Islamic State Splits, Better Intelligence Ease Kenya Attacks

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  • Number of attacks declines to lowest level in three years
  • Kenya helped by improved intelligence gathering, U.S. support

Attacks by Islamist militants in Kenya dropped to the lowest level in three years in 2015, a result of better intelligence gathering by the authorities and infighting among fighters in neighboring Somalia over their allegiance to Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

The improved security situation may help East Africa’s biggest economy revive its tourism industry -- a key source of foreign exchange that has collapsed since raids by Islamist militants intensified in 2012. It could also boost the government’s efforts to attract investment into projects such as the $26 billion Lamu Port Southern Sudan Ethiopia Transport corridor that would build infrastructure including a railway and an oil pipeline across Kenya’s northern region, close to war-torn Somalia.

The number of militant attacks in Kenya dropped to 46 last year, about half the figure of 2014 and the lowest since 2011, according to data compiled by Verisk Maplecroft, a Bath, England-based risk consultancy. The trend is confirmed by statistics collated by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which is run by the University of Sussex in the U.K. and draws on reports from the media, humanitarian agencies and other groups. Its data shows the number of “conflict events” in Kenya dropped to 306 last year -- the lowest level since 2012.

“There has been a significant reduction in the number of attacks because we are seeing more of a collective effort by the Kenyan security agencies fighting terrorism,” said Sebastian Gatimu, a researcher on crime and governance at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi, the capital.

President Uhuru Kenyatta enacted a law in December 2014 to strengthen coordination among the country’s security agencies. The legislation “empowered the police, intelligence and the military, and brought together many players in terms of addressing security,” Gatimu said.

Kenyan forces invaded southern Somalia in August 2011 after blaming al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked group, for attacks on tourists and non-governmental workers. The Verisk Maplecroft data shows that the following year, at least 63 so-called terrorist incidents took place. In 2013, a further 58 attacks took place, including the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in which at least 67 people died. There were 94 attacks in 2014, it said.

The attacks prompted warnings by governments in the U.S. and Europe, a key source of tourists to Kenya, and led to a slump in the number of visitors, who generated about $1 billion a year in foreign-currency earnings for Kenya before the attacks escalated five years ago. Arrivals declined 34 percent in the 11 months through November compared with the same period in 2011, according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data.

The number of visitors to Kenya may increase this year because of the drop in attacks, said Ahmed Salim, senior associate at Teneo Intelligence in Dubai. About 690,000 foreigners visited Kenya in the 11 months through November, compared with about 786,000 in the whole of 2014 and 1.26 million in 2011, Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data shows.

“The holiday period saw a modest increase in tourists visiting key coastal cities like Mombasa and Lamu, which the government is hoping will be a harbinger of a rebound in the tourism sector this year,” Salim said.

Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks carried out in Kenya since 2012, including the assault on Westgate. A dispute between members of the group in the second half of 2015 over their allegiances to al-Qaeda or Islamic State, also known as Daesh, probably contributed to the decline in the number of attacks last year, Emma Gordon, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, said by phone from Uganda.

Kenya-Somalia
Kenya-Somalia
Bloomberg

“Infighting in al-Shabaab between Daesh and al-Qaeda loyalists preoccupied the group in the latter half of 2015 and reduced their focus on external attacks,” Gordon said. “Also, a number of pro-Daesh al-Shabaab members have been purged, many of whom are understood to be of Kenyan origin.”

Kenya has benefited from better monitoring of suspected militants, helped by projects including a CCTV system installed by Safaricom Ltd. in Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa. The authorities are also being aided by cooperation with foreign agencies such as the U.S. Defense Department, Gordon said.

U.S. Commitment

The U.S. last year committed at least $40 million to help counter violent extremism in East Africa and has signed an agreement with Kenya to help improve management of the security agencies. U.S. drone strikes on members of al-Shabaab have also bolstered Kenyan, Ethiopian and other African troops fighting the insurgents in southern and central Somalia.

“The cooperation with the U.S. has been concentrated on Somalia, but it’s had a knock-on effect,” Gordon said. “A lot of the intelligence they’ve gathered has been useful in Kenya.”

The declining trend needs to be sustained in order to have any substantial impact on investor sentiment toward Kenya, said Gatimu.

“The fear is that the government has not been able to fight corruption in the security sector, which is a huge hindrance in terms of securing citizens,” he said.

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