Al-Shabaab’s Theatre of Death and Destruction Comes to Nairobi, Again February 12, 2019 – Posted in: Guest Post – Tags: , ,

Four weeks have passed since explosives and gunfire ripped through the DusitD2 on the afternoon of Tuesday, January 15. The attack shattered the usual tranquility of the upscale hotel and office complex in the Westlands neighbourhood of Nairobi. The siege on the compound lasted nearly 20 hours. A haven for Western expats, NGO workers and well-to-do Kenyans, the DusitD2 was a prime target for a terrorist group in desperate need of international media attention. 21 people were confirmed dead including the attackers.

The Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab took responsibility for the attack. Always seeking international relevance, the group said in a statement that the Nairobi attack was in revenge for U.S President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This announcement seemed like a shameless attempt to garner the support of the larger international jihadi movement.

Al-Shabab, which has historically pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, has been the preeminent jihadist group in East Africa, a position that has allowed it to be a de facto civil administration in many parts of southern Somalia. In these areas, al-Shabaab collects taxes; runs schools and orphanages; and controls Sharia courts that routinely dole out extremely harsh punishment including cutting the hands of thieves and stoning to death accused adulterers.

Al-Shabaab originally started as a national organization with purely local political aims. Its primary goal is to topple the Western backed federal government of Somalia and replace it with a strict Islamist state. However, when African Union troops from neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Burundi come to Somalia to help establish a viable national government and to root out the threat of terrorism in the region, al-Shabaab started conducting attacks in some of the countries that make up the African Union force.

One of the first attacks by al-Shabaab outside Somalia came in July 2010 when it carried out double suicide bombings in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Targeting two crowded cafes where revelers were enjoying the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final match, the gruesome attack left 74 dead and close to a hundred wounded.

The group was also behind one of the deadliest terror bombings in Kenya’s history in 2013 when it attacked Westgate Mall, killing over 70 people. Two years later, came the Garissa University assault in 2015 that killed 148 people, most of them students.

The most recent attack at the DusitD2 complex came as a shocking reminder of al-Shabaab’s potency after several years of relative calm in Kenya. This period of quiet had lulled many in East Africa into thinking that al-Shabaab was, if not defeated, then at least in its death throes.

In the past several years, Somali national army and African Union troops have degraded the strength of the Islamist-insurgent group. And since the election of Donald Trump, U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) has stepped up its airstrikes and drone attacks against suspected Shabaab fighters. AFRICOM has also expanded its presence in the country with a buildup of military bases and personnel.

Currently led by Ahmad Umar who took over the reins of the group after its former leader Ahmed Abdi Godane was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2014, al-Shabaab has continued to lose territories that were once firmly in its control. Along with loss of territory, al-Shabaab has suffered several high profile defections in recent years. In 2017, one of the group’s founding members and deputy leader, Mukhtar Robow, defected and handed himself over to the federal government. Though it’s difficult to gain an accurate picture of al-Shabaab’s current size, security analysts estimate the group to have between 5,000 to 7,000 fighters.

Politically, al-Shabaab continues to lose support with the average Somali. This is especially true since October 14, 2017 when the group conducted its deadliest attack in the country that killed over 500 civilians in a single car bomb in the capital.

Al-Shabaab has also been experiencing challenges in recruiting new fighters. Early on in its insurgency, it successfully recruited untold number of young Somali men from abroad in far-flung locales, including Kenya, England, Sweden. Canada, and the U.S..  However, with greater scrutiny of Somali communities in the Europe and North America, the pool of diaspora recruits has dried up. As a result, the group has in recent years resorted to forced recruitments and abductions of young men from villages and towns across south and central Somalia. According to the United Nations Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, published in May of last year, al-Shabaab recruited 1,770 children in 2017 alone. The group “used detention, violence and threats to force family members, teachers and elders to hand over their children,” said the report.

Despite the group’s somewhat degraded capabilities and loss of support among the vast majority of Somalis, one thing has become clear with latest attack in Nairobi: Al-Shabaab remains a potent, deadly force able to strike both in Somalia and in neighbouring countries at will.

Even as the siege at the DusitD2 complex was ongoing, the usual recriminations and finger pointing started with some security analysts pointing to gaps in the Kenyan security apparatus. The grieving public also took to Twitter to express its anger at international media organizations such as the New York Times for publishing gruesome photos of the victims. However, lost amidst all the angry finger pointing is the fact that innocent people were brutally massacred, many in the prime of their lives.

Among the young people whose short lives were snuffed out were Feisal Ahmed and Abdalla Dahir, two close friends who were inseparable in life as they were in death. The two Somali-Kenya development consults were having lunch together at the Secret Garden restaurant in the compound when the suicide bomber struck. Ahmed’s widow was seven months pregnant at the time of his killing.

Jason Spindler was an American tech CEO who survived the September 11 World Trade Centre terror attack in New York in 2001. He moved to Kenya to start I-Dev International, an organization focused on financial innovations to reduce poverty.

Luke Potter also recently moved to Nairobi, from Britain. He was the Africa programs director of the charity Gatsby Africa. The organization in a statement said that Potter played an “instrumental role in establishing the organization’s forestry program in Kenya.”

Cellulant, a technology start-up was one of the hardest hit organizations in the attack. It lost 6 of its employees. Dubbed in the local media as the “Selfless Six,” the men helped many of their coworkers to safety but paid the ultimate price in the process.

These snippets of biographical details of just a few of the DusitD2 attack victims could never pay a fitting tribute to their lives. Each one of the victims had families and friends who loved them. Each one had a unique story, and dreams that will never be realized. And ultimately, this is terrorism’s greatest crime: the wanton, almost gleeful annihilation of souls that can never be replaced.

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