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Kenya: Al-shabaab Attacks Surge Ahead of Somalia-Kenya Border Reopening


Al-Shabaab’s violent activity grew significantly in June, with militants launching over a dozen attacks targeting security forces and civilians. The attacks took place at a crucial moment, as Somalia and Kenya have entered into an agreement to reopen the border points closed since 2011, and the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) begins to withdraw its troops from Somalia. These developments have raised fears of a further escalation of violence in the coming months. The heightened al-Shabaab activity in Kenya comes after the launch of a counter-insurgency operation in Somalia, which has reportedly driven out militants to neighboring countries. Moreover, the recent rainfall in northern Kenya has enriched the vegetation, thus providing better hideouts for militants. This report discusses the types of attacks and regions affected based on ACLED data. It also explores reasons for the escalation of militant activity, and concludes with a discussion of the government response.  

Al-Shabaab Patterns of Violence

ACLED records 19 political violence incidents involving al-Shabaab in June – a nearly twofold increase compared to the monthly average this year (see graph below). For comparison, in June 2022, only eight political violence events involving al-Shabaab were recorded, while 11 and three were recorded in June 2021 and 2020, respectively. The current attacks have reportedly left at least 26 security officers dead and dozens injured. The majority of events are carried out through remotely activated weapons, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In recent years, IEDs have become al-Shabaab’s weapon of choice, as IED materials are sourced locally and are easy to construct and transport. While the main targets of militant attacks have been Kenyan security forces, four instances of violence targeting civilians by al-Shabaab have also been recorded, resulting in at least eight reported fatalities.

Almost half the recorded political violence involving al-Shabaab occurred in Mandera county, which borders Gedo region in Somalia. Al-Shabaab activity was also recorded in Wajir and Garissa counties in the northeastern region of Kenya, as well as Lamu in the coastal region. In Banissa sub-county in Mandera, al-Shabaab militants launched an attack on a police base in Guba town on 19 June. Police forces repelled the attack. The following day, militants targeted a police vehicle escorting a public service vehicle in the town, reportedly killing at least two officers and a civilian. A police rescue team was deployed to the area in response but was also targeted by the militants.

In Garissa and Lamu counties, al-Shabaab used IEDs in their attack against security forces. In Garissa county – where the most reported fatalities were recorded – an IED attack by militants targeted military forces patrolling along the Garissa-Lamu border. The detonation destroyed their vehicle and reportedly killed at least eight soldiers. Following the attack, police reservists clashed with the militants in the area, incurring casualties. Police reservists are recruited from locals to bolster security by supplementing regular police in ‘hostile’ areas for their familiarity with the local terrain. They have been involved in fighting pastoralist militias in the North Rift region, and al-Shabaab militants in the counties bordering Somalia.

Similar incidents were also reported in Lamu West sub-county as two subsequent IED attacks between Pandanguo and Witu reportedly resulted in over a dozen casualties among Kenyan security officers. The violence also targeted civilians in Lamu West sub-county. On 24 June, a group of over 30 men – identifying themselves as ‘Original al-Shabaab’ – attacked the villages of Salama and Juhudi near the Witu Forest and reportedly killed five men, including a student. The militants have reportedly created hideouts in the Witu Forest, where they also hold their abductees. The map below illustrates the spatial distribution of al-Shabaab’s activity in June across eastern Kenya.

What is Behind the Surge in Militant Attacks?

Kenya has contributed to security operations against al-Shabaab since October 2011, when it sent troops to Somalia following a spate of cross-border attacks. Beginning in 2012, it also contributed troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia, and its successor, ATMIS. Moreover, a few months ago, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti vowed to send additional troops to support the counter-insurgency operation against the group. The offensive against al-Shabaab included increased bombardments of militants’ hideouts and re-capturing strategic al-Shabaab strongholds in Somalia (for more on the counter-insurgency operation, see ACLED’s Somalia country hub). 

The offensive has reportedly dislodged groups of al-Shabaab militants from Somalia, forcing them to take refuge in neighboring Kenya. Moreover, the recent rainfall in northern Kenya has improved vegetation cover in the grazing areas, providing better hideouts for militants. This has made it an opportune time for al-Shabaab to move across the border and escalate their attacks against Kenyan security forces. Reports of al-Shabaab militants crossing the border and making movements in Mandera and Wajir counties emerged beginning in May. 

The recent simultaneous changes in the National Intelligence Service and the Directorate of Military Intelligence by President William Ruto may have left a security void that the militants are exploiting to launch attacks. For instance, an intelligence report on 11 June warned of impending attacks against security officials. No measures, however, were adopted to prevent the attacks, including the attack along the Garissa-Lamu border, which claimed the lives of eight police officers. Additionally, security officers are rendered vulnerable targets for al-Shabaab attacks as they lack access to sophisticated equipment. For example, IEDs cause severe damage to both the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles and Armored Personnel Carriers currently available to security forces. The recent budget cuts have also impacted the officers at the frontline, who have not reportedly received their stipends and feel ‘abandoned.’ There are also claims of intelligence leakage to militants, particularly on the movement of security forces, which have not been confirmed. 

In May, Kenya and Somalia agreed to reopen three border crossings in Mandera, Lamu, and Garissa for the first time since they were closed in 2011 to curb attacks by the militants on Kenyan soil. The measure is expected to enhance security cooperation, boost trade, and increase cross-border movement. The two countries had planned to reopen the border points in three phases by mid-August, but Kenya has recently decided to delay the reopening for an unspecified period until the security threats are neutralized. Some sources claim that business cartels that smuggle goods like sugar have used the militants to stir fear and prevent the reopening of the border, which would impact their illicit business activities. Others claim that the attacks likely aim to curtail government efforts to open up the affected areas for development as al-Shabaab has been long exploiting the marginalization of people living in those areas to recruit militants. The government, however, has dismissed links between the reopening of the border points and the heightened al-Shabaab activity.

Government Response

SThe Kenyan government has constructed 14 fully equipped forward operating bases along the Kenya-Somalia border in preparation for reopening the border and the withdrawal of ATMIS forces from Somalia. In addition, it has announced its commitment to providing security forces with sophisticated equipment, such as armored personnel carriers capable of detecting explosives, in the coming months. Security agencies have also been leveraging tip-offs from local elders and information on how to deal with the militants.This approach aims to go beyond the militant security challenges, to also tackle issues around inter-clan clashes. Finally, the Kenyan government has indicated its readiness to extend its stay in Somalia along with Uganda and Ethiopia past the end of the ATMIS mandate in December 2024. However, even if effective, these measures will likely take a long time to bear fruit as the government remains under criticism for its failure to curb al-Shabaab activity in areas bordering Somalia. According to ACLED’s CAST predictions, the increase in violence in eastern counties is likely to continue in July 2023. The government has launched an operation along the border, which will likely result in sustained levels of violence in the area in the short term.

Source: Acled Data

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