Al-Shabaab losing ground but war far from over

Wednesday January 16 2019

People leaving DusitD2 Hotel on January 15, 2019

People leaving DusitD2 Hotel on January 15, 2019 following an attack by suspected terrorists. PHOTO | KENNEDY KIMANTHI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JOHN KAMAU
By JOHN KAMAU
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14 Riverside Drive was posh, quiet and serene — until the terrorists arrived at 3pm, hurled grenades into the compound and set three cars ablaze, as they shot their way into the swanky block.

Within minutes, the DusitD2 complex, an urbane upper-class block with offices, a hotel and restaurants, was desecrated by shadowy figures and, by the time of going to press, several people lay dead and scores of others were injured but the attackers had not been identified.

If Al-Shabaab, which controls mostly rural areas in southern Somalia, under a strict interpretation of Sharia law, is responsible for Tuesday's attack, it only proves that the war on terror is far from over.

ACTIVE HOSTILITIES

The DusitD2 hotel complex attack happened on the third anniversary of the El Adde attack in Somalia, which saw Somali militia overrun an African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) army base on January 15, 2016, killing more than 100 soldiers, according to unofficial figures.

It comes at a time that the US has stepped up attacks on the terror group after Donald Trump’s White House allowed the Pentagon to expand its fight against the militants without seeking high-level vetting on Al-Shabaab in "areas of active hostilities" in Somalia. Of late, there have been increased attacks by aircraft, as well as deployment of the first US troops in Somalia since 1993, to "advise and assist" the government troops.

More so, the US Africa Command (Africom) carried out more than 46 confirmed air strikes in Somalia in 2018. But whether this has minimised the terror group's ability to plot attacks remains to be seen — although Al-Shabaab is known to carry out high- profile raids any time it is under severe pressure, according to security sources.

Ever since the El Adde attack, the terror group has been trying to conduct attacks in Nairobi with little success. In February last year, police reported that they had foiled a major attack in Nairobi after they arrested several armed suspects in Merti, Isiolo, as they headed to Nairobi.

The terrorists had hired a room in a hotel opposite Nairobi’s Central Police Station and two people, suspected to be members of an Al-Shabaab cell, were also arrested. It was not clear which buildings had been targeted.

BALL BEARINGS

In June 2017, security forces in the Somali town of Bula Hawa, near the Kenyan border, arrested six suspects, among them two Kenyans, as they drove towards Kenya with bomb-making materials, including TNT and fragmentation-generating objects, including nails, ball bearings and shrapnel.

This was followed by a massive two-truck attack at the heart of Mogadishu in October 2017, which killed more than 500 people — a raid that proved the decade-long war with the Islamist extremists was far from over.

The DusitD2 attack is one of the high-profile raids by Al-Shabaab at the heart of Nairobi since the Westgate shopping mall attack in 2013 that left more than 70 people dead and the Garissa University College attack in 2015 where more than 200 people died. Before that, the terror group had been targeting remote villages — the most notable being the June 2014 attack at Mpeketoni that left more than 60 dead.

Ever since, the Shabaab have been conducting blast-and-run attacks by mainly targeting soldiers in Lamu and lone civilians near the border towns. They have also been ambushing passenger vehicles and executing non-locals.

But security agents have disrupted most of the cells operating in the country through multi-agency counter-terror strategies.

DISRUPTED CELLS

The Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) went to Somalia in October 2011 under the aegis of “Operation Linda Nchi” after the terror group started targeting Kenyan installations and civilians. The incursions started after the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers at the Dadaab refugee camp and days after kidnapping a French woman in Lamu.

Seven years after the entry of the KDF troops in Somalia — and their later incorporation into the African Mission in Somalia — Al-Shabaab has been restricted to rural areas with occasional, but deadly, attacks in urban areas.

But the mission has been grappling with major challenges, because Western countries are not willing to put their boots on the ground, leaving only African troops to battle the terror group — which has the support of the Al-Qaeda.

While it is under-funded and remains one of the world’s largest deployment of peacekeepers (there are over 22,000 personnel), Amisom remains a deadly peace operation with six African countries on board.

But it is Kenya that has borne the brunt of the group’s frustrations in its bid to get rid of the federal government in Mogadishu and put in place its own Sharia-based government.