History of Al-Shabaab and its link with Kenya

Members of security forces arrive at the scene of explosions and gunshots, at the dusitD2 Hotel compound, in Nairobi, Kenya January 15, 2019. [Photo: Reuters]

The Somali-based Al Shabaab terror group that claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack in Nairobi has waged a bloody campaign on Kenyan soil in retaliation for the presence of the country’s troops in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation.

Between 2006 and 2007, Shabaab militants conducted few attacks outside of Somalia. There was only one terrorist attack in Ethiopia and none in Kenya.

In contrast, between 2008 and 2015, the group executed 272 attacks in Kenya and only five in Ethiopia.

Kenya’s incursion into southern Somalia started after the kidnapping of two Spanish women who were working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) at the Dadaab refugee camp by suspected militants.

On 16 October, 2011, Kenyan troops crossed the border into Somalia. The official reason was that Kenya’s national security was threatened by Al Shabaab.

While there has been debate about Kenya’s incursion into Somalia, eight years later Kenyan troops are still in the neighbouring country.

National security

Al Shabaab is considered to be the deadliest jihadi group in sub-Saharan Africa, largely operating in Somalia.

Founded in 2006, the group, whose name translates from Arabic as the ‘The Youth’ or ‘Mujahideen Youth Movement’, began as the militant arm of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of hard-line Sharia courts in southern Somalia who sought to rival the Transitional Federal Parliament for control of the country.

Al Shabaab has long since spun off from the ICU and aims to overthrow the Western-backed Federal Parliament on its own, carrying out vicious suicide bombing attacks and other acts of brutality against “enemies of Islam” among the Horn of Africa’s Christian and Sufi Muslim population.

Committed to ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam (an Islamic doctrine and religious movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab), Al Shabaab hopes to run Somalia in accordance with strict Sharia principles.

Al Shabaab initially won popular support by pledging to bring security to a nation that has not had a stable government in 20 years. However, it lost the support when its rejection of international aid made tough conditions worse for the people as the land was struck by drought and famine in 2011.

Al Shabaab was driven out of Mogadishu that same year by troops from the African Union, a military alliance comprised of soldiers from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Burundi, and out of the port city of Kismayu in 2012, a huge blow since its cut from the charcoal trade through the docks had been a key source of income. 

The militant group is also thought to have ties to Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram in Algeria and Nigeria respectively.