By Scott Stewart
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, released a message April 23 informing U.S. citizens in the country that it had received credible information regarding a possible attack against Nairobi hotels and prominent Kenyan government buildings. According to the message, the embassy has reason to believe the attack is in the last stages of the attack planning cycle.
The warning comes as thousands of Kenyan troops occupy much of southern Somalia. Along with a force of Ethiopian troops, local militias and a contingent of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops, the Kenyans are placing heavy pressure on al Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked Somali militant group in southern Somalia.
This external military pressure has exacerbated frictions within al Shabaab between nationalist and transnationalist elements. Mukhtar Robow, aka Abu Mansur, leads the nationalist faction, which is based in the Bay and Bakool regions. Ahmad Abdi Godane, aka Abu Zubayr, leads the transnationalist faction, which is based in Kismayo.
It has been almost two years since we last examined al Shabaab's interest in conducting and ability to carry out transnational terrorist operations. The current warning in Nairobi provides a convenient opportunity to do so once again.
Al Qaeda in East Africa and the Birth of al Shabaab
Al Qaeda and Somali militants have long interacted. In a 1997 CNN interview, Osama bin Laden told Peter Bergen that his fighters helped the Somali militants in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu, the events memorialized in Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999). Bin Laden and a good portion of the al Qaeda leadership relocated to Sudan in 1992, where they remained until 1996. During that period, they established a network of business and operational contacts across East Africa. By that point, they had trained militants in camps in Afghanistan for years. They could well have had operatives in Mogadishu in 1993 and could have provided training to militants involved in the incident.
After leaving Sudan in 1996, al Qaeda maintained its network in East Africa. It used the network to plan and execute the August 7, 1998, twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Nairobi attack proved deadlier. A massive vehicle-borne improvised device (VBIED) heavily damaged the embassy in Nairobi and several nearby buildings, including the adjacent Ufundi Cooperative Plaza, a high-rise that collapsed from the blast. The attack killed 213 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded some 4,000 others.
Some of the men allegedly affiliated with the 1998 attacks, such as Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Abu Taha al-Sudani and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, would later be accused of planning and executing the Nov. 28, 2002, attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, in which a VBIED was used to target the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel and two SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles were launched at an Israeli Boeing 757 passenger jet departing Mombasa's airport. The missiles missed the aircraft, perhaps due to countermeasures, but the VBIED killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis.
Abdullah Mohammed, al-Sudani and Nabhan all fled to Somalia, where they worked with and were protected by organizations, such as al-Ittihad al-Islam, a long-standing Somali militant group later folded into the Supreme Islamic Courts Council (SICC), formerly the Islamic Courts Union. When Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in late 2006 and overthrew the SICC, many of the more hardcore elements joined the SICC youth wing, al Shabaab, which then became a separate militant organization. As noted, al Shabaab is not a unified organization. Instead, it comprises several factions led by individual warlords who each adhere to a slightly different ideology. The al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters in Somalia tend to associate with the more transnationally minded militants, such as the group led by Godane.
Since al Shabaab's spinoff, al-Sudani was killed in an airstrike in southern Somalia in January 2007. Nabhan was killed by a helicopter ambush in southern Somalia in September 2009, and Abdullah Mohammed was reportedly shot at a police checkpoint in Mogadishu in June 2011.
Al Shabaab Attacks Outside Somalia
Just over a month after we published our assessment of al Shabaab as a transnational threat, the group conducted suicide bomb attacks against two targets in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11, 2010. The attacks, which targeted people watching a World Cup soccer match, reportedly killed 74 and wounded another 70.
Shortly thereafter, al Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage claimed credit for the attacks, saying they were a response to Uganda's participation in AMISOM. Rage threatened additional attacks against Uganda and also threatened Burundi, which has furnished forces for AMISOM. But the group has not followed up on these threats, and there have been no additional attacks in Uganda or attacks in Burundi.
Kampala is not the only regional capital where militants associated with, or sympathetic to, al Shabaab have conducted attacks. On Oct. 24, 2011, a Kenyan who claimed to be affiliated with al Shabaab conducted two hand-grenade attacks in Nairobi, one at a bus stop and the second at a disco. The attacks killed one person and wounded 20 others. Then on March 10, several hand grenades were thrown at a busy bus stop in central Nairobi while a bus was loading passengers headed to Kampala. That attack killed six and wounded 63. Kenyan officials have called the March 10 attack the deadliest terrorist attack in Nairobi since the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing.
To date, the attacks in Nairobi involved only grenades and were all directed against soft targets (as were the Kampala attacks). In Somalia, by contrast, al Shabaab has carried out devastating attacks against hard targets. For example, on Feb. 22, 2009, the group launched a suicide VBIED attack against an AMISOM base in Mogadishu that killed 11 Burundian soldiers. On Sept. 17, 2009, a suicide VBIED attack against the AMISOM headquarters at the Mogadishu airport killed 21, including AMISOM's deputy commander, and wounded 40. And on Oct. 4, 2011, al Shabaab detonated a massive VBIED outside a compound that housed government offices in Mogadishu. The attack killed at least 65 people and wounded hundreds of others. Al Shabaab can also conduct standoff attacks with rocket-propelled grenades or mortars launched at hardened targets, as seen by the frequent targeting of the presidential compound in Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab has also shown the ability to attack hotels in Mogadishu. On Dec. 3, 2009, a suicide bomber dressed as a woman attacked a graduation ceremony in a hotel meeting room and killed some 20 people, including four government ministers. On Aug. 24, 2010, al Shabaab gunmen disguised as government security forces conducted an armed assault on a hotel near the presidential palace in Mogadishu that killed 30, including seven parliament members and two government officials. On Feb. 8, 2012, a suicide VBIED was rammed into a cafe outside the Muna Hotel, killing 11.
Capability and Intent
Whenever judging the threat posed by a group, one must examine its capabilities and its intent to conduct such an attack. In this case, we need to look at al Shabaab's capability and intent to attack prominent government buildings and hotels in Nairobi.
Al Shabaab has proved that it can conduct attacks against soft targets in Nairobi. The group has also demonstrated the ability to strike soft targets in Kampala, though it has not shown the ability to follow up on its threats to conduct attacks in Burundi. Inside Somalia, the group is capable of conducting devastating attacks against hardened targets and against hotels in Mogadishu, as outlined above.
It is interesting to note that two days prior to the Oct. 24, 2011, Nairobi grenade attacks, the U.S. government posted a warning that the U.S. Embassy in Kenya had received "credible information of an imminent threat of terrorist attacks directed at prominent Kenyan facilities and areas where foreigners are known to congregate such as malls and night clubs." In the wake of the warning, it appears the attackers redirected from high-profile malls and places where foreigners congregate toward softer targets in the form of a low-profile local bar and a bus stop. This is perhaps due to the increased security at high-profile venues because of the warning and Kenyan government initiatives to crack down on al Shabaab in Somali neighborhoods in Nairobi. Likewise, the March 10 attacks were against a bus stop, which is a soft target as well. This suggests the attackers were either unable — or unwilling — to target a more heavily secured facility. Notably, none of the incidents in Kenya were suicide attacks.
The wording in the April 23 warning is similar to that of the October 2011 warning, and the October 2011 warning proved accurate. Therefore, the U.S. Embassy likely has received credible information that another plot is being planned. Unless the attackers change their mode of attack, they are highly unlikely to succeed in targeting a prominent government building or a hotel housing Westerners — especially in the wake of the warning, which undoubtedly has resulted in increased security at such sites.
To change their mode of attack from those using merely grenades to an attack that could damage a government building or a well-secured hotel, such as an attack involving a VBIED, al Shabaab would have to devote significant resources. While al Qaeda was able to do this in Nairobi in 1998, the present security environment in Kenya is quite different. While ordnance is still available in the country, it is far more difficult to obtain a large quantity of explosives today than it was in 1998. Even smuggling them in from Somalia in small batches would be a difficult, though not impossible, task.
For al Shabaab to undertake such a process, it would need good operational security, something that would be difficult to achieve given the fractious nature of the jihadist movement in Somalia. As the warning prior to the October 2011 attack demonstrated, there was an intelligence leak somewhere.
Furthermore, al Shabaab would have to expect significant benefits from such an attack to warrant such a risky mission. And it is doubtful they would. At present, Kenyan troops with the help of local Ras Kamboni militants have occupied a buffer zone in southern Somalia, but they have not made much effort to approach al Shabaab bases in cities farther southwest than Afmadow, such as Kismayo. The Kenyan public has been quite outspoken about the price tag attached to the Somali Surge, known as Operation Linda Nchi. Many Kenyans consider it an expensive venture that adds to the country's mounting debt. A repeat of the August 1998 bombing, only this time directed against a Kenyan government ministry, could radically change public opinion, steeling it in favor of dramatic military action against al Shabaab. Even though the current Kenyan military offensive has been poorly supported and planned, an angry Kenyan public could see the military offensive become much more aggressive, directly targeting al Shabaab. The issue would also gain notable political traction in the unfolding 2013 Kenyan presidential election.
Because of this dynamic, it seems the group is more likely to take any explosives it could devote toward a VBIED attack in Kenya and use them to conduct attacks against Kenyan forces in Somalia to make their presence in Somalia as uncomfortable — and bloody — as possible. The goal would be to influence Kenyan morale enough to encourage them to withdraw. Kenya, and specifically Nairobi, is also an important financial and logistical hub for al Shabaab. If the group did something to rouse the anger of the Kenyan government and alienate the population, its ability to use Kenya as a logistical hub for its operations in Somalia could be severely hampered.
Due to the importance of al Shabaab's Islamic base in Nairobi, Kenya's backlash against that community has been a point of concern in intra-al Shabaab politics. Notably, al Shabaab has denied responsibility for the past attacks in Nairobi, blaming them instead on its supporters. A major attack in Nairobi demonstrating an advanced degree of terrorist capability would make it difficult for the group to deny responsibility.
Even if al Shabaab could somehow muster the capability to conduct a spectacular attack in Nairobi, it would seem unlikely it would want to conduct a spectacular attack inside Kenya. We therefore believe it will stick to low-level attacks in Kenya for the foreseeable future.