Monday, 25 May 2015

TerrorFront Kenya : Al-Shabaab Threat Assessment

Al-Shabaab (known officially as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen [HSM]) is currently conducting a terrorist campaign against Kenya. This terror campaign is facilitated and made possible by existing internal and external dynamics which enable the terror group to foment a security crisis in the nation. These dynamics are concisely described hereafter.
1.                  Geo-strategic Location and External Interference.
Al-Shabaab maintains its operational and command-and-control bases in Somalia, and Kenya’s proximity to the unstable nation coupled with its porous Kenya-Somalia border allows terrorists to infiltrate the country and also establish patrol bases from where they can conduct attacks on Kenyans as well as destroy the national infrastructure.
Presently, Kenya is the political, military and economic powerhouse of East and Central Africa (excluding Ethiopia); and its vanguard role in the war on terror makes the nation a suitable target for terrorists. Al-Shabaab understands that crippling the economic lifeline of Kenya as well as destabilizing its frontier regions would significantly dent the current counter-terrorism campaign in Somalia, thus ensuring the survival of their terrorist insurgency.
Furthermore, Kenya’s location as the gateway into East and Central Africa has tempted external powers and interested foreign parties to attempt to subvert the nation besides sabotaging its national economy. Some of these powers, especially Gulf Arab Nations such as Qatar have propped up HSM to serve as their proxy. Sudan is also a suspect as the real forces and operatives of NIF (National Islamic Front) seek to subvert land-locked South Sudan by denying it access to a trade infrastructure which is currently wholly dependent on Kenya.  Moreover, Sudan has an interest in seeing South Sudan unable to transport its oil through Kenya (via Mombasa) and onto the international market.
2.                  Media Publicity.
Closely tied to Kenya’s geostrategic advantage is the large concentration of multinational commercial conglomerates alongside transnational organizations which have established their regional headquarters in Nairobi.
The relatively advanced state of Kenya (politically, socially and economically) in relation to other regional states has led all major international media corporations to establish their regional headquarters in Nairobi. Therefore, an Al-Shabaab attack in Nairobi will definitely get international coverage as proved by the 2013 Westgate Mall siege. HSM presently starves for media publicity, and this sole fact procures a bias that they will continue to conduct terrorist attacks in Kenya.
3.                  Upsurge of Islamism.
There exists a significant Muslim demographic in the nation; and the emergence of takfiri ideology as a rival to the traditional Sufi Islam portends a risk to Kenya as the Muslim community splits and dissident factions adopt Salafi Jihadism as a vector for dominance within the Muslim fraternity. Eloquent Islamic ideologues have been assisted by radical Muslim clerics to spread violent Salafi doctrines as well as nurture domestic Islamic militancy. One such ideologue is Hassan Mahad Omar, and he is being assisted by radical sheikhs to rationalize, sanitize and justify the actions of al-Shabaab .
Muslim clerics opposed to Islamist teachings have been targeted and killed by Al-Shabaab or its sympathizers. Case in point is the astute and firmly moderate; Sheikh Mohammed Idriss who led a counter-radicalization campaign to oppose jihadist teachings in Mosques, Madrassas and Islamic seminars. He was killed in June 2014.
The ambivalence of the domestic Muslim leadership to Kenya’s counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism efforts coupled with the pervasive distrust of the government among Muslims have greatly hampered effective counter-terrorism.
Islamist ideologues have also managed to create masses of followers thus providing HSM with a cushion and fallback position during periods of active counter-terrorism offensives, as these populations can conceal, feed and take care of them. Moreover, such populations serve as a reserve for terror recruits.
4.                  Ethno-political and religious factionalism.
The Coastal region of Kenya has witnessed ethno-religious conflicts and clashes as competing rival groups have been fighting over resources and ethnic (as well as political) interests. Islamic politics in the Coast, Upper Eastern and North-Eastern regions has been particularly polarizing as Islamist interests have sought to displace the existing political ethos.
HSM has targeted churches and other Christian establishments in Kenya in an attempt to stoke religious conflicts.
Ethno-nationalism at the coast has spawned off a secessionist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC); a movement whose objectives reveal a strong Islamist dynamics.
HSM has also exploited historical animosities among different tribes and religious communities in the nation to create a security crisis (in order to thin out the security forces) as well as turn communities against the government besides entrenching themselves within the local communities. In Mpeketoni, HSM pragmatically exploited local politics and historical animosities to conduct a brutal terrorist operation, a fact clearly depicted in their video documentary “No Protection Except by Emaan or Amaan 1 – Mpeketoni: Reclaiming Back Muslim Lands”.
5.                  National politics.
The fractious nature of the political process in Kenya alongside ethno-political partisanship among national politicians and political parties has enabled HSM to exploit the ensuing political wrangles to their advantage.
The ruling political party has prioritized political survival and political cronyism over national security; and has thus staffed key security establishments with (largely incompetent) political appointees as well as used the prevailing security crisis to crackdown on perceived political opposition by harassing political opponents and dissident voices. Furthermore, the government (which displays a strong ethnic bias) has also ignored valuable intelligence reports provided by European nations (especially from those which the government accuses of assisting its political opponents).
Raila Odinga, a national politician and leader of the main opposition party, has also been at the forefront of undermining Kenya’s national security through his political gimmicks, awkward pronouncements and flawed endorsements whose principal aims are to appease Muslims as well as humiliate the government.
Prominent Muslim politicians have consistently complained that the national political process is dominated by a strong Protestant Christian ethos which obscures the understanding of Islamic politics. Such pronouncements are made in bad faith and their intent is to manipulate the national political discourse to their advantage.
6.                  Inadequate Counter-terrorism Strategy.
The counter-terrorism strategy is plagued by poor intelligence, poor coordination across the different security departments, and lax implementation of effective counterterrorism measures. Kenya presently has an incompetent intelligence community which is peculiarly concerned with furthering the political objectives of the Jubilee Administration. Moreover, their poorly conceived intelligence reports have also been ignored thus hindering the pre-emption of (a small measure of) terror threats.
Poor intelligence and lax enforcement of security measures has allowed HSM to infiltrate entire fighting units into Kenyan soil, where they have been able to conduct surprise attacks, and thereafter retreat; as exemplified by the recent takeover of entire villages in Garissa and Mandera Counties in North-Eastern Kenya.
7.                  Corruption.
Corruption has played a significant role in ensuring that HSM survives economically in Kenya as well as hinder the dismantlement of its infrastructure in the nation. KPS (Kenya Police Service) officers and Border Patrol Unit officers have been implicated in instances of corruption that has allowed HSM agents to infiltrate the nation as well as gain territorial depth.
Existence of espionage cells within Kenya’s security forces cannot be discounted as it is a well-known fact that HSM has used money to buy allegiance of several security officers as well as compromise critical terror-related investigations besides gaining vital intelligence concerning the state of Kenya’s counter-terrorism efforts.
Al-Shabaab has recently conducted successful counter-intelligence operations among its ranks, sympathizers and subjects; and they have been able to untangle espionage cells as well as disrupt the flow of intelligence to counter-terrorism forces.  It is quite probable that double agents within Kenya assisted HSM in the disentanglement these espionage cells.
8.                  Economics and Poverty.
Radicalization of the Muslim youth has largely been facilitated by poverty and unemployment. Unemployed poor youth are plagued by idleness and the lots of free time; and this allows them to attend Islamist lectures where they are indoctrinated in violent takfiri/Wahabbi ideologies. Moreover, radical clerics and Islamist politicians have exploited the existing poverty, and paid young men to conduct surveillance and terror attacks as proxies.
           In the North-Eastern region, economic competition and toxic business practices have seen clans and businesspeople cooperate with al-Shabaab to counter business competition as well as sustain their smuggling networks. In Mandera, businesspeople have hired al-Shabaab militants to ruin their business rivals as well as safeguard their market monopolies.
9.                  Constitutional Constraints.
The constitution of Kenya limits the effectiveness of intelligence collection and utilization. Bureaucracy has also slowed the flow and sharing of intelligence information among security services. Furthermore, poor handling of terror-related cases has allowed shrewd lawyers to secure the release of most terror suspects.
The constitution also has legal loopholes which have been exploited by HSM and most importantly by its ideologues to spread the takfiri ideology. Mahad Omar has been arrested several times but he has always managed to secure his freedom by exploiting legal loopholes. He is thus still at large to spread jihadi indoctrination as well as foment intra-Islamic squabbles.
10.              Regional Instability.
An unstable Somalia allows HSM to regroup, reorganize and re-strategize. The Somali National Army is weak and non-committal to regional security. HSM is qualitatively more powerful than SNA (Somalia National Army), and this fact has allowed the terror group to establish operational bases in areas under SNA administration. KDF (Kenya Defence Forces) raw incompetence in Somalia has also allowed HSM to establish bases in Gedo region from where they ambush and kill Kenyan soldiers with abandon.
Al-Shabaab : Military Capabilities and Strategies.
War Flag of HSM

           The military strength of Al-Shabaab is currently estimated to be between 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. HSM has intelligence and media arms which assists the core units to project power as well as conduct information war. The group has also received reinforcements from Ansar al Mujahideen - a legion of foreign fighters originating mostly from Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros Islands and the Somali diaspora. There also exist Afghan, Arab and European fighters in the rank and file of the terror group. As such, the composition of Al-Shabaab is multi-ethnic in nature with its military strategies strongly grounded on Iraqi and Afghani mujahedeen insurgency doctrines.
The groups leadership is increasingly decentralized as the current emir, Ahmad Umar (alias Abu Ubaidah), seeks to conserve the group’s manpower through pre-empting internal conflicts as well as allowing regional commanders to utilize their own initiative to manage local operations.
Nonetheless, Al-Shabaab is weakening as internal factionalism, loss of popular support, and intra-leadership wrangles alongside defections and desertions have eroded the inherent military capabilities of the terror group. Nevertheless, HSM seeks to reinvent itself and plans to demonstrate its lethality in Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania.
Current assessments indicate that Al-Shabaab does not seek military victory as it is fighting for its very survival as a terror group that can subvert the nation as well as conduct surprise attacks against Kenyan security forces. This weakened posture has allowed ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) to make inroads within the rank and file of the terror group; and as such the emergence in Somalia of a new terror group affiliated to ISIL should not be discounted.
The Terrorist Campaign against Kenya.
The fall of Kismayo to KDF led to the stalling of the counter-terrorism offensive as AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) troops and KDF sought to consolidate their gains in light of constant Al-Shabaab retaliatory raids, ambushes and conventional counter-offensives. The stalling of the operations allowed Al-Shabaab to regroup, conduct post-combat damage assessments, reorganize and thereafter realign their strategies as per the available resources and existent opportunities. This proved critical to the insurgents as by 2013, they successfully managed to mount bold offensives against AMISOM troops. KDF offensives against Al-Shabaab in Lower and Middle Juba regions as well as the Bay area of Somalia achieved limited success as HSM still maintained military bases in the region – a fact that would have a sore impact for Kenya in 2014-2015.
Al-Shabaab internal purge in 2013 eliminated several pragmatic and experienced fighters from HSM ranks thus exposing the group’s core to defeat. Leading jihadists such as Abdul Hamid Hashi Olhayi and Ibrahim al-Afghani were killed alongside 200 Amniyaat operatives whose nationalist persuasion proved a liability to the terror group. Although the purge left HSM as a smaller fighting unit, it nonetheless left the terror group more unified and resolute as well as less vulnerable to espionage. Moreover, its revenue stream was unaffected thus assuring HSM greater financial and operational flexibility. Most importantly, the purge allowed extremist elements to dominate the leadership and decision-making bodies of HSM, and the resulting change of Concept of Operations brought forth brutal and ruthless terrorists tactics that would see HSM kill both Muslims and non-Muslims with abandon.
In mid-2013, Western Intelligence agencies warned Kenya that HSM planned to intensify its terror campaign against the country. Their assessment proved right as in September 2013, HSM operatives executed the infamous Westgate Mall attack. The Westgate Mall attack alongside the recent April 2015 Garissa University College Attack has exposed Kenya security agencies to international ridicule as well as revealed the poor security posture of the country.
Al-Shabaab has presently refocused its attention to Kenya as evidenced by the consistent release of audio-visual content geared towards the Kenyan Ummah. In March 2013, Ahmed Abdi Godane urged Kenyan Muslims (in an audio message) to boycott the elections and in turn wage war against KDF. In May 2014, HSM declared that its external focus was fully on Kenya. Days later, on June 10th 2014, Al-Shabaab affiliated gunmen assassinated Sheikh Mohammed Idriss, the then chairman of CIPK (Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya); thus ensuring the dominance of the takfiri discourse in mainstream Islam in the Coast region.
Al-Qaeda has also assisted HSM in its operations in the country. Nonetheless, the overt weakening of HSM induced al-Qaeda to carve out Al Muhajiroun from HSM in order to prolong the lifespan of the terrorist insurgency as well as enable al-Qaeda to project its power into East Africa. This strategy serves AQC (Al Qaeda Central) well as it will also thins out the security forces thus limiting concerted and dedicated counter-terrorism operations in Somalia.
Al-Shabaab ’s Media Front.
HSM conducts its public relations through a competent media front with its slick magazines – Gaidi Mtaani and Amka - proving useful in the dissemination of jihadist ideology. The magazines are visually powerful, professionally edited and its content feature well-argued commentaries as well as eloquent denunciations of Kenya’s security policies.
Gaidi Mtaani in particular has adept writers well versed in Kenya’s history and its polito-religious dynamics as well as a firm grasp on geopolitics as evidenced by their commentaries and assessments of Kenya’s national security policies along with the nation’s foreign policies. Its writers have even described Kenya as a “rented state” where foreign powers use the political elite as their proxies to exploit the native population. The magazine also featured essays which have argued that Al-Shabaab’s terrorist campaign in Kenya is a modern equivalent of Kenya’s struggle of independence from colonialists. This viewpoint particularly resonates well with MRC which considers the Kenyan government as an occupier colonial entity. Moreover, the magazine writers have also eloquently fused domestic issues, “historical injustices”, ethno-political animosities and transnational jihad into a single cohesive lively creed and thereafter presented it in a nuanced form to its audience. HSM has proved itself adept at formatting an international message into a palatable piece of information for the local audience.
Chief Al-Shabaab Figures in Kenya.
1.      Sheikh Ahmed Iman Ali: Was appointed as head of Al-Hijra, Al-Shabaab’s official affiliate in Kenya. Previously headed MYC and was a leading member of Pumwani Riyadha Mosque.
2.      Sheikh Hassan Mahad Omar: Serves as the spiritual leader of HSM as well as the current principal ideologue of jihad in Kenya.
Al-Shabaab’s Targets.
They can be divided into civilian and non-civilian targets.
Civilian targets:
1.      Transport resources such as buses and trains. They are also likely to use VBIED (Vehicle-Bound Improvised Explosive Devices) or individual suicide bombers to blow up bus stages especially when such areas are congested by passengers. They also intend to lob grenades into passenger vehicles.
2.      Government assets, that is; buildings, oil facilities, telecommunication and aviation assets.
3.      Commercial assets such as malls, shopping centers, restaurants, clubs, and fuel filling stations.
4.      Churches especially those located along the Coastal strip of Kenya and those in North-Eastern region.
5.      Education centers, especially Faith-based (Christian) schools, State-owned tertiary institutions; and privately-owned (by non-Muslims) educational institutions.
6.      Prominent personalities: HSM intends to assassinate prominent politicians (Ali Roba, the Mandera governor has survived numerous attempts on his life). They have also expressed their intention to assassinate the president, former president (Mwai Kibaki) and former Prime Minister (Raila Odinga).
Non-civilian targets:
1.      Police stations.
2.      Military patrols.
3.      Military bases.
HSM Tactics.
HSM has evolved various tactics and adapted them to specific environments and situations as enumerated below:
1.      Hostage-Sieges: HSM has used hostage-siege to execute mass casualty attacks as well as gain infamy. Hostage-sieges are conducted against confined built-up infrastructures which house a significant number of people.
2.      Suicide Attacks: This tactic is used to attack fortified military bases, police stations (for instance, the Pangani police station attack).
3.      Bombings: This is used to attack crowded places.
4.      Kidnappings: HSM has conducted mass abduction campaigns in Somalia, and they intend to extend their abduction campaigns to Kenya.
5.      Ambushes: Mainly targeted on military convoys or military-protected civilian convoys. HSM has also ambushed civilian transport resources in Mandera as well as ambushed quarry workers in the county. There exists a strong probability that HSM will conduct similar ambushes due to its publicity value as well as capabilities to disrupt normal way of life in a region besides creating a security crisis and an atmosphere of fear/despair.
6.      Assassinations: This tactic is used to eliminate prominent politicians, personalities, Christian clerics and Muslim clerics opposed to their ideology.
Known Al-Shabaab Locations in Kenya.
Al-Shabaab maintains presence in the following counties:
1.      Mombasa : Mainly concentrated in Majengo, Kisauni and Bondeni areas; and specifically in areas neighboring Masjid Musa, Masjid Guraya, Masjid Mlango wa Papa and Masjid Shuhadaa.
2.      Nairobi : They are mainly concentrated in Eastleigh and Majengo areas. It also maintains terror cells in Hurlingham and South C. Moreover, Eastleigh and Majengo areas are home to many ex-fighters who defected from HSM in Somalia. Most of them are still unemployed and there exists a possibility that they may revert back to HSM as a way of securing a source of income.
3.      Garissa: HSM runs several businesses in the town as well as uses proxies to conduct espionage of KDF and Kenyan security forces’ activities in the area.
4.      Mandera: Mandera has many HSM sympathizers, and local influential leaders have used HSM to conduct attacks on their competitors, thus inevitably allowing HSM to infiltrate the region.
5.      Wajir: The town has suffered Islamist attacks which indicate the presence of active HSM operatives (and their sympathizers) in the town and surrounding areas.
6.      South Coast regions: HSM maintains sleeper cells and agent provocateurs in areas plagued by MRC activities such as Kwale, Malindi, Mombasa, Tana River and Kilifi counties.
Kenya’s national security has been imperiled by terrorism. There exists dynamics which favor the propagation of terror ideology besides permitting Islamists to conduct terror activities in the nation. These dynamics include ethno-political factionalism, ineffective counter-terrorism strategies, lax implementation of security initiatives, poor coordination of security operations among security forces, polarized national politics and corruption; all of which have allowed external (alongside domestic) terrorist actors to spread Islamist ideology as well as indoctrinate the vulnerable Muslim youth thereby converting them into terrorists. Moreover, the geostrategic parity of Kenya has increased the media visibility of the nation thus allowing terrorists to manipulate the media to amplify the psychological effects of their terror activities.
Al-Shabaab is currently on the retreat and its apparent weakness is recognized by its commanders who therefore do not seek military victory but are instead interested in ensuring the survival of the terror group as well as conserving its capabilities to subvert nations besides sustaining a terrorist campaign against Kenyan and regional security forces.
Kenyan security forces have showcased unforgivable incompetence in their attempts to stabilize the security situation in the country as demonstrated by the recurring high-profile terror attacks (that have elicited travel advisories). Definitely, more needs to be done to secure the nation.
1.      Hasten the destruction of HSM terror infrastructure in Somalia through joint counter-terrorism efforts as well as protect the homeland by degrading known terrorist infrastructure in the country.
2.      There is an urgent need to review the national counter-terrorism strategy with a view of implementing pragmatic security measures. The security measures must be as neutral as possible to avoid the politicization of counter-terrorism efforts as well as to avert stoking undesirable religious passions.
3.      Enhance security vigilance in crowded soft targets such as shopping malls, churches, restaurants, outdoor events, bus parks and rallies.
4.      Reform the Kenya Police, KDF and the intelligence agencies - including overhauling entire departments staffed by unskilled, incompetent and hopelessly inept officers.
5.      Tackle corruption, especially among the security forces.
6.      Ensure intelligence reports are acted upon.
7.      Enhance border security through increased patrols and use of access-control barriers in areas used by terrorists to infiltrate the country.
8.      Strengthening enforcement of relevant legislations alongside consolidating the National Intelligence Service Act as well as conducting efficient surveillance on terror suspects and associates.
9.      Mobilize popular support for counterterrorism efforts and security initiatives, as well as create security awareness among civilians.
10.  Decimating the virtual terrorist infrastructure including its social media infrastructure as well as shutting down their online media outlets thus limiting the effectiveness of HSM information warfare.
11.  Allocate adequate resources to the various security departments as well as upgrade their training in order to ensure they effectively execute their mandate.
12.  Engage and foster good relations with moderate Muslim clerics and Islamic scholars in order to counter Islamist ideology and also de-radicalize Islamist youth.
13.  De-politicization and de-ethnicization of the security sector with the aim of allowing meritocracy to guide appointments.

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