Kenya has endured a grim start to the new year as extremist group al-Shabab launched attacks against a school, a police post and a military base shared by U.S. forces.
Observers are debating whether the surge of violence signals renewed strength by the terror group or is a seasonal phenomenon. A new report found the group has killed more than 4,000 civilians over the past 10 years.
On Monday, three teachers were killed and one abducted in Kamuthe, a town in Garissa county, bordering Somalia. The three killed were all non-Muslims, while the one kidnapped was a Muslim. Another teacher was wounded, according to the Associated Press. Attackers also hit a police post and destroyed a telecommunications tower.
Hillary Mutyambai, inspector general of the Kenya Police Service, visited a police camp in neighboring Lamu county on Tuesday to thank officers for their efforts, but advised them to reach out to community members for help foiling future attacks.
Mutyambai “urged the officers to change their tact in the fight against the enemy,” the Kenya Police Service’s official account tweeted about the visit. He also “urged the officers to embrace community policing so as to have [a] flow of information from members of [the] public on suspected criminals.”
Tres Thomas, a security analyst focusing on Somalia, said the latest attacks show that the terror group is attempting to sow divisions among the population by sparing Muslims and killing Christians. He also said that January is typically a time when al-Shabab launches some of its deadliest attacks, including a 2017 attack in Kulbiyow, where dozens of Kenya Defense Force soldiers were killed, and the DusitD2 hotel attack in 2019 that killed more than 20 people.
Thomas said the spate of violence shows the group is able to exploit points of weakness along the Kenyan border.
“You still see al-Shabab has free mobility to cross the border from Somalia into Kenya. And that’s because a lot of the areas don’t have adequately manned checkpoints,” he told VOA. “And one of the areas on the southeastern border in the Boni Forest is very rugged terrain that’s hard for security forces to navigate and offers a safe haven to Shabab.”
Thomas added that the lack of capacity is exacerbated by a lack of cooperation between local and national law enforcement agencies.
“You still have security forces that are not integrated,” he said. “You have tensions between the central government and regional administrations that prevent them from banding together to defeat al-Shabab.”
He said a January 5 attack against Camp Simba that left three Americans dead exemplifies the group’s continued ability to identify and exploit weak spots.
“I think Shabab was able to identify this as a vulnerable spot that didn’t have adequate force protection from U.S. and Kenyan forces,” he said. “And so only with maybe 15 or so attackers actually on the base, they were able to destroy approximately $20 million in equipment, including spy aircraft used to collect intelligence on al-Shabab and to target mid-level and senior-level officials. So I think, from that perspective, al-Shabab was able to achieve its objectives.”
Future strategies, he added, should focus on securing the border and preventing the group from recruiting young Kenyans, particularly those of Somali origin.
“What needs to be identified are ways to actually stop al-Shabab from crossing the border, recruiting inside Kenya. And that’s something that Kenya hasn’t been able to accomplish, even though it’s been deployed in Somalia for the last nine years,” Thomas said.