Al-Shabaab's Changing Tactics

Al-Shabaab's Changing Tactics

Al-Shabaab's Changing Tactics


4 min read

Emily Mellgard Africa Specialist

Posted on: 7th October 2015

Since Kenya intervened militarily in Somalia in 2011 to counter cross-border attacks from the al-Shabaab, an, al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist insurgency, the number of al-Shabaab attacks and activities in Kenya have increased. A recent report from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project looks at how al-Shabaab's attacks in Kenya have changed since 2012. The changes they draw out, and an analysis of the underlying data, provides insights into the group's evolving strategies and goals.These changes fall within three main categories: battle tactics, rhetoric, and aims.

Previously, attacks concentrated on urban areas, were indiscriminate, and al-Shabaab claimed its attacks were in revenge for Kenyan presence in Somalia. More recent attacks target rural areas, specific communities, and the rhetoric is increasingly focused on domestic Kenyan contexts, namely the marginalisation and repression of Kenya's Somali and Muslim citizens and refugees. The number of Kenyan and Kenyan-born Somalis in al-Shabaab continues growing, giving them more influence in the direction and goals of the group. The trends of violence began changing after al-Shabaab lost control of Mogadishu in August 2011, requiring the group to reimagine its purpose. Increasingly, fighters' anger appears focused south on Kenya, though violence continues unabated in Somalia as well.

In his address to the UN General Assembly on 28 September, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta framed al-Shabaab as a Somali issue that had spilled over into Kenya. He made no mention of the growing evidence of domestic Kenyan grievances that could lead to radicalisation, including security force abuses in the campaign against extremist violence in Kenya. If the Kenyan government continues to deny the real domestic grievances on which extremists rely to radicalise and recruit, Kenyatta's government risks presiding over the growth of a fully developed domestic al-Shabaab insurgency. The first instances of al-Shabaab seizing territory in Kenya were in 2015. These were nonviolent and temporary, but evidence of permanent camps in Kenya is growing. The group appears no longer to view Kenya through the lens of Somalia, but as a target in its own right. Overall, the Coast and North-East provinces of Kenya have been the main targets for al-Shabaab attacks in 2014 and 2015. So far in 2015, there have been no attacks in Nairobi. In 2014 there were five, 2013 there were 10, and in 2012 there were 15 attacks in the city.

Al-Shabaab anger appears increasingly focused on Kenya.

In addition to a geographic shift in al-Shabaab's Kenya activity, the group is changing the victims it targets. In 2012 there were five al-Shabaab attacks in Eastleigh, the majority ethnic-Somali suburb of Nairobi. In 2013, there was only one attack there; in 2014, two. There have been none so far in 2015. The number of high casualty al-Shabaab attacks has also increased dramatically. In 2010 there was only one attack that killed more than 10 people. In 2011, the highest fatality attack killed 12. In 2012 al-Shabaab carried out two attacks that killed 10 and 17. There was a significant increase in high profile attacks in 2013, including the attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall in September, which killed 67 people. In 2014, six attacks killed more than 10 people. So far in 2015, al-Shabaab has carried out two high casualty attacks. One killed 14 people, the other, which took place on 2 April at Garissa University, killed 148 people and is the highest casualty attack al-Shabaab has carried out in Kenya.

Another reason al-Shabaab is shifting its focus from Kenya's urban, more developed, regions to rural, less developed, areas in the north and east, is that conflict is more likely where there is inequality, particularly intercommunal inequality. More developed regions are more likely to experience riots and protests than drawn out conflicts. Kenya's North-East and Coast provinces are much less developed than Nairobi and Mombasa, two previous al-Shabaab attack hot spots. While riots are not infrequent in either location, the group appears to have calculated that a grassroots insurrection is more likely in the North-East and rural areas of the Coast province.

Reports of these attacks include another worrying trend. Whereas previously al-Shabaab attacked civilians indiscriminately, it is increasingly targeting specific groups. The majority of attacks have targeted Christians in Muslim majority regions. Al-Shabaab is attacking the 'other' in communities to increase societal cleavages in Kenya. There have been 80 al-Shabaab attacks in the past five years against civilians, of which 26 targeted a specific group, and seven of those targeted Christians (three in 2012, one in 2013, two in 2014), versus two that targeted Muslims (2012, 2013), and six attacks in which foreigners were targeted.

Eighty al-Shabaab attacks in five years targeted civilians.

Alongside this increasing focus on civilians, and particularly vulnerable communities, al-Shabaab appears to limit its clashes with the security forces. Of the 80 al-Shabaab attacks in recent years, only six have been against the military and 24 against the police. This is probably for two reasons. First, Kenya's military and police are much better trained than those in Somalia, and more prevalent throughout the country. It's safer for al-Shabaab to attack softer, civilian, targets. Second, security services normally respond to such attacks, especially attacks where a specific community is targeted, with community-wide reprisals.

The changing trends in al-Shabaab's violence over the past three years suggests the group's recent activity in Kenya is driven by a focus on local Kenyan contexts rather than solely cross-border activity in retaliation to Kenya's intervention in Somalia. The growing number of Kenyans in al-Shabaab is increasing their influence over the group's tactics, rhetoric, and goals. There is a growing focus on exacerbating social, ethnic, and religious cleavages in the country, potentially with the aim of establishing a domestic, grassroots Islamist insurgency. 

The data used in this commentary is drawn from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

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