Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Al Shabaab Strategic Objectives and Operational Aims in Kenya: Prelude to the Deep Jihad in Eastern Africa

Al Shabaab (officially known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen [HSM]) is the formal affiliate of al Qaeda which is currently conducting a prolific terrorist campaign against Kenya despite suffering a series of major strategic setbacks in Somalia - its home base and operational headquarters. Nonetheless, its activities threaten to destabilize the Horn of Africa region. The lethal and persistent terrorist campaign conducted against Kenya includes several high-profile attacks such as the 2013 Westgate Mall Attack which killed over 65 people, the June 2014 Lamu attacks which killed over 60 civilians, the 2014 Mandera attacks which killed 64 civilians; and the recent Garissa University College attack which killed over 147 people. To understand the actions of al Shabaab, one must understand al Shabaab itself.
To defeat al Shabaab, one must identify and understand its ideology and thereafter proceed to defeat its ideology. Prior to identifying its ideology, one must identify its ideologues and reconcile their ideas with official statements made by the jihadist group (this topic will be discussed in another post). From the ideology emanates the strategic objectives of the jihadist organization, which serves to guide its operational aims and the selection of combat tactics to be used to achieve specified operational aims.
Somali-Dominated Regions in Kenya. Photo Credit: Google Imagery and Europa Technologies.
Prevailing Knowledge Gap
In Kenya, there exists a considerable knowledge gap regarding violent Jihad as relevant authorities, institutions and policy makers have an inadequate understanding of Islamic terrorism, its ideology, factors that perpetuate it and most importantly, how to handle and contain it. In short, Kenya does not understand the war it is fighting; and this partially explains why al Shabaab has been able to remain operational in Kenya by maintaining its intelligence units, strengthening its recruitment network and safeguarding its logistical infrastructure as well as preserving its capacity to conduct attacks that inflict substantial damage to Kenya.
In addition, al Shabaab has been able to use Kenya as the ideological base to create new terror affiliates such as Al Hijra and Al Muhajiroun in East Africa. It thus stands to reason that the sheer incompetence, mediocrity and unprofessionalism of Kenyan security forces - and not the inherent capabilities of al Shabaab; have ensured the success of al Shabaab operations in Kenya. That is, al Shabaab success is predicated on the inadequacies and operational deficits of the Kenyan security forces (as clearly exemplified by the bungled hostage rescue operations in both Westgate Mall and Garissa University College). This fact has been factored in by jihadist theoreticians and salafist military strategists who are currently recalibrating the strategic objectives of al Shabaab with regards to Kenya.
Al Shabaab Strategic Objectives
Validated intelligence and expert security assessments have shown that al Shabaab intends to erode Kenya’s territorial integrity and cripple its economic lifeline by conducting a persistent and increasingly tenacious terror campaign within Kenya with the calculated intent of creating a full-blown insurgency that would drain resources, stagnate the national economy as well as create a chronic state of political instability.
Cognizant of the ethnic fissures, political factionalism and corruption within Kenya; al Qaeda military theoreticians (embedded in al Shabaab) have created a sophisticated strategy that would utilize internal Kenyan dynamics (of ethno-political factionalism, institutional failures, capacity deficits in the security sector, political cronyism, unemployment, poor service delivery and skewed economic development) to create chaos and the eventual fragmentation of Kenya by turning the government against its citizens (the converse also applies) with al Shabaab acting as an interested observer who intervenes only to ensure that the cycle of degradation that has been set in motion accelerates, as well as deny the government the opportunity to restore stability and the rule of law.
For the strategy to succeed, al Shabaab needs to be self-sufficient in terms of resources and military strength; as well exhibit remarkable ideological coherence. The strategy borrows heavily from the theoretical works of the most outstanding contemporary jihadist military strategist, intellectual, historian, theologian and engineer; Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (popularly known as Abu Musab al Suri).
Al Qaeda intends to enter into a conventional conflict in East Africa with a cohesive, coherent and a durable strategy that can be disseminated and consumed by the target demographic (mainly the disenfranchised Muslim youth). Hereafter, the strategy calls on al Shabaab to conduct a gruelling war of attrition against the Kenyan government instead of acts of terrorism.
Another strategic objective of al Shabaab is to recruit elite combatants and educated jihadists who can independently sustain a resilient insurgency against a numerically and conventionally stronger adversary. The aim of this strategy is to transmute al Shabaab’s Kenyan affiliate from a hierarchical jihadist organization vulnerable to external pressures, to decentralized resilient jihadist groups capable of withstanding overbearing pressures while simultaneously preserving its innate capabilities for self-preservation and self-rejuvenation.  Moreover, the elite nucleus of fighters would act as the future strategists and commanders of a regional jihadist insurgency against the nations of East Africa.
Operational Aims.
In Kenya, the government conceives patriotism as political alignment with the agenda of the ruling political regime; and this has created a national vulnerability that allows al Shabaab to permeate Kenya’s defences.
Despite numerous reports to the contrary, Al Shabaab still possesses considerable resources and has also shown remarkable self-sufficiency in terms of recruitment and finances, partly due to the corruption of the Kenyan security forces.
Kenya’s disjointed, disorganized and brutal counter-terrorism strategies have done more harm than good in terms of defeating Islamism; and it has strengthened the existing pervasive loathing of the government in Muslim-dominated regions. This facet coupled with the fact that the government considers these populations to be unpatriotic do create a fertile ground for Islamist indoctrination and recruitment. Using a combination of sleek media products and shrewd arguments concerning government oppression, humiliation, degradation and dispossession of the Muslim people; al Shabaab has been able to recruit a significant number of Kenyans into its rank – including several well-educated Muslims. From this pool of Kenyan recruits, al Shabaab has been able to select the best fighters and band them into a series of distinct terror cells and combat units which are then embedded in Kenya. These cells alongside accompanying combat units are to be instrumental for the following phases of achieving the operational aims of the group and thus actualizing its strategic objectives.
Strategy of Savagery: Operationalizing the Deep jihad.
The first phase of the strategy is to attack vital national economic pillars in order to cripple the government economically as well as induce it to deploy and concentrate its security forces in these specific areas. Al Shabaab has already achieved this by conducting a series of attacks at the Coastal region which have in turn convinced European nations alongside the US (the source nations for the majority of tourists) to issue travel advisories thus setting in motion a cascading series of events that have driven the Kenyan tourism sector to the brink of collapse with its attendant effects of loss of jobs and deterioration of socioeconomic life in Coastal Kenya. This has also increased the human pool for recruitment at the Coast.
By concentrating Kenya’s security forces in specific geographical areas, al Shabaab spontaneously thins the spread of the security forces at the peripheral areas and frontier counties of the nation thus providing the terror group with the opportunity to permeate the national defences, establish bases and conduct attacks in these regions, that is; Garissa, Wajir, Lamu and Mandera counties. This is the second phase of the strategy which in turn elicits a reaction from the government - which sends in its security forces to pacify the region, and it is here that al Shabaab lets the security forces do the heavy lifting for them.
The disorganized security forces - hell-bent on revenge - and lacking actionable intelligence regarding the terrorists, or a clear and coherent counter-terrorism strategy; would use brutal and ineffective tactics to collectively punish the local population thus engendering more loathing and hatred against the government; and in turn up-scaling the perception of al Shabaab among the locals who will in turn consider HSM as their liberators and avengers.
During this phase of events, government actions would disrupt the socioeconomic life of the areas being pacified thus leading to an economic slowdown and disruption of family and clan life as the security agents arrests (and sometimes kill) suspected terror operatives thereby causing more misery, despair and disillusionment within the community to an extent that the community will view the security agents as their enemies, and thus cease cooperating with them. At this point, the terrorist will entrench themselves deeply in the community as the government will lack local intelligence regarding their activities. After entrenchment, the terrorists are thereby expected by their jihadist commanders to escalate the level of violence to such unmanageable levels that the local population will accept savagery, brutality and death as the normal way of life; and also ingrain apathy among the locals towards the government and the rule of law. Moreover, by converting battlefield into fields of savagery where the combatants know that death is a second away, the jihadist will be able to demoralize the national fighting units; and any jihadist battlefield victory will demoralize the entire nation thus further imperilling the already unstable regime. (This strategy worked well for the jihadists in Mali where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and allied Tuareg militias were able to rout government forces from over half of Malian territory).
Those not ready to accept the deteriorated society will have to make a choice between two alternatives: join the government which has persecuted his co-religionists, or join the jihadists who promise to stabilize the areas and restore the rule of Sharia. For those who chose the latter option, they join the jihad, and those who chose the former option will be castigated by their communities as traitors and sell-outs. This now sets the stage for the final phase of the deep jihad.
During the final phase, the jihadists restore order and normalcy in the fractured society through their strict interpretation of Sharia; and due to the fear of the unknown alternatives; they will be able to hold their communities hostage.
By entrenching themselves in one community, the jihadists can use that community as a launch pad to infiltrate other adjacent communities in the area; and after gaining significant influence in several communities, they can pre-empt the government’s attempts to pacify the region as most community members would not be too eager to have the government back as their overlords; and within no time the area will suffer a full-blown insurgency as the government attempts to regain and pacify the area albeit with constrained success while the areas outside government control will be declared de-facto lands under the Islamic Caliphate. From these nexus, Jihad will spread deeper into Kenya and across the East African region in general.
This is the brief overview of the phases of the deep jihad being (or to be) waged in Kenya and it also shows how the Kenyan government can ironically perpetuate it as it attempts to contain it.


  1. Outstanding. Thank you. Will put in our newsfeed.

    1. Thanks. Have been a fan of your site. I love your nuanced and articulate pieces.

  2. It looks like you're just starting? Looking forward to more content.

    1. That's right Dymphna. Am just starting. Stay tuned for more content.


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