How Kenya’s Failure to Contain an Islamist Insurgency is Threatening Regional Prosperity

Andrew McGregor

October 27, 2017

Life in parts of Kenya’s traditionally Muslim coastal region has become a nightmare of beheadings and midnight raids by masked assailants, compounded by the ineptitude of local security forces. In Lamu County, an historic center of Swahili culture, growing ethnic and religious tensions have proved fertile ground for the spread of a Kenyan offshoot of Somalia’s al-Shabaab terrorist group. The struggle for Lamu is not an unfortunate but obscure episode in the war on terror however; it is a battleground for the economic prosperity of East Africa.

Lamu County (

Lamu County is the planned site of one of the most ambitious economic initiatives attempted in Africa – the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), a $24.5 billion project creating a network of roads, rail-lines and pipelines connecting South Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, with the additional construction of three resort cities and a modern port and refinery at Lamu.

The county faces the Indian Ocean. It is culturally and religiously distinct from most of inland Kenya and traditionally Sunni Muslim, with an emphasis on Sufism. The county is divided into two parts – the mainland sector, and a region of 65 islands once prosperous from the trade in slaves and other products of the African interior. The largest economic activity is tourism, mostly restricted to the centuries-old Swahili trading ports on the islands. On the mainland, locals rely on agriculture, fishing and mining.

The local population consists of Swahilis, the dominant culture formed by a mixture of Bantu peoples with Arab and Persian traders that began in the 9th century; Orma, related to the Oromo of Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya; Bajuni islanders; and the Aweer and Watta, both traditional hunter-gatherer groups.

Politically uninfluential and subject to ethnic and political violence in recent years, the region has been designated an operational security area since September 15, 2015. Social services such as healthcare and education are lacking, fresh water is scarce, food supplies are insecure and unemployment is high. [1]

Much of the region’s violence is the result of a strategy by al-Shabaab to punish Kenya on its own soil for initiating an operation by the Kenya Defense Force (KDF) – named Linda Nichi (Swahili for “Protect the Country”) – against al-Shabaab within Somalia in October 2011. The operation’s declared intent was to stifle cross-border incursions by Somali militants. In practice, however, the deployment has created a Kenyan-controlled buffer zone known as Jubaland in southern Somalia.

The Mpeketoni Massacre

On June 15, 2014 al-Shabaab struck Lamu County, massacring 65 men, mostly Kikuyu Christian migrants from inland Kenya. The local police station offered no resistance and was quickly overrun, the police fleeing, leaving behind their weapons, which were collected by the attackers. Despite the presence of nearby police and military installations, the attack continued for ten hours without interference from security forces, who were apparently watching a broadcast of a FIFA World Cup soccer match.

Al-Shabaab claimed the massacre was in response to the “Kenyan government’s brutal oppression of Muslims in Kenya through coercion, intimidation and extrajudicial killings of Muslim scholars” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 16, 2014).

Rather than address the al-Shabaab threat, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikiyu, attempted to shift blame for the attack to opposition politicians, claiming the massacre had nothing to do with al-Shabaab, despite al-Shabaab claiming responsibility for the attack on its official Twitter account earlier the same day (Reuters, June 16, 2014; Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 16, 2014). Kenyatta also claimed that local police had received advance warning of the attack but ignored the warning (BBC, June 18, 2014).

Ethnicity is a relevant factor here. During the 1952-1960 colonial-era Mau Mau rebellion, British administrators used the Mpeketoni region for the resettlement of Kikiyu from Kenya’s Central Highlands where the rebellion was concentrated. Mpeketoni was later used as a resettlement site for Kikiyu farmers who had returned to Kenya from Tanzania in the 1970s. These transfers of members of Kenya’s largest and most powerful ethnic group created a lasting turbulence over land ownership issues and turned the Muslim Swahili community into a religious and ethnic minority in their traditional homeland. [2]

Typical of more recent attacks in Lamu County was one conducted on the evening of September 5-6, when terrorists in military gear struck two villages in the Hindi district of Lamu. Calling residents out by name, the gunmen beheaded four individuals in front of their wives and children before fleeing into the Boni Forest. Protests the next day over the security forces’ inefficiency were broken up by riot police (The Standard [Nairobi], September 6). The Hindi police chief was later suspended for sleeping on the job (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 11).

Operation Linda Boni: Security Failure in Lamu County

Kenya’s counter-insurgency effort in the region, Operation Linda Boni, began in September 2015 and was expected to last 90 days (Daily Nation [Nairobi], November 16, 2015). Operation Linda Boni is now in its third year, despite repeated pronouncements that all its objectives have been achieved. The operation involves a number of security agencies, including the KDF, the National Police Service, the Administration Police and the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Agents of the latter infiltrate the villages to identify supposed terrorist collaborators.

Despite the operation’s massive expense, the Boni Forest, used as a base by Islamist militants, is still far from secured even though US special forces reportedly provide logistical and training support to Kenyan troops operating there (The Star [Nairobi], February 10; Daily Beast, August 2). The multi-agency operation suffers from infighting, poor coordination and inappropriate equipment. Mounting casualties have demoralized police and soldiers who have little to show for their efforts, and the increasing tempo of attacks in Lamu County has alarmed Kenyan security officials.

Coast regional coordinator Nelson Marwa, an outspoken security hardliner, made some pointed criticisms of the Operation Linda Boni: “We have the Operation Linda Boni in place. It is now almost two years and the way things are, it’s like we haven’t achieved the objective of flushing out criminals inside the forest… How do al-Shabaab find their way past our forces … to get into villages, kill people and go back into the same forest or cross the same borders where our KDF soldiers are? We have enough airplanes and I wonder why most of them are just lying in the bases instead of being put out there to patrol these places. People must be [held] responsible…” (The Nation [Nairobi], September 10).

Lamu County Commissioner Gilbert Kitiyo responded by claiming, without documentation, that the operation had reduced al-Shabaab’s capacity to mount attacks by 80 percent (Daily Nation [Nairobi],

September 20). On October 5, Operation Linda Boni director Joseph Kanyiri announced the al-Shabaab presence in Lamu County was “almost at zero level” (The Star [Nairobi], October 6).

LAPSSET: East Africa’s Economic Hope

In a region already beset by land ownership disputes, the LAPSSET project has led to rampant speculation and fraudulent land transactions. The project is being implemented without consultation with the local community and is expected to bring an influx of one million migrants to the region, few if any of them Muslims. It will be a massive and irreversible demographic shift that al-Shabab’s Jaysh Ayman unit is already exploiting to recruit local Muslims.

Despite government promises, local benefits of LAPSSET are already proving illusory. A presidential directive to LAPSSET to provide 1,000 scholarships worth $550,000 to train local youth on the technical aspects of port operations was ignored by the agency, which provided only ten scholarships worth $17,000 to non-locals (Business Daily [Nairobi], September 17).

The construction of Kenya’s pipeline to Lamu from the oilfields in Turkana County is also now in jeopardy after its budget was cut by 70 percent to help pay for a court-ordered repeat of the fraud-plagued presidential election on October 26, and the failure to pass the 2015 Petroleum Bill after President Kenyatta attempted to cut local communities’ revenue shares in half (Business Daily [Nairobi], October 8).

Al-Shabaab’s Kenyan Affiliate

Though directed by Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement, Jaysh Ayman (“Army of the Faithful”) presents itself as a local movement defending Swahili Muslims while fighting a corrupt Kenyan government and pursuing the creation of a caliphate on the Kenyan coast. As well as night attacks on settlements, Jaysh Ayman has struck power infrastructure and frequently ambushes cars, passenger buses and trucks on highways running through Lamu County (The Star [Nairobi], August 8; Standard [Nairobi], August 2; The Star [Nairobi], August 7). Security on the main roads has grown so bad that vehicles can only move safely in police-escorted convoys.

Mallik Alim Jones (il

As well as hundreds of Kenyan Muslims, Jaysh Ayman includes foreign fighters. Maalik Alim Jones, a Maryland native and Jaysh Ayman volunteer, was arrested in December 2015 while trying to board a boat from Somalia to Yemen. A convicted child abuser who abandoned his family in the US to join al-Shabaab, Jones pleaded guilty to various terrorism-related charges on September 8 (Baltimore Sun, January 18, 2016; September 8).

Andreas Martin Muller (left) and Thomas Evans

Jones was a suspect in the Mpeketoni massacre and appeared in an al-Shabaab propaganda video before joining an unsuccessful June 14, 2015 attack on a KDF camp in Lamu County (Daily Nation [Nairobi], January 12, 2016). Also prominent in the video was a 25-year-old English al-Shabaab volunteer and convert to Islam, Thomas Evans (aka Abd al-Hakim, or “the White Beast”), who was killed in the attack. [3] Evans, who married a 13-year-old Somali girl and gained a reputation for beheading Christians, is seen in the video greeting a German fellow convert and al-Shabaab fighter, Andreas Martin Muller, (aka Abu Nusaybah, or Ahmad Khalid) (Express [London], June 25, 2015; Telegraph, October 11, 2015). Eleven other Jaysh Ayman members were killed in the firefight, including Luqman Osman Issa (aka Shirwa), who is believed to have directed the Mpeketoni massacre (Reuters [Nairobi], June 15, 2015).

Weak Security Response

A particularly effective al-Shabaab tactic involves ambushing rescuers after a poorly protected armored personnel carrier (APC) has struck a mine. As anger over poor equipment grows in the ranks, the government has promised to purchase and deploy mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) APCs.

The militants make extensive use of roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to dissuade security forces from patrolling. The bombs take a steady toll on security personnel who remain helpless against an invisible enemy. The Chinese-made VN-4 “Rhinoceros” multi-role light APCs, in use by government forces, protect only against small arms fire. In addition, they are poorly ventilated, making them unsuitable for use in the hot and humid conditions of the coast. The only other export customer for the VN-4 is Venezuela, which has used them extensively against civilian protesters but not in combat situations.

Thirty of the VN-4 APCs were purchased in February 2016 after widespread criticism of the capabilities of Serbian, Chinese and South African-made APCs obtained through a corruption-plagued procurement system (The Standard [Nairobi], June 1, 2017; Defence Web, June 26, 2014). The VN-4s are deployed by the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary unit within Kenya’s national police that dates back to the Mau Mau uprising. Many GSU members have received Israeli training, while some officers have been trained in the UK.

In partial fulfillment of the government’s promise, 35 CS/VP3 “Bigfoot” APCs were delivered to the government by China’s Poly Technologies in January 2017 (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 11). Classed as MRAP and already in use in Nigeria and Uganda, the APCs were sent to the Rural Border Patrol Unit, established in 2008 after multiple disturbances along the Somali border. The border patrol unit is part of the Administration Police (AP), a paramilitary police force responsible for guarding public buildings and providing a rapid deployment unit for emergency use.

Kenyan officials and security experts have suggested al-Shabaab is being provided with local intelligence by elements within Kenya (Sunday Nation [Nairobi], June 4). This gives the militants an edge over police forces, which are often drawn from Christian inland communities and view the Muslim communities of the Coast with suspicion and distrust at best. The heavy hand of the KDF and other security forces in terms of torture, disappearances and the unsolved murders of dozens of Kenyan Muslim leaders in recent years continues to work against the development of an effective intelligence network in Lamu County. [4]

Sacrificing Boni Forest

An investigation by a Nairobi daily found a number of security agents asserting that intelligence reports from 2012 that described how al-Shabaab was establishing bases in the 517 square mile Boni National Reserve were ignored. The reports detailed how al-Shabaab was bringing in equipment including GPS trackers and night-vision goggles. According to one agent: “We alerted local police to be aware and watch over these dense forests. No one cared” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], July 20).

The Boni Forest canopy is dense, restricting aerial surveillance, and roads are few, limiting the mobility of security forces. Al-Shabaab’s strategic placement of mines and IEDs complicates the efforts of security forces to infiltrate the forest.

Coast Regional Coordinator Nelson Marwa (left) with Coast Regional Police Commandant Larry Kieng (Kevin Odit/Nation Media Group)

Marwa, the Coast regional coordinator, has insisted on the necessity of bombing “that forest completely,” adding in bombastic fashion that he “will enter the forest if others fear going there … I am ready to die while fighting al-Shabaab in the forefront as the commander” (The Star [Nairobi], June 29).

Bombing the Boni Forest, however, poses a risk to its native inhabitants, the Aweer (or Boni), a group of 3,000 indigenous hunter-gatherers whose traditional lifestyle has already been challenged by forced resettlement and a government ban on hunting. The Aweer are now forbidden to enter the forest during military operations, but have not been provided with food aid since last year (Standard [Nairobi], June 18). The forest is also home to several rare endangered species.

Joseph Kanyiri, the director of Operation Linda Boni, has struck back at environmentalist critics of the bombing: “I cannot comprehend why someone feels this way when a number of trees are destroyed in order to save a thousand lives … This is serious business and that’s why I am asking activists and conservationists to stick their necks elsewhere. We are here to protect lives and end terrorism and that will happen at any cost. The Aweer community remains intact and their lives go on. After all, the bombing is happening thousands of miles away from their habitats” (The Star [Nairobi], August 25).

In reality, the Boni Forest measures roughly 25 miles by 25 miles and the bombing has made it impossible for the Aweer to forage for food or to obtain food from traders who are now afraid to venture into the region.

Putting Pressure on the Government

Al-Shabaab and its Jaysh Ayman offshoot share a determination to expose the weaknesses of Kenya’s security forces, terrorize Christian migrants to the region and inhibit the tourism industry. It seeks to put pressure on the government by creating a general state of insecurity in a part of the country where, as a result of LAPSSET, the administration now has a substantial interest.

On the government side, there is a pattern of corruption constraining action by the security forces, while intelligence is being collected but not acted on. This appears to be a result of lassitude on the part of the security forces and a belief among government officials that the blame for poor performance can be quickly and easily shifted to others.

Even though al-Shabaab’s radical Salafism has little appeal in a region traditionally influenced by Sufist Sunni Islam, the movement is trying to exploit Muslim alienation from the central government and the bitter land issues that are at the core of much of the violence in Lamu County. It is unlikely that al-Shabaab actually believes there is an opportunity to create a caliphate on the Kenyan coast. Instead their real goal is to hold the LAPSSET development hostage and encourage local and regional pressure on Nairobi to abandon the KDF’s deployment in southern Somalia.


  1. M. Bradbury and M. Kleinman, “Winning Hearts and Minds? Examining the Relationship between Aid and Security in Kenya,” Feinstein International Center, 2010,
  2. Herman Butime, “Unpacking the Anatomy of the Mpeketoni Attacks in Kenya,” Small Wars Journal, September 23, 2014,
  3. Captured al-Shabaab video of the dawn firefight is available here.
  4. Michael Nyongesa, “Are Land Disputes Responsible for Terrorism in Kenya? Evidence from Mpeketoni Attacks,” Journal of African Democracy and Development 1(2), pp. 33-51

This article first appeared in the October 27, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


After Garissa: Kenya Revises Its Security Strategy to Counter al-Shabaab’s Shifting Tactics

Andrew McGregor

April 17, 2015

Al-Shabaab’s April 2 attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College that killed 147 non-Muslim students was the latest installment in al-Shabaab’s campaign to force Nairobi to order a withdrawal of the Kenyan Defense Force (KDF) from the Jubaland region of southern Somalia. So far, the Kenyan government has presented an uncoordinated response that has largely focused on Islamist militancy as a foreign problem that is being imported (along with hundreds of thousands of unwanted refugees) across Kenya’s porous border with neighboring Somalia.

KDF in SomaliaKDF Troops in Southern Somalia


The KDF moved into southern Somalia in 2011 as part of Operation Linda Nchi, designed to deter cross-border infiltration of radical Islamists, create a Kenyan-controlled buffer zone in southern Somalia and establish suitable conditions for the return of the massive Somali refugee population dwelling in Kenya’s largely ethnic-Somali North Eastern Province. KDF troops in Somalia joined the larger African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in February 2012.

In military terms, the KDF presence has exerted a slow but ultimately relentless pressure on Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement. The seizure of the port at Kuday Island (southern Juba region, south of Kismayo) by KDF and Somali National Army (SNA) forces during an amphibious operation on March 22 drove al-Shabaab from its last access point to the sea, dealing the organization a severe blow and leaving it effectively surrounded by hostile forces (Raxanreeb, March 22). Military pressure from AMISOM and financial pressures created by the gradual loss of access to every port prompted a strategic overhaul of the group’s activities. For al-Shabaab, direct confrontations with Somali security forces or the much stronger AMISOM deployment are out; a greater focus on terrorist tactics (including bombings, assassinations and assaults on soft targets by well-armed gunmen) is in. Expelling the KDF is a priority, and the movement is willing to exploit ethnic tensions in Kenya’s North Eastern Province to achieve this goal.

The region’s ethnic-Somali population (belonging largely to the powerful Ogadeni clan) was geographically divided in 1925, when Britain gave the northern half of the region (modern Jubaland) to Italy. The southern half of the region is now Kenya’s North Eastern Province. The division was massively unpopular with the region’s ethnic-Somalis, leading the British to close the region from 1926 to 1934. Dislike of the Kenyan government (dominated by the Kikuyu tribe) erupted into the Shifta War of 1963-1967. Dissatisfaction with the administration has been punctuated by sporadic political violence in the region ever since, the worst example being the 1984 Wagalla Massacre of thousands of ethnic-Somalis by Kenyan security forces. [1]

The Assault on Garissa College University

Kenya’s security forces may have relaxed prematurely after seizing Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s largest port, in 2012. While taking Kismayo fulfilled Nairobi’s objective of creating an autonomous buffer zone (“Jubaland”) between Kenya and the rest of Somalia, it only intensified al-Shabaab’s hatred of Kenya and its determination to retake Somali-inhabited areas of Kenya, even if it means the use of terrorist atrocities targeting Kenyan civilians. The border became no less permeable with the creation of a Kenya-reliant Jubaland administration, yet the Kenyan government continued to neglect border security in the North Eastern Province, where roads and other infrastructure are few and far between.

The attack at Garissa appears to have been well-planned—university administrators said two of the terrorists had posed as students while using a room on campus as a “command center,” complete with food and supplies that appeared to be intended for a long battle (Standard [Nairobi], April 10). Survivors described the attackers as speaking Swahili (Kenya’s main language) rather than Somali (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 4). Militants told at least one survivor of the attack: “Tell your President to withdraw KDF from Somalia and ensure that North Eastern [province] belongs to Muslims. Garissa must also be part of Somalia and not Kenya” (Standard [Nairobi], April 11).

While helicopters were made available to take the Interior Cabinet Secretary (who routinely assures Kenyans the government is keeping them safe) and the Inspector General of Police to Garissa, the elite counter-terrorist Recce company of the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) got stuck in traffic on their way to the airport, where they were transported to Garissa by fixed wing aircraft while their equipment travelled by road (Star [Nairobi], April 11). The aircraft that should have been available to transport the Recce unit was unavailable as it had been used that morning to fly private individuals to Mombasa and pick up the daughter-in-law of police air-wing chief Rogers Mbithi (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 13; Star [Nairobi], April 15).

This suggests that Kenyan authorities have not absorbed the lessons of the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, particularly in regard to having transport available for its rapid response units. In the Westgate incident, Kenya’s elite 40 Rangers Strike Force arrived at the mall from their base at Gilgil (roughly 75 kilometers north of Nairobi) 12 hours after the attack began, and promptly engaged in a gunfight with members of the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary wing of the National Police Service. Action against the terrorists still inside the mall was confused as many members of the police and military devoted themselves to looting the mall rather than rescuing hostages. In response to the resulting public outrage, the Kenyan military sacked and jailed two members of its elite 40 Rangers Strike Force and declared the matter finished (Standard [Nairobi], October 30, 2013).

KunoAlleged Attack Planner Mohamed Kuno

Though the Kenyan government continues to treat al-Shabaab as an external threat, there is evidence that the radical Islamist threat is an internal problem, albeit one inspired by al-Shabaab. The alleged planner of the attack, Mohamed Kuno (a.k.a. Mohamed Dulyadin; a.k.a. Gamadhere; a.k.a. Shaykh Mohamud), has strong connections to Kenya’s ethnic-Somali community. Kuno worked as a teacher and principal of a madrassa in Garissa from 1997 to 2000, where he is remembered for his religious radicalism before his departure for Somalia (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 2). Once in Somalia, Kuno acted as a commander in some of the heaviest fighting in Mogadishu, and, for a time, even served in the al-Shabaab-allied Ras Kamboni Brigade under Shaykh Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe,” who ironically is now the Kenyan-backed “president” of Jubaland (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 4). The former teacher is the prime suspect in the massacre of 28 Kenyan Christians in Mandera County in November 2014 and the killing of a further 36 Christian quarry workers in Mandera in December 2014. At present, Kano is responsible for al-Shabaab operations in Jubaland and Kenya.

In the wake of the attack, opposition leaders continue to demand a KDF withdrawal from Somalia in order to concentrate on border security, suggesting that the United States try to persuade other nations without a common border with Somalia to replace the Kenyan troops (Standard [Nairobi], April 11).

A Failure of Intelligence?

In the border regions, there are few Kenyan intelligence officers from the local ethnic-Somali community, contributing to Kenya’s continued inability to secure its border with Somalia (Standard [Nairobi], April 12). In addition, Kenyan authorities appear to have ignored foreign intelligence reports passed to them:

  • Three weeks before the Garissa attack, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned that Kenya was not acting on intelligence information regarding possible terrorist activity—only a day before the Garissa attack, President Kenyatta called British travel advisory warnings on Kenya an attempt “to intimidate us with these threats” (Standard [Nairobi], April 5).
  • Iran is reported to have supplied information on March 22 of pending attacks on Kenyan Christians in university areas of Garissa, Nairobi and Mombasa prior to the assault on the Garissa University, where Christians were singled out (Standard [Nairobi], April 12).
  • On March 27, Australia issued a warning of an impending terrorist attack in Nairobi (Reuters, March 28).
  • According to a student interviewed by Reuters, whose account was corroborated by northern Kenyan MPs, the administration of the Garissa Teacher’s College closed the school days before the attack, telling students that strangers had been spotted in the college and that a terrorist attack might be imminent. This action was not followed by the rest of the campus, which remained open. According to one MP, “Some of us have seen the intelligence reports, and I can assure you they were specific and actionable” (Reuters, April 3).

The Kenyan Response

The KDF’s immediate reaction to the Garissa massacre was to bomb al-Shabaab camps in Somalia, including Camp Shaykh Ismail, Camp Gondodwe, Camp Bardheere and what was described as a major camp in Gedo Region where some 800 militants were based. Though the KDF claimed each base was completely destroyed (unlikely considering that only ten aircraft were used and the cloudy conditions at the time), al-Shabaab made the equally unlikely claim that all the bombs had fallen harmlessly on farmland (Star [Nairobi], April 6).

Inside Kenya, critical assessments of Kenya’s response to terrorist threats posed by al-Shabaab and its Kenyan allies tend to be treated as unpatriotic outbursts that identify the holder of such sentiments as potential terrorist-sympathizers. Deputy President Ruto (the government’s point-man on the Garissa issue) recently demanded that some Kenyan leaders should stop “cheering” al-Shabaab attacks inside Kenya (Capital FM [Nairobi], April 12).

Beyond the military response, focus has concentrated on the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya’s North Eastern Province. The camp, the largest refugee center in Africa with between 350,000 to 500,000 Somali residents, was set up in 1991, and its population (mainly women and children) has grown every year despite claims from many Kenyan politicians that the facility harbors terrorists. Following the Garissa attack, Deputy President Ruto demanded that the UNHCR close Dadaab in three months’ time, or Kenya would relocate the refugees itself (BBC, April 12).

Recent remarks by former deputy prime minister Musalia Mudavadi (in which he was supported by several MPs) gave some indication of the political mood regarding the continued existence of the Dadaab camp and its alleged threat to Kenyans:

The camp accommodates Somalia terrorists who disguise themselves as refugees. They use the camp as a base to collect intelligent information about Kenyan institutions and relay back to their accomplices in Somalia… The refugees stay in the country, seek assistance from us, mingle with our people freely yet they gather information on how to lay a trap on us. They hide their true colors and plan on how to kill us. They need to move out immediately (Star [Nairobi], April 6).

Kenyan officials insist that KDF operations in southern Somalia have now created safe spaces suitable for the return of the refugees (BBC, April 11). However, a UNHCR spokesman cited a tripartite treaty with Kenya and Somalia specifying that any return by refugees to Somalia must be voluntary, adding rather bluntly that “moving that number of people [in an unsystematic fashion] will not be possible” (RFI, April 12).

Big Fences Make Good Neighbors?

While spectacular attacks such as that on Garissa University make international headlines, there is also a daily war of attrition going on in the border counties of northeastern Kenya. According to Kenyan anti-terrorism police, there has been a terrorist attack every ten days (135 in total) since the KDF deployment in Somalia began in 2011. Most of these attacks, killing over 500 people in total, occurred in Kenya’s North Eastern province. (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 10). Ali Roba, governor of Mandera County, said in March that up to 90 people had died from terrorist activity in Mandera in the previous seven months alone, adding that he himself had survived six assassination attempts (Standard [Nairobi], March 22).

Most of this activity is blamed by the authorities on the infiltration of al-Shabaab terrorists across the poorly defended border. Nairobi’s solution, despite Somali objections, is to build a massive wall of concrete and fencing along the border, separating the ethnic Somali residents of Kenya’s North Eastern Province from their fellow Ogadeni clansmen in Somalia’s Kenyan-occupied Jubaland State (Standard [Nairobi], March 22), The hastily-implemented “Somalia Border Control Project” will cost an estimated $260 million. The porous border with Somalia is 680 kilometers long, but it is still unclear if the project will cover that entire distance. (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 10). Defending the wall will require an enormous and expensive permanent deployment of police or troops whose supplies will need to be trucked in despite a general absence of roads in the region.

Police Recruits

Deep corruption in the security services, especially the police, has produced a certain lethargy in Kenya’s response to terrorist activity. Unsurprisingly, the Garissa massacre is now being used to legitimize corrupt police hiring practices that were recently the subject of an unfavorable ruling by Kenya’s High Court, which still maintains a reputation for honesty and independence from the executive branch. The ruling cancelled the 2014 recruitment of 10,000 police recruits who had paid substantial bribes for a place on the police force.

Despite the ruling, the president issued a directive that the 10,000 police recruits should report for training immediately to protect the border with Somalia. This led to a flurry of contradictory statements from various government and oversight sources that pointed to a severe breakdown between the executive branch and the judiciary. The president’s directive constitutes a violation of the Kenyan constitution, an offense for which the president could be impeached. Kenyatta, however, has the support of a majority of parliament, making impeachment proceedings unlikely (Standard [Nairobi], April 12).

Amniyat on the Ropes?

Created by late al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr,” Amniyat is a secretive unit within al-Shabaab that acts as the organization’s intelligence unit while also providing internal security, operational planning and bodyguard services for al-Shabaab’s leader. In Godane’s hands, Amniyat was used to crush internal dissent through a string of assassinations and to orchestrate ruthless attacks on civilians both inside Somalia and beyond in AMISOM-member nations like Kenya and Uganda. Godane used Amniyat to consolidate his control of al-Shabaab by suspending the al-Shabaab Shura and making Amniyat the most powerful force within the organization while reporting directly to him. Amniyat has been particularly successful in infiltrating the Somali security forces and even the highest levels of the Somali Federal Government, enabling the group to carry out brazen attacks within Mogadishu and other cities before melting back into the population (, October 22, 2014). Nonetheless, with massacres like Westgate and Garissa to their credit, Amniyat’s leaders have become targets for Somalia’s central government and its ally, the United States:

  • In January 2014, a U.S. drone strike killed Sahal Iskudhuq, a senior Amniyat member.
  • In late December 2014, a U.S. drone strike killed Abdishakur Tahlil, the new Amniyat commander, only days after he succeeded Zakariya Hersi as leader of the unit (BBC, December 31, 2014).
  • Former Anmiyat leader Zakariya Ahmed Ismail Hersi defected from al-Shabaab to the government in January. The former al-Shabaab intelligence chief renounced violence at a government-sponsored news conference, but his defection may have been due to a feeling of insecurity due to tensions within the group’s leadership (Business Insider, January 28).
  • In early February of this year, a U.S. drone strike in Dinsor killed Yusuf Dheeq, a senior Amniyat member, and several other al-Shabaab fighters (Dalsan Radio [Mogadishu], February 6).
  • In late March, high-ranking Amniyat operative Mohamed Ali Hassan surrendered to Somali National Army forces in the Bakool region of southern Somalia (Garowe Online, March 30).
  • Adan Garaar, believed to be the head of Amniyat’s external operations, was killed in a U.S. drone strike at Bardhere in mid-March. Garaar was a leading planner of the September 2013 Westgate attack in which 70 people were killed, as well as being especially active in organizing a wave of terrorist attacks and massacres in northeast Kenya’s Mandera County (Star [Nairobi], March 14; Standard [Nairobi], March 22).

Amniyat appears to have responded to these relentless attacks on its leadership by mounting ever more spectacular attacks on civilian soft-targets, especially within Kenya, where it operates with little local interference.


The presence of 2.5 million ethnic Somalis in Kenya’s chronically underdeveloped northeast region can no longer be ignored by Nairobi if it is to deal with the terrorist threat from al-Shabaab, which is also eager to recruit non-Somali Muslims in Kenya. President Kenyatta appears to have accepted the internal nature of the Islamist threat on April 4, when he told the nation: “Our task of countering terrorism has been made all the more difficult by the fact that the planners and financiers of this brutality are deeply embedded in our communities” (Guardian, April 5). At the same time, however, Kenya’s efforts are likely to be in vain so long as Kenya’s security forces fail to learn from or even acknowledge past mistakes in order to protect their reputation. In addition, Nairobi’s larger strategy of creating a buffer-state in Jubaland must also be regarded as a financially and diplomatically expensive failure in terms of ending the cross-border movement of terrorists and refugees.

Though the KDF is now in control of southern Somalia, the question is how long it would take after a KDF withdrawal for al-Shabaab forces to begin rebuilding their movement by retaking important ports like Kismayo. Recidivism is a common theme in al-Shabaab ideology (ethnic-Somalis are currently spread across several countries) and remarks made by the attackers at Garissa indicate the movement may have greater aspirations in northeastern Kenya than merely putting pressure on Nairobi. Kenya’s incursion into Somalia may have locked the nation into a long and costly struggle, pitting a government, which is determined to hold onto northeastern Kenya, against radical Somali Islamists who are intent on reversing the colonial division of 1925.


  1. The number of dead ranges from 380 (a government estimate) to 5,000. The victims were members of the Degodia, an ethnic-Somali clan resident in Kenya that is part of the larger Hawiye confederation.


This article first appeared in the April 17, 2015 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Somalia’s al-Shabaab Movement: Tactical Overhaul in a Collapsing Insurgency

Andrew McGregor 

A Speech Delivered at the Jamestown Foundation Seventh Annual Terrorism Conference

Washington D.C.
December 12, 2013

Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement was incorporated as a new regional chapter of al-Qaeda with the blessings of Ayman al-Zawahiri in February, 2012. Faced with increasing military opposition and severe blows to its revenue streams, al-Shabaab faced the options of gradual annihilation in the field or scaling back operations to a more asymmetric model based on a diminished interest in holding territory and a greater use of terrorist tactics in an expanded zone of operations, one that includes Somalia’s neighbors and might possibly reach to the foreign supporters of Somalia’s national government and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi and a series of terrorist strikes in Somalia suggest that al-Shabaab is undergoing a tactical and organizational shift designed to centralize command of the movement as it de-emphasizes guerrilla warfare in favor of suicide bombings, assassinations and other terrorist operations.

Assessing al-Shabaab’s Military Strength

Following the devastating loss of both Mogadishu and Kismayo, al-Shabaab finds itself operating in an ever more restricted space, with the only urban centers of any importance still under their control being the port of Barawe in Lower Shabelle and the town of Badhere in Gedo region. According to the Somali Minister of Defense, Abdihakim Haji Mohamud Fiki, al-Shabaab’s military strength has been heavily weakened, leading the movement to carry out a series of desperation attacks.

Al-Shabaab has faced an internal challenge as well, after movement leader Abdi Godane began a purge of internal opponents and suspected spies, centralizing command under himself in the process.Godane relies these days on a combination Praetorian Guard and secret service known as Amniyat to provide personal protection and enforce his will within the movement. Amniyat is already organized in a cell structure that would readily lend itself to a shift to purely terrorist tactics should Shabaab be driven from the field. Amniyat created a split in al-Shabaab during the fighting in Mogadishu when it began killing wounded Shabaab fighters from the southern Bay-Bakool region to save the movement the trouble of looking after them.

Amniyat’s assassination of movement notables like Ibrahim Haji Jama, Omar Hammami, Osama al-Britani (a.k.a. Habib Ghani) and Abdihamid Hashi Olhaye (Moallim Burhan) has created divisions within the movement at a critical time; in early November (Nov 10) at least ten Shabaab militants were killed in what was described as heavy fighting that occurred when one al-Shabaab faction attacked Godane loyalists in the Lower Shabelle region.

Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys

Elements of the Hizb al-Islam faction that merged with Shabaab in 2010 are now rethinking their commitment to jihad after the surrender of their leader Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys to government forces, Aweys preferring surrender rather than face assassination by Godane’s gunmen. There now appears to be a split in the remains of the original group, with one faction of Hizb al-Islam renouncing violence in favor of talks while another faction rejects any such notions.

In the face of pressure from powerful Hawiye clan elders, President Hassan Shaykh Mohamud has indicated that Aweys, a member of the Hawiye, could be released if he renounced violence and distanced himself from al-Shabaab, a step the shaykh appears unready to take yet.  Otherwise the former Hizb al-Islam leader may face a military court.

Another leading Shabaab commander, Mukhtar Robow (a.k.a. Abu Mansur), has fled Godane’s assassins to take refuge with his Rahanweyn clan. His loss is important, as his troops from the Bay-Bakool region were personally loyal to him and formed a significant part of Shabaab’s total manpower. The remaining Shabaab leaders still in the field all face the danger of being hunted by American drones running out of Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Al-Shabaab Finances

Though there are reports that al-Shabaab profits from the production end of the charcoal industry, the Kenyan military estimates that their incursion into southern Somalia has disrupted 75% of al-Shabaab’s revenue stream, mainly by ending Shabaab control of the important southern port of Kismayo. However, control of the charcoal trade from Shabaab-held Barawe is still worth millions of dollars each month.

Eliminating or even restricting Shabaab’s sources of financing will do much to diminish their military strength – as we have seen throughout this conflict, there is a certain mobility on the part of fighters when either side has demonstrated an inability to meet its payroll.

Tactical Change

While al-Shabaab may seek to impress Gulf region donors with terrorist attacks like that on the Westgate Mall, it risks at the same time the loss of diaspora donors who are morally opposed to such attacks or who are unwilling to risk prosecution for funding a group that can no longer be described by its diaspora backers as “a national resistance movement opposing foreign occupation.” Between the movement’s open declaration of allegiance to al-Qaeda and its headline-grabbing terrorist attacks, such evasions are no longer tenable.

Nonetheless, al-Shabaab is stepping up its use of suicide bombers:

  • A June attack on a UN compound in Mogadishu by a suicide bomber in a truck followed by a general assault  that killed 22 people
  • A suicide car bomb attack outside Mogadishu’s Maka al-Mukarama Hotel on November 8 killed six people. A Shabaab spokesman said the target of the attack was “apostate security forces and officials.”
  • An attack on the Beledweyne police station followed by a general assault on November 19 killed 28 people.

A UN Security Council report issued last July suggested that al-Shabaab has “preserved the core of its fighting forces and resources” by avoiding direct military confrontations. Nevertheless, if al-Shabaab are entering lean times, it will be difficult to hold the group together as many of its fighters consider the economic opportunities the movement offers to be as appealing as its ideology.

Assessing AMISOM’s Military Strength

In October, UN deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson assessed the progress of the African Union’s mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, saying that the offensive that began in August 2011 with the withdrawal of al-Shabaab from Mogadishu had “ground to a halt” because of a shortage of troops to exploit successes in the field.

In mid-November the Security Council addressed the issue, authorizing the deployment of an additional 4400 African Union troops, bringing the size of the force up to 22,100 troops. The Council also approved the use of 12 military helicopters from troop-contributing countries. After a period of 18 to 24 months, the Security Council hopes to hand over security operations to the Somali National Army and a UN peacekeeping force. However, it must be remembered that mere authorization does not translate to troops on the ground – it took three years for AMISOM to raise its forces to the previous authorized level of 18,000.  It can only be hoped that the response will be quicker at this crucial time rather than allow al-Shabaab the opportunity to regroup and reorganize.

AMISOM’s reputation has improved greatly since the Shabaab withdrawal from Mogadishu allowed the mission to begin humanitarian operations. During Shabaab’s occupation of the city, AMISOM frequently came under local criticism for its careless use of retaliatory fire when responding to Shabaab attacks. The 960 man Somali-speaking police and military contingent from Djibouti has had notable success in its deployment in the Hiraan region, but there is a limit to what that small nation can provide.

The addition of helicopter-gunships and surveillance aircraft would greatly enhance the effectiveness of AMISOM operations in territory now held by al-Shabaab. The use of Kenyan Air Force fighter jets in southern Somalia has been an important factor in driving al-Shabaab from their former bases there.

The other component of AMISOM’s mission is providing training and assistance in the creation of professional Somali security forces that can take on a greater share of responsibility for internal security.

Ethiopia is considering joining AMISOM, which would greatly enhance the operational ability of the force in squeezing Shabaab forces from the Somali interior.

Applying Pressure to the AMISOM Contributors

When al-Shabaab first proved its international capabilities in 2010 with coordinated suicide bombings that killed 74 people who had gathered to watch the World Cup in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the movement warned:  “We are sending a message to every country that is willing to send troops to Somalia that they will face attacks on their territory.”

Having already lost vital revenues provided by the movement’s control of the markets of Mogadishu and the port of Kismayo, Kenya’s support for a new, autonomous administration in southern Somalia threatens to deprive Shabaab of operational mobility in one of its last strongholds. Unable to confront Kenyan troops in the field, al-Shabaab’s strategic response was the formulation of a devastating strike at a soft target in the heart of Kenya – Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall.

The Westgate Mall attack did not come out of the blue – over a dozen grenade and IED attacks have occurred since the Kenyan intervention in Somalia began. Most of these incidents have caused few casualties, leading to a senior Shabaab official telling his Kenyan associates to “stop throwing grenades at buses.” Westgate appears to be the result of top Shabaab planners taking over operations in Kenya to produce the kind of mass-casualty attacks they desire.

As al-Shabaab hoped, some Kenyan opposition politicians have called for a withdrawal from Somalia following the Westgate attack, but Nairobi is unlikely to pull out unless it is satisfied the Somali government can provide adequate security in the border regions. This proposition still seems far off at present, suggesting that Kenya will maintain both political influence and a military presence in southern Somalia for some time. A new security concern is created by Kenyan plans to build a new rail and pipeline corridor carrying oil from South Sudanese and Ugandan sources to the port of Lamu, less than 95 miles from the Somali border.

Al-Shabaab did not obscure the motive for the Westgate attack by offering to negotiate at any point during the standoff. The attack was solely retaliation for Kenyan interference in Somalia with the purpose of influencing public opinion against government policy. The attackers had no expectation of survival – in fact al-Shabaab reacted with great anger to suggestions that any of them might actually have escaped. The loss of Kismayo was a severe blow to al-Shabaab’s financing and ability to re-supply, so Godane decided it was time for radical measures in the face of his movement’s obvious inability to expel the Kenyans by military means.

Kenyan Defense Forces operating in Somalia were absorbed into the AMISOM command in February, though their efforts to create “Jubaland,” a semi-autonomous unofficial buffer state separating Kenya from the rest of Somalia have placed them at odds with the national government in Mogadishu, which is seeking unification of Somalia rather than its further division. Kenyan political and military support for the new administration of Jubaland has unfortunately given the latter the confidence to dismiss delegations from the national government in Mogadishu seeking to improve security cooperation.

A long-term Kenyan presence in southern Somalia may eventually work against restoring security in the area as any situation that is viewed as a foreign, and especially Christian, occupation of Somalia will become a rallying point and recruitment tool for extremists.

Al-Shabaab will also seek to rebuild its jihadi networks inside Nairobi and Mombassa, which have been greatly disrupted by Kenyan security operations in recent months.

Beyond the AMISOM nations, Ethiopia has also been targeted for attack by al-Shabaab for its military operations in the Somali border regions. Tragedy was narrowly averted when two Somali suicide-bombers were killed when their bomb exploded prematurely on their way to a World Cup qualifying match in Addis Ababa. Last month Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said the nation should expect more such attacks.


There are also indications that al-Shabaab is once again seeking to expand its terrorist campaign into Puntland, the semi-autonomous north-eastern province of Somalia. A December 5 bombing of a Puntland Marine Forces convoy left eight dead and 37 injured

Only days before, an estimated 40 Shabaab members mounted an unsuccessful assault on the Bossaso Central Prison in Puntland’s capital. The attack coincided with the suicide bombing of the Maka al-Mukarama Hotel in Mogadishu.


A culture of corruption continues to impede efforts to restore security to Somalia; in the annual rankings of corrupt nations released this month by Transparency International, Somalia ranks amongst the three worst, in company with North Korea and Afghanistan. Bribery and other forms of corruption allow Islamist militants to pass freely through security checkpoints designed to prevent attacks. Funds made available by donor nations often fail to reach the frontlines of the fight against terrorism – when police are paid erratically at best, they tend to feel it is their right to engage in corrupt practices. Bomb detection equipment is generally unavailable and the use of sniffer dogs runs counter to local cultural practice.

Terrorist attacks are part of al-Shabaab’s decision to revert to a guerrilla/terrorist campaign in its currently weakened state, which largely precludes more conventional military operations of any size.

Abdi Godane, has now made himself and the rest of the Shabaab leadership the targets of an international man-hunt that may well result in the ultimate death of the Amir and other movement leaders. Military pressure on the movement could foster further internal disputes over Godane’s controversial choice to take the movement in the direction of a globally-focused jihad closer to al-Qaeda Central’s concerns than those of more locally-focused Somali jihadists.

With Kismayo taken, AMISOM’s next major target will be the port of Barawe, the site of October’s unsuccessful SEAL raid, intended to capture Ikrima, the suspected planner of the Westgate Mall attack. Barawe is believed to be a center for the training of suicide bombers and provides Shabaab with revenue from the charcoal trade. A joint offensive by Kenyan and Ugandan led forces would cut off Shabaab from maritime supply routes and link-up the northern and southern AMISOM groups.

AMISOM is confident that force multipliers like helicopters and armored vehicles will allow it to finally destroy al-Shabaab as a military force in the field. However, even if military reinforcements allow AMISOM to resume its offensive against al-Shabaab, the movement could split into terrorist cells operating under Godane’s control in urban areas otherwise under Somali government control. Al-Shabaab forces still roam freely in many areas taken by AMISOM, speaking to the need to effectively garrison these territories. At the moment, AMISOM risks extending its supply lines in rural areas prone to ambushes. Paradoxically, the more weakened al-Shabaab becomes as an insurgent force, the more dangerous it will become as a terrorist group as it struggles to survive under Godane’s ruthless command. The ever-paranoid Shabaab chief will continue to search for spies in his command to avoid being targeted by American drones, though this hyper-vigilance may risk creating further internal splits in the organization. His personal control of the movement raises the problem of whether an effective replacement could be found in the event of his death and the possibility that other al-Shabaab factions might enter negotiations with the government. The question is whether a lengthy terrorist campaign could have the unlikely result of reversing Shabaab’s fortunes, or whether it would be ultimately self-defeating in a nation that is both exhausted by decades of warfare and largely uninterested in al-Shabaab’s religious leadership.

Westgate Mall Attack Demonstrates al-Shabaab’s Desperation, Not Strength

Andrew McGregor

Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, September 23, 2013

Expelled from their main sources of financing, consumed by internal disputes and under constant pressure from African Union troops in the field, Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement and its leader Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr” have rolled the dice with a massive attack on civilians in Nairobi with the future of the Shabaab movement as the stakes.

GarissaKenyan Security Forces Try to Secure the Westgate Mall

Having already lost vital revenues provided by the movement’s control of the markets of Mogadishu and the port of Kismayo, Kenya’s support for a new, autonomous administration in southern Somalia threatens to deprive Shabaab of operational mobility in one of its last strongholds. Unable to confront Kenyan troops in the field, al-Shabaab’s strategic response was the formulation of a devastating strike at a soft target in the heart of Kenya – Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall, a gathering place for foreign expatriates and well-to-do Kenyans alike. The result was over 60 civilians killed and 200 wounded. At least three Kenyan servicemen have died, with another eight wounded (Nairobi Standard, September 24).

Al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage (a.k.a. Ali Dheere) insisted the movement was in communication with the fighters in the mall while making the reason for the attack clear: “We have several times told the Kenya government to withdraw its forces from the Muslim land of Somalia but they gave no attention to our warnings” (, September 31). The movement has had a communications strategy in place throughout the attack, giving progress reports on the “mujahideen” inside the mall that at times have been more in tune with reality than the optimistic reports issued by the Kenyan government. The movement at all times stated its disinterest in any type of negotiation, confirming the attack’s punitive nature. Promises have been made by al-Shabaab via Twitter to release statements recorded in the Westgate Mall by individuals involved in the attack, all of whom “spoke comfortably and praised Allah to have been chosen for such an operation.” [1]

Independent press coverage of the situation was hampered by government requests for live transmissions from the site to cease and for people outside the mall to stop efforts to communicate to people still believed to be within the building (Nairobi Star, September 21).

The assault on the mall consisted of a two-pronged attack by heavily armed gunmen carrying AK-47assault rifles and ammunition belts. Many of the attackers appeared to be ethnic-Somali, thought it is unknown yet whether the attackers were Kenyan nationals from largely ethnic-Somali northeast Kenya or Somali nationals. Chief of the Kenyan Defense Forces General Julius Karangi maintains that the gunmen were of different nationalities, including ethnic-Somalis with dual nationality (AFP, September 24). There is a cross-border traffic in ethnic-Somali militants in the poorly regulated border Kenyan-Somali frontier – five Kenyan nationals who had traveled to Kismayo without documents to join al-Shabaab were arrested shortly after the Westgate Mall attack (Xinhua, September 22). There continue to be rumors of American and other foreign nationals taking part in the attack, but nothing has been confirmed as of yet.

There are some accounts of gunmen changing their clothes and leaving the mall in the midst of fleeing shoppers (AFP, September 21). While unconfirmed, they raise the possibility that parts of the operational cell may have survived to carry out further attacks. If none of the attackers still holding out in the Westgate mall are taken alive, Kenyan authorities will have lost a key source of intelligence in their investigations. Wary of booby-traps, well-concentrated fire and the danger to remaining hostages, Kenyan security forces have been forced to proceed slowly in securing the interior of the mall and ending the stand-off. Kenyan Special Forces were reported to have received military support from Israel, former colonial power Great Britain and the United States. [2]

Mogadishu Attacks Part of al-Shabaab’s Regional Strategy

Only two hours before the Westgate Mall attack began, at least two people were killed and four others injured (including two Yemeni nationals) when attackers believed to be al-Shabaab operatives threw a hand-grenade in the foreign exchange part of Mogadishu’s Bakara market, once an important revenue source for al-Shabaab before it was expelled in 2011 by a joint AMISOM-Somali Army operation (Shabelle Media Network [Mogadishu], September 21; Garowe Online, September 21). This latest attack in Mogadishu followed closely a coordinated car-bombing/suicide bombing attack on a Mogadishu restaurant that killed at least 15 people on September 7 (al-Jazeera, September 7). Even Somali president Hasan Shaykh Mohamud narrowly avoided being killed on September 3 when his motorcade was ambushed by al-Shabaab gunmen (Shabelle Media Network [Mogadishu], September 3). Such attacks are part of al-Shabaab’s decision to revert to a guerrilla/terrorist campaign in its currently weakened state, which largely precludes more conventional military operations of any size.

The damaging attacks at home and in Kenya come at a time when Somalia has finally gathered sufficient international support to move forward with efforts to achieve a national restoration. In return for funding pledges of over $2 billion, the Somali federal government has agreed to improve security, implement a new constitution and hold general elections in 2016 (al-Jazeera, September 17). Meanwhile, Godane loyalists within al-Shabaab have lately been engaged in a purge of his opponents within al-Shabaab, including American jihadi Omar Hammami al-Amriki and a lack of funds or battlefield success has made recruitment difficult.

The Crisis in Kismayo

Understanding the assault on the Westgate Mall requires an understanding of events in the southern Somali port town of Kismayo, center of a lucrative trade in charcoal that ensures the wealth of whoever controls this strategic town. Al-Shabaab took control of Kismayo from a local militia in August, 2008 and made the port city an important base through smuggling activities and control of the substantial charcoal trade to the Middle East. However, a severe drought and al-Shabaab’s decision to terminate all international aid to the region brought starvation and the exodus of much of the region’s population to massive refugee camps in northern Kenya, camps that Nairobi views as a security threat and would like to see closed by restoring sufficient security to southern Somalia to enable the return of the refugees. 

After a number of kidnappings and other disturbances along the Kenyan-Somali border, the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) crossed into southern Somalia to eliminate the Shabaab presence there on October 16, 2011. Al-Shabaab’s occupation of Kismayo and the surrounding region was eventually terminated in September 2012 by a combined ground, air and sea operation involving Somali troops, the Kenya Defense Force and the local Ras Kamboni militia (once an al-Shabaab ally). Unfortunately, Operation Linda Nchi did not restore stability, as the Ras Kamboni militia soon became embroiled in deadly clashes with local rivals (especially those of former warlord federal Defense Minister Colonel Barre Adnan Shire Hiraale) for control of the city. KDF forces in Somalia were later absorbed into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) on February 22, 2013. AMISOM has waged an often brutal war against al-Shabaab using mostly Ugandan and Burundian troops since 2007.

The eventual victor in the struggle for control of Kismayo was Ras Kamboni militia leader Ahmed Muhammad Islam Madobe, who appears to have agreed to rule Kismayo and its hinterland as a “semi-autonomous” unofficial buffer state separating Kenya from the rest of Somalia. Nevertheless, KDF commander General Karangi has repeatedly denied any involvement on the part of Kenyan forces in the region in the election of Ahmed Madobe as the new leader of Jubaland by 500 local leader s on May 15, while Brigadier Ngere maintains that Kenya has “a very long border with Somalia, which we have to protect. But we are not creating any buffer state” (BBC, September 22).

An August 28 agreement backed by the UN, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD – a regional grouping) was intended to resolve the differences between the autonomy-seeking Jubaland administration and the federal government in Mogadishu. In reality, the agreement failed to resolve many of the contradictions in the Kismayo/Mogadishu relationship, but did grant Jubaland a semi-autonomous status analogous to that enjoyed by Puntland, a territory in northern Somalia (Puntland severed ties with Mogadishu in August over a political dispute). The newly recognized Jubaland has an area of roughly 33,000 square miles and a population of roughly one million people. The agreement calls for the transfer of Madobe’s Ras Kamboni Brigade to the federal Somali army, but there is a possibility Brigade members might transfer to the local police, which will remain under Madobe’s control in Jubabland (Garowe Online, September 1). In effect, the agreement gives Nairobi the buffer zone it is believed to have been seeking in southern Somalia, together with a pliant local militia beholden to the Kenyan military for its rule of the region. A long-term Kenyan presence in the region essentially means that al-Shabaab will not have the opportunity it desires to force its way back into Kismayo’s charcoal export trade (a business involving a number of prominent Kenyan businessmen). [3] With revenue sources steadily drying up across Somalia, Godane has decided the time is right for drastic measures to drive out the Kenyan presence.

Ethiopian Foreign Ministry officials, who played a large role in crafting the agreement, said it was based on three main principles; respecting the legitimate constitution of Somalia, respecting the unity and sovereignty of Somalia and furthering the fight against al-Shabaab (Garowe Online, September 7).

Somalia’s federal government asked the African Union in June to replace Kenyan troops in southern Somalia with a “multinational force” without local ambitions in the region. (Nairobi Standard, July 6). The request, which was intended to remain private, contained strong criticism of the KDF commander in Somalia, Brigadier General Anthony Ngere, who was accused of “incompetence” and “poor judgment,” particularly in regards to his arrest of Colonel Abbas Ibrahim Gurey, a Somali National Army commander who was sent to Kismayo to organize locally-based federal military forces (Kismaayo/Standard Media, July 1). [4]

Madobe’s rule in the hotly-disputed region promises to be eventful – shortly after landing in Kismayo on September 12 following an official visit to Mogadishu, a convoy of vehicles carrying the new Jubaland leader was hit by an al-Shabaab suicide bomber who drove his vehicle straight into the convoy.  Ten of Madobe’s guards were killed, though Madobe, who was traveling in a bullet-proof car, was unhurt by the blast (Somaliland Sun, September 12).


Kenya’s official response to the Westgate attack so far has been to pledge operations to find and destroy those responsible for the Westgate attack. What will matter in the coming days is whether an aggressive response will have the support of other Kenyan politicians and the Kenyan public, some of whom might feel the price of military intervention in Somalia is too high, both in security terms and in the resultant reluctance of international investors to view Kenya as a desirable place to do business. Kenya is also planning to build a new rail and pipeline corridor carrying oil from South Sudanese and Ugandan sources to the port of Lamu, less than 95 miles from the Somali border, a development that will require new security initiatives in this poorly secured region. 

Al-Shabaab’s reclusive Amir, Abdi Godane, has now made himself and the rest of the Shabaab leadership the targets of an international man-hunt that may well result in the ultimate death of the Amir and other movement leaders. Military pressure on the movement could foster further internal disputes over Godane’s controversial choice to take the movement in the direction of a globally-focused jihad closer to al-Qaeda Central’s concerns than those of more locally-focused Somali jihadists.

The federal government in Mogadishu that once welcomed Kenyan intervention in southern Somalia now finds itself in the unlikely position of sharing al-Shabaab’s desire to end the Kenyan presence and influence in the region, though the two parties differ greatly on what they see replacing the Kenyans and the new Jubaland administration. Encouraging the development of new, autonomy-seeking administrations in a nation struggling to recover some sense of national unity that would enable it to tackle its serious economic and security challenges would seem to be a step backward in the international effort to restore stability to Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall is a searing reminder that the creation of a buffer-state alone will not protect Kenya from the Islamist extremists who are determined to risk all in their struggle to expel foreign forces from Somalia on their way to creating a unified Islamic state. However, unless Kenya has enough confidence in the Somali national government’s ability to provide security in the border regions, it is likely to maintain political influence and a military presence in newly-created Jubaland regardless of the cost.


1. See Al-Shabaab’s Twitter account is currently

2. For Israeli-Kenyan security cooperation, see Andrew McGregor, “Israel to Assist Kenya in Battle against al-Shabaab,” Terrorism Monitor, November 24, 2011.

3. See Muhyadin Ahmed Roble: “Al-Shabaab Razes Forests to Finance Jihad,” Terrorism Monitor, November 18, 2010.

4. See the whole document here:


Kenya’s Coast Province and the Mombasa Republican Council: Islamist, Separatists or Political Pawns?

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor, November 2, 2012

Kenya’s decision to launch a military intervention in Somalia to eliminate the threat posed by the Islamist al-Shabaab movement has resulted in battlefield successes but has also led to terrorist attacks and riots in the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa and even the formation of a Kenyan chapter of al-Shabaab. Simultaneous with these events are a growing number of incidents of political violence in Kenya’s largely Islamic Coast Province, a region with an active secessionist movement that operates under the name of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC).

Kenya provincial mapFormed in 1999, the MRC has until recently focused on legal means of attaining independence for the Coast region, which has significant cultural, linguistic, ethnic, historical and religious differences from the inland regions of Kenya where national power is held. In the Coast Province, the dominant culture and language is Swahili, which reflects a Bantu core and strong influences from Arab, Asian and European sources. Most indigenous residents refer to themselves as “Coasterians” rather than “Kenyans” and have numerous grievances with the Nairobi government over issues such as underdevelopment, poverty, land ownership, unemployment and government projects that bring few benefits to Coast residents.

A Question of Sovereignty

The Coast Province consists of the coastal strip of Kenya on the Indian Ocean and is inhabited by Mijikenda, Swahili and Arab peoples, representing a population of roughly 22.5 million. The coastal region came under the rule of Omani Arabs based in Zanzibar after they expelled Portuguese colonists in the late 18th century following 200 years of rule. The Sultan of Zanzibar agreed to lease the coastal region of modern Kenya (then known as “al-Zanj”) to the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1888. An 1895 treaty between Britain and the Sultan brought the region under formal British protection, with the residents remaining subjects of the Sultan rather than subjects of the British crown, as in the Kenya colony. It is this point that is the principal basis for the MRC’s legal challenges to its incorporation into post-independence Kenya. [1]

Some MRC members also claim that Jomo Kenyatta, the first prime minister of Kenya, had signed a separate 50-year lease agreement for the Coast strip with Zanzibar that will expire next year, when the Coast region will become independent. However, the movement cannot produce documentation of this claim and there is no reference to it in the existing agreements on which the Kenyan state was founded (Institute for Security Studies [Nairobi], June 27).

A 1908 British ordinance usurped most of the traditional claims to land-ownership on the Coast by declaring all land not under cultivation to be “crown land,” thus transferring title to most of the Coast to the state, a system inherited by modern Kenya, which has used the distribution of such lands to up-country Kenyans as a means of patronage or as the basis of resettlement schemes and industrial projects that do little for Coast residents. Little of the wealth created in the region by its busy ports and flourishing tourist industry makes its way into the hands of locals, who face wide-scale unemployment and land loss through various land reforms favoring landholders from the interior. In this economically depressed environment many young men are turning to heroin use while impoverished young women are often absorbed into Mombasa’s sex trade.

In the lead-up to Kenya’s independence in 1963, Coast residents tended to join either the mwambao (Swahili, lit. “coastline”; in this context meaning “self-governing”) or majimbo (Swahili, lit. “regions,” i.e. federalist) camps. The mwambao movement began in the years prior to independence as Coastal Arabs and Swahili feared being taken over by local Africans and migrants from the “upcountry” regions of Kenya. Unfortunately, many Coast residents believed Kenyan independence would mean the restoration of their lands, not their transfer to a new authority. [2] The majimbo current ultimately prevailed, but many of its proponents on the Coast later changed their mind when various protections and guarantees granted to the Coast were pushed aside by the post-independence government. The new nation of Kenya was, in part, an assembly of unwilling elements under the dominance of the tribes of the highland region, with many in the coastal region and the north-eastern ethnic Somali region having serious reservations about union with Kenya.

The Kaya Bomba Raiders

Prior to Kenya’s 1997 general elections, shadowy figures thought to be agents of the governing Kenya African National Union (KANU) began organizing Coast youth and veterans bitter over alleged discrimination in the Kenyan military and government land distribution policies at a base at Kaya Bombo in Kwale District. Most of the recruits hailed from the Digo, one of the nine tribes composing the Mijikenda group (a largely colonial construct). Dressed in black robes bearing a star and crescent moon and armed with firearms and machetes, the Raiders slaughtered up-country people as well as many non-Digo coastal residents who could not respond to Digo greetings, this being the main method of determining who was native to the region and who came from up-country.

The performance of the General Service Unit (GSU) paramilitary and other Kenyan police units in combating the Kaya Bomba Raiders was so inept that even some of the militants came to the conclusion that the repeated refusals of the security forces to engage or pursue the raiders even under favorable conditions and the transfer out of the region of veteran police officers familiar with the terrain meant the militants were serving a political purpose, likely by disrupting coast society during voter registration. GSU methods focused on rounding up unarmed members of the Digo and subjecting them to arbitrary arrest, beatings, torture and rape. [3] The MRC has repeatedly denounced the Kaya Bomba Raiders, characterizing their “revolt” as an episode of state-organized political violence at odds with the objectives and methods of the MRC.

MRCKenyan Police Display Seized MRC Materials

The Rise of the Mombasa Republican Council

Since its formation, the MRC has pursued its quest for independence in the courts, citing the questionable status of the Coast region at the time of independence. The movement employs two main slogans; Pwani Si Kenya (“The Coast is not part of Kenya”) and Nchi Mpya Maisha Mpya (“New country, new life”), and is jointly governed by a Leadership Council composed of the movement’s executives and the more secretive Council of Elders. All MRC recruits go through an initiation known as “oathing.” This ceremony is an important exercise in the creation of secret societies on the Kenyan Coast. From various descriptions, the oathing usually consists of a ritual applied to recruits in a spiritually important place (such as a forest) involving ritual bloodletting and the taking of an oath to maintain secrecy and follow orders explicitly. In return, the new member receives supernatural protection from enemy weapons and the ability to render himself invisible from his enemies. [4]

Belief in supernatural forces has always been strong in the Coast region, but there are a growing number of young, educated “Coasterians” who reject what they describe as the deceptions practiced by local sorcerers and practitioners of witchcraft. Oathing itself is clearly based on pre-Islamic beliefs and folk traditions beyond the pale for most members of Salafist groups such as al-Shabaab or their allied organizations in Nairobi and Mombasa.

When the Kenyan government banned the MRC in October, 2010, the movement did not take up arms but instead took the government to court, achieving a surprising repeal of the ban from the Mombasa High Court on July 25 of this year. This success, however, only raised suspicions in some Kenyan quarters of the movement’s source of financing in light of the generally impoverished condition of its leadership (Nairobi Star, October 20). On October 9, security officials announced they had opened an investigation of several MPs and a number of businessmen related to support and funding of the MRC (The Standard [Nairobi], October 10; Capital FM, October 13). A prominent Muslim leader and member of parliament, Shaykh Muhammad Dor, was arrested on October 17 on charges of inciting violence after endorsing the MRC and promising to fund it “if asked” because it was “not an outlawed group” (Capital FM [Nairobi], October 19; AFP, October 18).

Violence Begins to Spread in the Coast Region

Grenade attacks in the Coast Province began in late March with an attack on a restaurant in Mombasa and another in the town of Mtwapa (AFP, March 31). An oathing ceremony at Kaloleni in the Kilifi District turned deadly on September 27 when a village elder was killed by people alleged to be involved in an oathing in the nearby forest. Local residents had watched the strangers arriving in the area and feared they were preparing an attack on Kaloleni. Villagers pursued the roughly 200 men and killed eleven of them, including seven by stoning. Four more men alleged to have been MRC members escaping the initial massacre were lynched after they tried to hijack a car in Samburu (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 29). Eight men, including an alleged “witchdoctor” responsible for administering the oaths were arrested and charged with various offenses (Standard [Nairobi], September 28; October 2).

After the lynchings, local police displayed items used in the oathing ceremonies, including flags, sheep heads, fresh sheep skins, black and red cloth, machetes, knives and various “concoctions” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 29). However, one security source told journalists that “This was not the MRC. It is an entirely new group and it looks like we have a bigger security problem” (PANA Online, September 29).MP Najib Balala, the leader of the Republican Congress Party of Kenya, said that the MRC has legitimate grievances and was only fighting for justice: “We know what the MRC is. We have not seen terrorism in its face” (Nairobi Star, October 2).

Kenyan authorities blamed the MRC for a vicious machete attack on Fisheries Minister Amason Kingi at a campaign rally just north of Mombasa on October 4. Kingi survived the attack due to the efforts of his bodyguard, who was hacked to death before those attending the rally beat the three attackers to death (PANA Online, October 22). The Minister is considered the point man in the Coast region for Prime Minister Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), who is running for president in the coming elections (PANA Online, October 5). Odinga commented on the violence in the Coast region: “It looks to me like there are people who want to disrupt the elections and the registration of voters especially in the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) zones so that people cannot register and eventually vote” (PANA Online, October 9). According to Coast Provincial Police commander Aggrey Adoli, the attackers were MRC members who had just arrived from a forest where they had taken the oath. Adoli went on to advise local politicians to examine the MRC’s beliefs closely before offering their support to the movement (The People [Nairobi], October 8). However, MRC spokesman Rashid Mraja said that these and other youth found taking the oath in Coat region forests by security forces had been paid by local businessmen and politicians to join a violent militia (“the Muyeye movement”) designed to discredit the MRC’s calls for secession and ultimately lead to fighting between the two groups (The People [Nairobi], October 8).

GSU detachments are currently engaged in a disarmament campaign in the Tana River district and the pursuit of some 2,000 youth alleged to have taken the MRC oath in September (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 22). A group of Tana residents have threatened to sue the GSU for alleged atrocities carried out during the campaign (KBC-TV, September 26). The district is host to long-standing tensions between Pokomo agriculturalists and Orma pastoraslists over access to water. These tensions exploded on August 22, when the Pokomo attacked an Orma camp, killing 62 men, women and children with machetes, spears and handguns (al-Jazeera, August 22). Further violence followed in a pair of retaliatory attacks on other villages in the district, killing another 50 people, including nine police officers (K24TV, September 7; Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 1). Despite the dispute over water rights, it appears to have been political considerations that set off the violence, with the Pokomo hoping to disrupt voter registration amongst the Orma in Tana River District, where all three MPs currently hail from the Pokomo tribe. A local MP, Dhadho Godhana, was dropped from cabinet and charged with inciting violence in the Tana River delta amidst claims from villagers that their attackers included many people they did not recognize and who appeared to be organizing the massacres (AFP, September 14). Muslim clerics in the region have told the tribes they are being used for political purposes and have urged them to form a peace council to prevent further violence (Nairobi Star, October 2).

Kenyan police reported that a group of suspected MRC members raided their camp in Likoni with “crude weapons” in the early hours of October 20. Three days earlier, a GSU officer was killed in a grenade attack (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 17, October 20).

Sweeping Up the MRC Leadership

The MRC’s existence as a legal entity was short-lived, as the Mombasa Chief Magistrate accepted an application by the state and once again outlawed the MRC, ordering police to arrest all its leaders and present them in court to face fresh indictments (PANA Online, October 22). By coming back under an official ban, MRC activists will now be subject to the sweeping new powers given to security forces by the Prevention of Terrorism bill currently on its way to a third and final reading in the Kenyan parliament (KBC-TV, September 27; Standard [Nairobi], Spetember 27).

On October 14, police raided the home of MRC leader Omar Hamisi Mwamnuadzi in Kombani, south of Mombasa. Mwamnuadzi had gone into hiding after security forces began a crackdown on various groups on October 8. Police reported that they were met at the road leading to the MRC leader’s home by two bodyguards who threw a petrol bomb at a police vehicle. The bomb failed to explode and the two men were killed by police who then arrested 38 people, including Mwamnuadzi and his wife. The entire arsenal seized consisted of only four petrol bombs, one AK-47 rifle and 15 rounds of ammunition (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 15).

After his arrest, Mwamnadzi was charged with possession of the firearm and 15 rounds of ammunition. Both the MRC leader and his wife, Maimuna Hamisis Mwavyombo, were additionally charged with practicing witchcraft and possessing articles used in witchcraft (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 22). Police pointed to the MRC after a local administration official accused of giving out Mwamnuadzi’s location was the victim of a violent murder shortly after the MRC leader’s arrest (PANA Online, October 16).

At his release, Mwamnuadzi appeared to have been the victim of a severe beating, which he claimed was administered during his arrest, his death having been prevented only through the intercession of his bodyguards. The MRC leader lost four teeth while being detained and was unable to raise the $36,000 bond for his release and that of his wife (Nairobi Star, October 20).

Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki used a national “Heroes Day” broadcast on October 20 to warn the MRC that the government “will take firm and decisive action in dealing with those who have issued threats of secession or those who threaten our security. Kenya is one unitary state. The constitution is clear and so is our history. Let us learn from that history and not seek to distort it…” (KBC TV, October 20).

Other MRC leaders have been systematically rounded up or surrendered to security forces in recent days:

• Spokesman Muhammad Rashid Mraja was arrested on October 8 for calling for the secession of the Coast region and failed to make bail (KBC Online, October 8).
• Secretary General Randu Nzwai Ruwa was charged with incitement to violence on October 10 and released on $24,000 bail. (KBC, October 10).
• Treasurer Omar Suleiman Babu (a.k.a. Bam Bam) surrendered to police on October 23.
• Council of Elders’ chairman Hassan Mbwana Mwanguza was arrested in early October.

Islamist Connections?

In late September, Somalia’s al-Shabaab Islamists announced the creation of a Kenyan branch of the movement to be led by Shaykh Ahmed Iman Ali, the founder of the Shabaab-allied Muslim Youth Center (MYC, a.k.a. Pumwani Muslim Youth – PMY). Shaykh Ahmed quickly indicated the group would pursue revenge for al-Shabaab’s loss of the port of Kismayo to the Kenyan military by calling for “all means possible” to be used to kill the “infidels” in Mombasa, Nairobi “and across East Africa.” [5] In this environment, it is likely that Kenyan authorities will conflate political resistance (violent or non-violent) by the Coast Muslims of the MRC with the more serious pro-Shabaab Salafist threat. During an October 11 cabinet meeting, Kenyan ministers downplayed the possibility the recent violence on the Coast was motivated by local dissatisfaction with the government, suggesting instead that it was the work of al-Shabaab infiltrators and absentee landlords who had been adversely affected by changes to the land laws (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 12).
Despite the attempt to paint the MRC as a religious-based movement, some Mombasa businessmen have more concrete reasons for disliking Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, as many made sizable profits by dealing contraband across the mutual border (Business Daily [Nairobi], October 8). It should also be noted that the MRC is not an exclusively Muslim organization. Pentecostal churches and pastors are reported to play a large part in MRC organizing activities. A pastor was among those MRC suspects arrested in a recent GRU operation in Tana River District (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 22).


There is suspicion that Nairobi’s sudden offensive against MRC leaders is designed to disrupt election preparations in the Coast region, where Raila Odinga’s ODM took most of the vote in the 2007 elections, in which 1,200 people were killed and 600,000 displaced in post-election violence across Kenya after Odinga accused President Mwai Kibaki of rigging the vote. Outlawing the MRC brings the risk of greater political violence as the membership is forced to go underground. In current conditions, it appears unlikely that the MRC will be allowed to continue their recourse to the courts to address the group’s core issues.

Nevertheless, the MRC’s actual commitment to secession appears rather weak; the coast, after all, was never an independent state, coming at various times in various places under the rule or protection of the Portuguese, the Omani Arabs, the Germans, the British and finally the rule of Nairobi. Coastal independence is a goal not shared by the Salafists, who are pursuing an East African Islamic Caliphate that would include Somalia, the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania and other predominantly Muslim parts of the region.
The loose organization of the MRC and its informal membership system creates several problems for the movement, including the risk of infiltration by security forces, political manipulators or militants who do not share the MRC’s the movement’s goals and non-violent strategies. The MRC Youth Wing especially is agitating for stronger responses to state repression of the movement, but the repeated lynchings of those believed to be planning violence in the region reveals a popular distaste for any repetition of Kaya Bomba-type attacks and the often indiscriminate repression that followed. Despite this, movement leaders admit they are having difficulty in keeping the youth wing in check

MRC statements do not display any mention of or support for jihadi/Islamist agendas and the religion practiced by most Muslim MRC members incorporates traditional Islamic and folk beliefs rather than the austere Salafism that characterizes most of the Islamist movement. However, continuing speculation from government administrators that the MRC is allied with al-Shabaab and the challenge posed by the MRC’s call for a boycott of the forthcoming March 2013 general elections is likely to keep the MRC on the list of banned organizations. With the incarceration of most of the movement’s leadership, the MRC youth wing will remain susceptible to both political manipulation and even enticements from foreign jihadists able to promise a more forceful response to the government crackdown in the Coast region.


1. James R. Brennan, “Lowering the Sultan’s Flag: Sovereignty and Decolonization in Coastal Kenya,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 50(4), 2008, pp. 831-861.
2. See Paul Goldsmith, “The Mombasa Republican Council Conflict Assessment: Threats and Opportunities for Engagement,” Kenya Community Support Center, November 2011, , and “Playing with Fire: Weapons Proliferation, Political Violence and Human Rights in Kenya,” Human Rights Watch, New York, 2002.
3. Ibid, p.13.
4. “Playing with Fire: Weapons Proliferation, Political Violence and Human Rights in Kenya,” Human Rights Watch, New York, 2002, pp. 30-32.
5. Al-Kataib, October 19, 2012,

Kenyan Navy Softens Up Kismayo Prior to AMISOM Attack

Andrew McGregor

September 13, 2012

Kenya’s navy continues to play an important role in the multi-national struggle against Somalia’s al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab movement by shelling the Shabaab-held port of Kismayo in southern Somalia. These operations come at a time when Kenya is making significant upgrades to its naval capacity through purchase or donation. These upgrades are intended to enhance Kenya’s ability to carry out anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the Indian Ocean.

KNS 1KNS Harambee II

Kismayo’s port operations and lucrative charcoal trade are the main source of revenue for al-Shabaab since it pulled out of Mogadishu last year. Other forces that have gathered around Kismayo in preparation for the final assault include Ugandan and Burundian AMISOM troops, Somali government forces and the local Ras Kamboni militia of Ahmad Muhammad Islam “Madobe,” which were expelled from Kismayo by al-Shabaab in 2009. British experts are reported to have played a facilitating role in planning sessions for the assault on Kismayo held in Nairobi and attended by Ugandan AMISOM commander Lieutenant General Andrew Gutti (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 4).

Since Kenya joined the campaign against al-Shabaab with Operation Linda Nchi in October, 2011, the Kenyan navy has participated in naval operations designed to restrict al-Shabaab supplies of arms and fuel, secure Kenyan waters from terrorist infiltrators and deter piracy (see Terrorism Monitor, November 11, 2011). While the Kenyan Army deployment in Somalia formally joined the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) on June 11, the Kenyan Navy and Air Force (which has also carried out bombing operations over Kismayo) were not included in the agreement and thus do not come under the Ugandan-dominated AMISOM command structure.

Kenyan warships are now playing an important role degrading the defenses and military capacity of those al-Shabaab militants who have not seized the opportunity to join the civilian flight out of Kismayo. There are reports that al-Shabaab has attempted to stiffen its resistance by bringing in hundreds of reinforcements in armored vehicles ( [Mogadishu], September 7). Even if al-Shabaab is forced to make a strategic withdrawal from Kismayo, occupying AMISOM forces are almost certain to be met by improvised explosive devices, land-mines and ambushes by hidden militants (after the pattern of  Mogadishu).

After reportedly being provoked by an al-Shabaab gunboat, a Kenyan navy ship fired ten rounds on Kismayo on September 3, while the port area and airport were shelled the next day (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 5; VOA, September 4; BBC, September 4). Kenyan ships fired on what they believed to be a Kismayo arms cache on September 5, killing a reported seven Shabaab militants and destroying a stockpile of “technicals” [armored battle wagons], arms and munitions (RFI, September 6). Residents of the town said the attack began shortly after the militants had dragged the bodies of four Kenyan soldiers killed in the battle for Afmadow into the town square for public display (RFI, September 6). A Kenyan ship fired on a Shabaab anti-aircraft emplacement on September 11.

In the last few months Kenya has added two ships to its fleet that will significantly enhance its naval strength. In June, France donated the 1976 vintage patrol boat La Rieuse, one of ten ships of the P400 class used to patrol the waters of its overseas possessions. Equipped with a 40mm cannon, La Rieuse operated in the Indian Ocean from the French base at Réunion. Most of the P400 class are now being decommissioned, but La Rieuse (now renamed KNS Harambee II) was donated in the interests of helping Kenya carry out high seas security operations (, June 7;, June 10).

KNS 2KNS Jasiri

Kenya has also finally taken possession of the 140-ton Jasiri, a Spanish-built oceanographic survey vessel that has been fitted with naval guns, missiles, machine-guns and radar and communications systems, making it the most powerful ship on the East African coast (Nairobi Star, August 30). The ship was supposed to be delivered in 2005, but the purchase became entangled in Kenya’s Anglo-Leasing corruption scandal. As a result, the ship sat without maintenance in a Spanish dock for seven years. A Kenyan delegation arrived to complete the deal in February but instead rejected the ship on the grounds that much of the equipment was outdated and no longer functioning. After an unsuccessful attempt to sell the ship to the Nigerian Navy, Kenya finally negotiated a deal with the Jasiri’s builders, Euromarine Industries (Nairobi Star, April 27).

Mombasa, the Kenyan Navy’s main port, was consumed by deadly street riots when the Jasiri arrived following the assassination of Muslim preacher Aboud Rogo Muhammad, a well-known supporter of al-Shabaab. A statement issued by al-Shabaab urged Kenyan Muslims to “take all necessary measures to protect their religion, their honor, their property and their lives from the enemies of Islam” (AFP, August 29).

Nonetheless, Kenyan Chief of Defense Forces, General Julius Karangi, warned that the arrival of the Jasiri had shifted the power equation on the East African coast: “Jasiri has capabilities and capacities that we did not have. If there are some people out there thinking they can come to our waters and worry us, let them know that things can get very tough for them” (Africa Review [Nairobi], August 31). The Navy has not yet announced whether the Jasiri will participate in the Kismayo operation, but its deployment there seems likely after trials are carried out.

This article first appeared in the September 13, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Israel to Assist Kenya in Battle against al-Shabaab

Andrew McGregor

November 24, 2011

Kenyan reports say Israeli personnel will help secure potential targets in Kenya from terrorist attack. The Israeli security experts are expected to start work in the next few weeks. According to Israeli ambassador Gil Haskel: “Israel is willing to send consultants to Kenya to help Kenya secure its cities from terrorist threats and share experience with Kenya because the operation in Somalia is very similar to Israel’s operations in the past, first in Lebanon and then in Gaza Strip” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], November 18). Since the Kenyan operation in Somalia began in mid-October, terrorists have struck the Kenyan cities of Nairobi, Garissa and Mandera. More attacks are feared as the operation progresses as al-Shabaab leaders call for major terrorist attacks within Kenya.

Kenyan Troops in SomaliaKenyan Troops in Somalia

A statement from the office of Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said that Israel had agreed to help “rid its territory of fundamentalist elements,” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserting that “Kenya’s enemies are Israel’s enemies.” The statement also said that the Israeli prime minister had pledged to help create a “coalition against fundamentalism” in East Africa together with Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Tanzania (BBC, November 4). The Kenyan prime minister’s four-day visit to Jerusalem concluded with the signing of a memorandum of understanding on internal security issues (Jerusalem Post, November 15). Various arms deals are expected to follow, with Kenya seeking patrol vehicles and maritime surveillance equipment. The latest meetings follow up on a Kenyan mission to Jerusalem last year to request Israeli military assistance in countering al-Shabaab threats (Shabelle Media Network, February 14; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 11, 2010).

Al-Shabaab is reported to have responded to the initiative by sending agents from mosque to mosque to announce Israel had now joined the Christian Crusaders to destroy Islam in Somalia (Daily Nation, November 18). Referring to the terrorist strikes already carried out inside Kenya, al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mahmud Raage warned Kenya that “things have not begun in earnest yet and it is now a month on. You still have a chance to go back to your border (Nairobi Star, November 17). Shabaab spokesmen also insisted the world’s Muslims had a responsibility to aid the Somali Islamists now that Israel was joining the struggle against them.

Israel has lately intensified its diplomatic efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. A recent meeting between Netanyahu and South Sudan president Salva Kiir was soon followed by visits from Kenyan Prime Minister Odinga and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who actually bumped into each other in Jerusalem unaware of each other’s presence (Nairobi Star, November 18). Israel indicated last year that it was prepared to recognize the breakaway territory of Somaliland as an independent nation (Golis News, February 11, 2010). It is believed that Israel has an interest in establishing a military outpost in the Somaliland port of Berbera (Shabelle Media Network, February 14, 2010).  However, new complications in Israeli naval access to the Suez Canal since the Egyptian Revolution may put such plans on hold.

The question now is whether the Israeli-Kenyan agreement will provide the necessary fuel to sustain a successful al-Shabaab recruitment campaign in Somalia at a time it is hard pressed on several fronts and awaiting yet another potential military intervention by Ethiopia. TFG cooperation with the Kenyan offensive will also be easily interpreted by Somalis as cooperation with Israel, a development that would present a major setback for international efforts to restore security in the Horn of Africa region. Discussions regarding Kenya joining the existing African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) could further complicate the local credibility of American-backed African Union efforts to destroy al-Shabaab.

This article first appeared in the November 24, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Kenya’s Navy Joins Counter-Terrorist Operations Off Somalia

Andrew McGregor

November 10, 2011

Kenya’s navy has joined the Kenyan military offensive in Somalia with operations designed to end al-Shabaab or third-party resupply or arms, fuel and other materiel to Shabaab-held territories in southern Somalia, secure Kenyan waters from terrorist infiltrators and prepare conditions for a two-pronged land and sea assault on the Shabaab-held port of Kismayo. Kenyan forces crossed the border into southern Somalia on October 16 as part of Operation Linda Nchi

The main objective of the Kenyan campaign is to seize the port of Kismayo, a vital source of revenues for al-Shabaab as well as a connection between the Islamist movement and the wider world. With al-Shabaab’s loss of the lucrative Mogadishu markets last August and a summer long drought that created massive out-migration from al-Shabaab-held regions of southern Somalia, the loss of Kismayo would represent a severe body-blow to the Somali militants. Kenyan military sources have indicated that the Kenyan navy will play an important part in the attack on Kismayo (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 30). Kenyan jets have already started bombardment of the port region. Kenya’s navy possesses an amphibious assault vessel, though a risky amphibious assault on Kismayo would be ambitious for a nation still in the early days of its first extraterritorial operation.

Kenyan Naval Ensign

Kenya’s small navy consists largely of a handful of small British-built missile boats, Spanish-built patrol boats and a number of American and Spanish-built inshore patrol vessels (IPVs). In recent years the Kenyan Navy has come under local criticism for failing to do enough to tackle the problems of piracy, narcotics smuggling and illegal fishing by foreign trawlers in Kenyan waters (Nairobi Chronicle, February 11, 2009). However, Kenya’s Navy has been hampered in carrying out deep-water operations by deficiencies in its fleet. The fleet’s two Spanish-built patrol boats (Shuja and Shupavu) have had unexpected range and sea-handling problems, while another ship designed for long-range patrols, the KNS Jasiri, has sat in a Spanish dock since its completion in 2005 due to an unresolved dispute between Kenya and the European contractor (Nairobi Chronicle, December 16, 2008; DefenceWeb, July 4).

Nonetheless, Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia has been greatly aided by the return of the missile boats Nyayo and Umoja from an over two-year refit in Italy. The two 1987 vintage ships had their Otomat missiles removed as part of the refit but were otherwise extensively modernized. Their return has given the Kenyan military greater confidence in their ability to control the southern Somali coastline during the ongoing operations.

On November 2, a Kenyan patrol boat in Somali waters sank a ship they claimed was transporting fuel and al-Shabaab fighters to Kuday in the Bajuni coral islands off the southern Somali coast. Military spokesmen claimed all 18 al-Shabaab militants aboard the ship were killed (Daily Nation [Nairobi], November 3; Capital FM [Nairobi], November 3; The Standard [Nairobi], November 4).  [1] The Bajuni coral islands of Kuday, Ndoa, Chuvaye, Koyama, Fuma Iyu na Tini and Nchoni were traditionally inhabited by the non-Somali Bajuni culture, speaking a dialect of Swahili. Somalis began forcing the Bajuni from the islands during the Siad Barre regime, a trend that actually worsened after the collapse of his government in 1991 as many Bajuni sought refuge in Kenya.

A second ship was sunk on November 4, when a Kenyan ship opened fire on a vessel coming from the region of Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia. According to Kenyan military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir, “The boat was challenged to stop for identification but continued to approach the Kenya Navy at high speed, and consequently they fired on it” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], November 4).

Kenyan Sailors on Parade

Soon after the attack, however, Kenyan fishermen in the Magarini district claimed that the eight killed were local fishermen. According to the three survivors, the unarmed fishermen had identified themselves and surrendered before the Kenyan ship opened fire, though the commander of the Kenyan ship denies any such surrender took place. [2] A district commissioner later affirmed the identity of the survivors as local fishermen (Daily Nation [Nairobi], November 4). Kenyan officials say the government has issued clear instructions to fishermen that fishing off northern Kenya must be done in the daytime while fishing in Somali waters is prohibited (The Standard [Nairobi], November 4).

Kenya’s military has also warned merchant ships in the Indian Ocean against helping foreign fighters in Somalia to escape to Yemen. Kenya claims foreign fighters have gathered in Barawe and Marka to escape from the Kenyan offensive (Daily Nation [Nairobi], November 4).


1. For video see

2. See Nairobi TV interview, November 7, 2011:

This article first appeared in the November 10, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Trial of “7/11” Bombers Begins in Kampala as Opposition Claims Government Manipulates Terrorist Threat

Andrew McGregor

September 16, 2011

Proceedings have opened in the Kampala trial of over a dozen East African men suspected of involvement in the July 11, 2010 suicide bombings of crowds gathered in Kampala to watch the World Cup soccer championship (see Terrorism Focus, September 24, 2008; Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 15, 2010). Responsibility for the attacks, which killed 74 civilians and came to be known in Uganda as the “7/11 bombings,” were later claimed by al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mahmud Raage, who described them as “a message to Uganda and Burundi” to withdraw their troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) (Shabelle Media Network, July 12, 2010; Daily Monitor [Kampala], July 13, 2010).

The trial began with the liberation of Kenyan human rights activist Al-Amin Kimathi and four other men, bringing the total number of suspects on trial to 14 (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 12; September 13). Kimathi, the head of the Muslim Human Rights Forum, was detained along with his lawyer Mbugua Mureithi on September 15, 2010 when they visited Kampala to oppose the extradition of Kenyans to Uganda to face charges related to the 7/11 bombings. Mureithi was quickly freed and deported, but Kimathi was forced to spend a year in prison after being charged with murder and terrorism (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 12).