The first-ever attack by Somali militant group al Shabaab on U.S. military forces in Kenya portends an intensified focus by the group on American targets and potentially greater insecurity in East Africa. Jihadist militants from the group stormed Camp Simba on Jan. 5, killing a U.S. service member and two contractors and destroying several aircraft and helicopters. Al Shabaab's first-ever attack on a U.S. military installation in Somalia occurred just a few months ago, and it has previously killed Americans in attacks on soft targets in Kenya.
Somalia, Kenya and other East African countries have been struggling against an al Shabaab-led insurgency for over a decade, with no end in sight. This fight has cost thousands of lives, undermined governments and drawn in a variety of external actors ranging from the United States to al Qaeda. Although Washington still wants to degrade and destroy transnational jihadist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, its increasing focus on great power competition with competitors such as China and Russia threatens to draw manpower and resources away from this fight, giving these groups a new lease on life.
The latest attack and al Shabaab's subsequent statements highlight the group's shift to focus on attacking American interests, just as Washington is shifting its own focus away from Africa — a process that more such attacks could hasten. Less U.S. involvement and growing instability in the region will leave foreign interests and local governments more exposed to the militants.
Motivations and Capabilities
Growing U.S. military pressure against the group is the main reason for al Shabaab's intensified interest in hitting U.S. targets. According to the New America Foundation, U.S. airstrikes in Somalia, which primarily target al Shabaab, rose from 16 in 2016 to 38 in 2017, 43 in 2018 and 64 in 2019. Al Shabaab has responded in the hopes of convincing the United States to back off, or even better, to pull its troops from the region as it did in the Sahel after a September 2017 attack by Islamic State militants in Niger that led the United States subsequently to reduce its footprint in West Africa.
Other, preexisting reasons it has for targeting Americans include U.S. support for the Somali government, the U.S. provision of training and other military support to Kenya, and the main al Qaeda node's belief that the United States represents the primary "far enemy." (Al Shabaab is a local affiliate of al Qaeda.)
Al Shabaab was in a position to act on these ambitions and attack U.S. forces in Kenya because of its expanded abilities, which increasingly allow it to project power beyond its home base in Somalia. Successfully striking a fortified military target, particularly a U.S. base, in Kenya requires significantly more resources and coordination than what is needed for an attack against a soft target in Kenya or a military target in Somalia.
The recent uptick in the geographic reach and tempo of al Shabaab's attacks also underscore its expanded abilities: Within 10 days, it executed a high-profile string of attacks. These included at least two other attacks elsewhere in Kenya, a Jan. 8 suicide bombing near Somalia's parliament and a Dec. 28, 2019, attack in Mogadishu that killed over 80 people. Separate cells likely carried out each attack, as per al Shabaab's typical modus operandi.
Al Shabaab's strong roots within Somalia's clan structure, perseverance in the face of losses over the years, including the death of multiple leaders, and adroit exploitation of its enemies' weaknesses all point to why the group poses a formidable threat. The same goes for its success in thwarting Somali government efforts to secure Mogadishu and Kenyan efforts to secure its porous border with Somalia, as well as its ability to withstand increasing U.S. airstrikes.
What the Future Holds for the Group and Region
Al Shabaab's attacks promote its overall strategy of undermining the Somali government, driving foreign influence out of Somalia and, ultimately, establishing an Islamic emirate in East Africa. The militant group will remain a robust, and perhaps growing, force in Somalia and Kenya for the foreseeable future as the factors empowering it remain in place, especially as outside forces are in no position to quell it.
Faced with the prospect of a seemingly endless quagmire in Somalia and sustained attacks, the U.S. government could decide the time and effort in East Africa are simply not worth it.
Worryingly for al Shabaab's enemies, the pressure the group has faced from the United States, Kenya, the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and others has failed to roll it back — and might well slacken in the future. Meanwhile, the group's increased focus on the United States will increase the threat to U.S. military forces, tourists, travelers and businesses in the region. While the risk is much more acute in Somalia and along the Kenyan-Somali border, the group has pulled off attacks in major Kenyan cities like Nairobi, Garissa and Lamu.
Faced with the prospect of a seemingly endless quagmire in Somalia and sustained attacks, the U.S. government could decide the time and effort in East Africa are simply not worth it. As Washington shifts its military focus to great power competition with China and Russia, resources for counterterrorism missions are dwindling. As the United States reallocates its counterterrorism resources, it may deprioritize East Africa in favor of Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State is seeking to reemerge; Afghanistan; or other theaters.
This will prompt AMISOM to accelerate its withdrawal from Somalia in 2021. At present, no force stands ready to fill the void left by AMISOM. Ethiopia might be able to, but its thorny history in Somalia and domestic problems make it unlikely to do so unilaterally. This will give al Shabaab freer rein within Somalia, allowing it to marshal its resources and seek to expand its area of operations. Needless to say, this will make Somalia even less safe and even more unattractive to investors.