In the past few weeks, Shabaab, Al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, has carried out a series of attacks in northeastern Kenya. Since the beginning of the year, the jihadist group has been engaged in constant operations within the country.
As of May 21, three Kenyan police officers were killed in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion in Mandera County. In his claim, Shabaab said that “the mujahideen killed 13 Kenyan crusaders in an ambush in Mandera County, 12 of whom were killed in an explosion while one policeman was shot dead by the mujahideen.”
The group routinely increases the casualty rate in the vast majority of their claims.
Then, on May 18, at least 8 Kenyan soldiers were killed by another IED explosion and subsequent ambush on a main road in Lamu County. At least 12 other soldiers were wounded. In Shabaab’s claim to responsibility for the attack, the numbers that said “20 Kenyan soldiers were killed” in an ambush have been increased again.
Not long after this strike, the Kenyan Armed Forces (KDF) launched a major operation in Boni Forest, Shabaab’s longtime stronghold in Lamu County. However, little is known about the overall effectiveness of this operation. The jihadists have not pushed past military raids from the reserve.
On May 12, three Shabaab Kenyan police reservists were killed in attacks on cell phone towers in Mandera County. And just two days earlier, Kenyan forces clashed with Shabaab forces when they tried to destroy a communications mast in neighboring Lamu County. The Kenyan authorities said the jihadists were repulsed in both cases.
These recent strikes are the result of increased security in northeast counties, and Mandera county in particular, since January. That month, Shabaab attacked a passenger bus, kidnapped three people after detonating an IED on their vehicle, and destroyed a telecommunications tower and other infrastructure.
And in December 2020, the group attacked and destroyed a police station, detonated an IED in an ambulance and brutally murdered a local chief. This execution took place after Shabaab fighters entered the Gumarey area in Kenya’s Wajir County to educate the locals.
Shabaab in Kenya
Shabaab has been operating in Kenya for a long time, but these latest operations come after several years of increased pace of operations within the country from 2017 onwards.
These operations are primarily located in the northern and eastern counties of Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Lamu and Tana River. In 2019, The Standard reported that at least 100 Kenyan security guards had been killed by Shabaab’s IEDs in those countries since 2016.
The attack rate in northeastern Kenya also underscores the level of control and influence the group has in the aforementioned countries. Earlier this year, Ali Roba, the governor of Mandera County in Kenya, was open about losing control of much of its territory.
According to the governor, “Shabaab has taken control of more than 50 percent of the land mass in northern Kenya.” Speaking of his own county of Mandera, he added, “Shabaab manages more than 60 percent of Mandera with the will of the public suppressed by terror.”
However, Shabaab also retains the option to strike within the Kenyan capital, as evidenced by the attack on the DusitD2 hotel in 2019. In late 2020, Kenyan officials announced that other attack plans had been disrupted.
The al-Qaeda branch was also able to strike inside the main US Kenyan base in the northeast at Manda Bay airfield in Lamu County. One US soldier and two US contractors died in the attack, and many aircraft were destroyed.
The DusitD2 raid as well as the aforementioned Manda Bay attack were featured in Shabaab’s recent propaganda.
The group continues to routinely lambast Kenya in its media, including a video just this week showing a Kenyan soldier captured in the 2016 El Adde attack in Somalia, showing the country’s remaining relevance to the jihadist group.
This importance is more than evident on the ground, as Shabaab continues to expand its activities and activities in northeastern Kenya and significantly widen the conflict outside of southern Somalia.
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