More than two years after Kenya sent troops to neighboring Somalia to fight al-Qaeda-linked militants, it’s now battling to contain intensifying attacks by suspected Islamist insurgents on its home soil.
Bombings that struck the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and the coastal town of Mombasa this month were followed by a threat by the al-Shabaab group last week to take its war to Kenya and Uganda because of their military presence in Somalia.
The Kenyan authorities have had little success in stopping the attacks, which show a greater level of sophistication than previous bombings with the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, according to Ahmed Salim, a senior associate at Dubai-based Teneo Intelligence. The Kenyan shilling weakened to a 2 1/2-year low this week as increased violence may deter tourists, the East African nation’s second-biggest source of foreign currency after tea exports.
“These guys are much more trained than initially thought,” Salim said by phone. “The Kenyan government and most East African governments probably underestimated their capabilities and the amount of support and the networks they have inside Kenya.”
Twin blasts killed 12 people in a Nairobi market on May 16, the second series of bombings in the city in two weeks. In April, a car bomb exploded near a Nairobi police station, killing two officers and the two occupants.
The same day that al-Shabaab’s Sheikh Fuad Mohamed Khalaf vowed to bring war to Kenya and Uganda, a police officer and civilian were injured in Mombasa by a grenade explosion.
“It doesn’t seem to me the government really has a handle on what is going on,” Rashid Abdi, an independent Horn of Africa analyst formerly with International Crisis Group, said by phone from Nairobi. “It looks like they lack initiative and the government is simply responding and not dismantling networks. That is not a good situation.”
While President Uhuru Kenyatta said on May 16 that “terrorism is not an evil that was born in Kenya,” East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism Secretary Phyllis Kandie said the government is making progress by working with international allies to fight the militants.
Kenyan air force jets last week bombed the southern Somali town of Jilib in an operation that the African Union peacekeeping mission in the country said killed at least 50 al-Shabaab militants.
Kenya’s security agency chiefs met on May 26 and agreed to increase cooperation between the National Intelligence Service, the police and the army through greater information sharing, increased dialog and more collaboration on training to deal with the threat of attacks. More meetings will be held this week.
A series of security contracts signed with what the Law Society of Kenya said were fake companies in the late 1990s and early 2000s, known as the “Anglo-Leasing scandal,” hindered Kenya’s ability to respond to attacks, according to Sir Edward Clay, a former British high commissioner to Kenya.
“All these dodgy deals, and much else, have failed to make Kenya less vulnerable to terrorism,” he said by phone from Sevenoaks, England. “The terrorists have got more sophisticated, while the state has just become more bloated.”
The worst attack in Kenya claimed by the Somali militants occurred in September when gunmen staged a raid on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 people. Al-Qaeda itself said it carried out the 1988 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in which more than 200 people died.
Kenya’s direct involvement in the civil war in Somalia started in October 2011 when it sent troops to the Horn of African nation after a series of kidnappings and the murder of a British tourist in northern Kenya, which the militants said they didn’t carry out. At the time, the Kenyan army said it planned to end its intervention by that Christmas.
“It wasn’t clear what they wanted; now they almost own the entire Somalia problem,” Salim said. “I don’t see them exiting any time soon, but I don’t see how they’re going to get out of this mess.”
The government’s most public response to the attacks so far has been Operation Usalama Watch in which 6,000 police sent to Nairobi’s mainly ethnic Somali Eastleigh neighborhood arrested undocumented foreigners in the country illegally or those suspected of links to the militants.
Amnesty International on May 26 said the Somali community was being “scapegoated in a counter-terror operation which has seen thousands subjected to arbitrary arrest, harassment, extortion, ill-treatment, forcible relocation and expulsion.”
Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the crackdown on Somalis has compounded the security threat.
“The unifying thread is that in response to serious and legitimate security issues, Kenyan security forces routinely conduct unlawful and abusive operations,” she said by phone from Amsterdam.
Kenyan Defense Forces spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir said on May 26 he was unable to comment because he is on vacation, though he can speak at a later date. Kenyan police spokeswoman Zipporah Mboroki didn’t answer the phone when Bloomberg called yesterday seeking comment.
So far, the government and officials in the tourism industry, which generated $1.1 billion for the country last year, have said the U.K. and U.S. governments and tour operators are overreacting to the security threat.
Abdi said real reform in the intelligence and security services is vital.
“Foreign governments are frustrated at the government, but even within the Kenyan security services these people feel helpless,” Abdi said. “They are not getting anywhere. Officers who are doing this job are not happy, they feel demoralized.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Ilya Gridneff in Nairobi at firstname.lastname@example.org