake of the Garissa attack. After securing the strategic port city of Kismayo, the AMISOM forces seized the island of Kuday this past March, taking over the last point of control in the Kismayo area. Additionally, the majority of the capital city of Mogadishu has been recaptured in favor of the AMISOM forces, and U.S. drone strikes have helped eliminate important leaders in the organization, such as the recent killing of Adnan Garaar, a key plotter of the Westgate attack. Nonetheless, “car bombs and suicide attacks continue to rock the capital” (De Bode). Despite the persistence of al-Shabaab in Mogadishu, the terrorist organization’s current territorial holdings are negligible in comparison to their vast control prior to the 2011 invasion. While al-Shabaab’s declining territorial control in Somalia may prove beneficial to the success of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, the group’s declining status has rendered it extremely desperate to the point where it is willing to launch international campaigns in order to remain relevant. As the group continues to lose territory in Somalia, al-Shabaab may try to increasingly leverage its recruits in Kenya in order to reinvent itself as a jihadist organization serving the underprivileged Somali minorities in northeastern Kenya.

As for the effectiveness of Kenya’s counterterrorism and border security policy, the Kenyatta administration reluctantly agreed earlier this month to not force repatriation of Somali refugees, as it had threatened to do immediately following the Garissa attack. After meeting with US Secretary of State and listening to the please of United Nations and emergency relief organization officials, the Government of Kenya decided to keep Dadaab, one of the world’s oldest and largest facilities for refugees that is currently housing somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 refugees 60 miles from the Somali border, open, despite the assertion that it may serve as a breeding ground for Islamic extremism (Kushkush). In a departure from the formerly rash and overeager policies regarding counterterrorism, the example of the Kenyattta administration deciding to keep Dadaab open illustrates the distillation of its harsh rhetoric into fairly mild and sensible policy. The Dadaab camp represents a $25 million internal economy, and it generates an additional $14 million for surrounding communities. In addition to providing an economic boost to the unstable region, the continuation of the refugee camp, followed by policies promoting greater economic and social integration, could serve to undermine al-Shabaab’s recruitment strategy and demonstrate to Kenyan Somalis and Muslims that the government has a stake in their well-being (Matfess). If policy from the Government of Kenya continues to be as level-headed as the decision to keep Dadaab open, the socioeconomic integration of Somalis in Kenya may result from policies providing more assistance to the refugees, and this rational approach to policy may signal the weakening of the al-Shabaab threat.

In this manner, the worst-case scenario exists if the Kenyatta administration reverts to its irresponsible policies of scapegoating Somalis and Muslims within its borders; this approach has allowed al-Shabaab to gain a foothold in the country and would only encourage further conflict and lend truth to the recruiting rhetoric of Islamic jihadists. However, the best-case scenario can occur if the Government of Kenya continues on its current path of rational policymaking intertwined with the socioeconomic rehabilitation and integration of its marginalized minorities. Moreover, Kenya’s recent devolution of power in the form of creating county-level governments through its 2010 Constitution may help ward off the threat of extremist conflict. As the Government of Kenya continues its devolution of power from the notoriously corrupt central government to the nascent county governments, increased local control of the allocation of resources and administration of policies may bolster the integration of Somali communities in northeastern Kenya (Barnes).


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