The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, released a message April 23 informing U.S. citizens in the country that it had received credible information regarding a possible attack against Nairobi hotels and prominent Kenyan government buildings. According to the message, the embassy has reason to believe the attack is in the last stages of the attack planning cycle.
The warning comes as thousands of Kenyan troops occupy much of southern Somalia. Along with a force of Ethiopian troops, local militias and a contingent of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops, the Kenyans are placing heavy pressure on al Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked Somali militant group in southern Somalia.
This external military pressure has exacerbated frictions within al Shabaab between nationalist and transnationalist elements. Mukhtar Robow, aka Abu Mansur, leads the nationalist faction, which is based in the Bay and Bakool regions. Ahmad Abdi Godane, aka Abu Zubayr, leads the transnationalist faction, which is based in Kismayo.
It has been almost two years since we last examined al Shabaab's interest in conducting and ability to carry out transnational terrorist operations. The current warning in Nairobi provides a convenient opportunity to do so once again.
Al Qaeda and Somali militants have long interacted. In a 1997 CNN interview, Osama bin Laden told Peter Bergen that his fighters helped the Somali militants in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu, the events memorialized in Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999). Bin Laden and a good portion of the al Qaeda leadership relocated to Sudan in 1992, where they remained until 1996. During that period, they established a network of business and operational contacts across East Africa. By that point, they had trained militants in camps in Afghanistan for years. They could well have had operatives in Mogadishu in 1993 and could have provided training to militants involved in the incident.
After leaving Sudan in 1996, al Qaeda maintained its network in East Africa. It used the network to plan and execute the August 7, 1998, twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Nairobi attack proved deadlier. A massive vehicle-borne improvised device (VBIED) heavily damaged the embassy in Nairobi and several nearby buildings, including the adjacent Ufundi Cooperative Plaza, a high-rise that collapsed from the blast. The attack killed 213 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded some 4,000 others.
Some of the men allegedly affiliated with the 1998 attacks, such as Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Abu Taha al-Sudani and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, would later be accused of planning and executing the Nov. 28, 2002, attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, in which a VBIED was used to target the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel and two SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles were launched at an Israeli Boeing 757 passenger jet departing Mombasa's airport. The missiles missed the aircraft, perhaps due to countermeasures, but the VBIED killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis.
Abdullah Mohammed, al-Sudani and Nabhan all fled to Somalia, where they worked with and were protected by organizations, such as al-Ittihad al-Islam, a long-standing Somali militant group later folded into the Supreme Islamic Courts Council (SICC), formerly the Islamic Courts Union. When Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in late 2006 and overthrew the SICC, many of the more hardcore elements joined the SICC youth wing, al Shabaab, which then became a separate militant organization. As noted, al Shabaab is not a unified organization. Instead, it is comprises several factions led by individual warlords who each adhere to a slightly different ideology. The al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters in Somalia tend to associate with the more transnationally minded militants, such as the group led by Godane.
Since al Shabaab's spinoff, al-Sudani was killed in an airstrike in southern Somalia in January 2007. Nabhan was killed by a helicopter ambush in southern Somalia in September 2009, and Abdullah Mohammed was reportedly shot at a police checkpoint in Mogadishu in June 2011.
Just over a month after we published our assessment of al Shabaab as a transnational threat, the group conducted suicide bomb attacks against two targets in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11, 2010. The attacks, which targeted people watching a World Cup soccer match, reportedly killed 74 and wounded another 70.
Shortly thereafter, al Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage claimed credit for the attacks, saying they were a response to Uganda's participation in AMISOM. Rage threatened additional attacks against Uganda and also threatened Burundi, which has furnished forces for AMISOM. But the group has not followed up on these threats, and there have been no additional attacks in Uganda or attacks in Burundi.
Kampala is not the only regional capital where militants associated with, or sympathetic to, al Shabaab have conducted attacks. On Oct. 24, 2011, a Kenyan who claimed to be affiliated with al Shabaab conducted two hand-grenade attacks in Nairobi, one at a bus stop and the second at a disco. The attacks killed one person and wounded 20 others. Then on March 10, several hand grenades were thrown at a busy bus stop in central Nairobi while a bus was loading passengers headed to Kampala. That attack killed six and wounded 63. Kenyan officials have called the March 10 attack the deadliest terrorist attack in Nairobi since the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing.
To date, the attacks in Nairobi involved only grenades and were all directed against soft targets (as were the Kampala attacks). In Somalia, by contrast, al Shabaab has carried out devastating attacks against hard targets. For example, on Feb. 22, 2009, the group launched a suicide VBIED attack against an AMISOM base in Mogadishu that killed 11 Burundian soldiers. On Sept. 17, 2009, a suicide VBIED attack against the AMISOM headquarters at the Mogadishu airport killed 21, including AMISOM's deputy commander, and wounded 40. And on Oct. 4, 2011, al Shabaab detonated a massive VBIED outside a compound that housed government offices in Mogadishu. The attack killed at least 65 people and wounded hundreds of others. Al Shabaab can also conduct standoff attacks with rocket-propelled grenades or mortars launched at hardened targets, as seen by the frequent targeting of the presidential compound in Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab has also shown the ability to attack hotels in Mogadishu. On Dec. 3, 2009, a suicide bomber dressed as a woman attacked a graduation ceremony in a hotel meeting room and killed some 20 people, including four government ministers. On Aug. 24, 2010, al Shabaab gunmen disguised as government security forces conducted an armed assault on a hotel near the presidential palace in Mogadishu that killed 30, including seven parliament members and two government officials. On Feb. 8, 2012, a suicide VBIED was rammed into a cafe outside the Muna Hotel, killing 11.
Whenever judging the threat posed by a group, one must examine its capabilities and its intent to conduct such an attack. In this case, we need to look at al Shabaab's capability and intent to attack prominent government buildings and hotels in Nairobi. Continued...