The April 2 attack in Garissa, Kenya, was the deadliest and most heinous atrocity the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab has ever committed.
Gunmen from Al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Horn of Africa stormed a university campus in the city, killing 147 people after an hours-long siege. It’s the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi in which 224 people were killed.
The terrorist attack demonstrates an ongoing security threat in one of the most stable and prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa — and it shows how jihadist groups can remain dangerous even as they lose territory and leadership.
Garissa is a mid-sized city 230 miles from Nairobi and a little over 60 miles from Dadaab, the former desert rest stop that’s now home to the world’s largest refugee camp.
On Twitter, Colby College political science professor Laura Seay noted the extraordinary sacrifice it requires for a family to even send someone to college in a place so much closer to Kenya’s arid and impoverished eastern desert frontier than it is to just about any of its major cities.
“Today’s loss is immeasurable,” she tweeted.
Al Shabaab didn’t just choose the softest of targets; it attacked a place where it could wipe out as many young, promising, and educated people as it possibly could.
In the Westgate Mall attack in September of 2013, Shabaab struck at the heart of Kenyan business and trade, attacking Nairobi’s famed status as east Africa’s cosmopolitan crossroads. The Garissa attack was even deadlier and perhaps even grimmer in its messaging. Shabaab struck Kenyan society where they knew it would hurt the most.
The Garissa attack is shocking for yet another reason. Al Shabaab has repeatedly struck outside of its safe haven in southern Somalia over the past year, carrying out a series of gun attacks around the coastal town of Mpeketoni, Kenya, that killed over 60 people during the summer of 2014.
It’s retained its external attack capabilities and command structure despite suffering what would seem to be a series of debilitating setbacks. In January, the former head of Shabaab internal intelligence, who had earlier surrendered himself to Somali authorities, publicly denounced terrorism and urged his former colleagues to lay down their arms.
A September 2014 drone strike killed Ahmed Godane, Shabaab’s domineering leader and one of the most-wanted terrorists in Africa. Another drone strike on March 18 killed Adnan Garaar, the head of Shabaab’s external operations and the mastermind of the Westgate attack.
But Shabaab has forged a new model for how declining terrorist groups can remain dangerous, as analyst Clint Watts argued in a World Politics Review article published just before the Garissa massacre.
Shabaab has done nothing but splinter, vacate territory, and lose top leadership since ruling over most of Somalia and nearly all of its capital, Mogadishu, in 2010. Even so, Watts observes that “a sizeable military coalition is still fighting in the Horn of Africa more than four years after the group’s zenith,” a reference to an ongoing African Union military mission in Somalia in which Kenya is a longtime participant.
Shabaab has kept itself intact by retreating into the southern Somali wilderness and refocusing its efforts around large-scale attacks rather than holding or governing massive swaths of territory. Just a week before the Garissa attack, Shabaab killed over 20 people during a raid on a hotel in Mogadishu, including a Somali diplomat.
Even after years of decline, Shabaab has a remote safe haven that’s preserved its ability to pull off large-scale attacks in multiple countries in consecutive weeks.
More worrying is Shabaab’s deep network in neighboring Kenya, which is home to a sizable Somali minority as well as refugees from Somalia’s devastating famine, which had killed over a quarter-million people by 2013 and was greatly exacerbated by Shabaab’s refusal to allow aid groups into areas it controlled.
As Caroline Hellyer wrote for Al Jazeera two weeks before the Garissa attack, Shabaab’s relationship with a “hardline underground group” called al-Hijra gives it a ready-made network in Kenya and Tanzania, allowing it to recruit extremist elements well beyond Somalia.
One grim upshot of the Garissa attack is that it demonstrates Shabaab’s broad operational capabilities in Kenya, East Africa’s cultural, economic, and political leader and a US strategic ally. The region doesn’t have to deal with a Shabaab-ruled Somalia — but it may have swapped that problem for a Shabaab that has even greater ambitions to strike outside of its diminished Somali safe haven.
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