In the early morning darkness of Sunday, January 5th, the East African terrorist organization Al-Shabaab launched an attack on a joint US-Kenyan military base. Fewer than twenty Al-Shabaab militants were involved in the attack; out of these, four were killed and five were arrested by American authorities. One US servicemen and two contractors died, two more Americans were seriously injured. The fighting lasted under two hours before the assailants were forced to retreat, having failed to enter the complex. This attack marked the first time Al-Shabaab has attacked American military personnel in Kenya.
Al-Shabaab’s roots trace back to 1991 when the Somali government collapsed. The power vacuum that emerged was quickly filled by Sharia courts that took on a level of previously unprecedented influence. As the decade progressed, these courts fulfilled services in healthcare, education, and acted as police. The majority Muslim population largely approved of their effectiveness in hindering the drug trade and, in 1999, four major courts formed a coalition as a way to bolster their influence. A militia called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was raised to protect the interests of these courts. In response to the growing power of the courts, secular warlords who had considerable influence in Southern Somalia ceased in-fighting and formed their own coalition, called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism to combat the ICU. During the early 2000s, ICU forces clashed with the warlords in the streets of major cities. For years, both groups claimed control of the capital city of Mogadishu. However, in 2006, the ICU finally pushed the warlords into hiding, opening the Mogadishu International Airport airport for the first time in eleven years and largely ridding the city’s port of pirates, where it had previously been a pirate safe haven.
Towards the end of 2006, Ethiopian troops gained control of most of ICU territory, winning decisive battles in December, mutilating what had been the premier power broker in the country not six months earlier. As the official leadership receded into hiding, militant factions of the ICU splintered off, one being Al-Shabaab. Formerly considered a militant wing of the ICU, Al-Shabaab has been classified as a terrorist organization since 2008. The group has close ties with Al-Qaeda, having pledged allegiance to them in 2012. Despite this, the relationship between the groups has been turbulent due to ideological disagreements between senior members of both organizations.
Al-Shabaab has attempted to capitalize on Somalia’s weak central government over the last thirteen years to varying degrees of success, mostly through actions of isolated terrorism in densely populated areas. In 2011, Al-Shabaab soldiers controlled parts of Mogadishu as well as Kismayo, an important port. This was the most powerful the organization had been since the battles of 2006. This did not last, however, as Kenyan troops forced them out of these cities later that year, and the group has not been able to reach a similar level of power since then. This act of intervention prompted the organization to begin launching attacks in Kenya, where there have been 150 since 2011.
Although the ICU and Al-Shabaab were long accused of having links to Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab’s transition from a militia participating in an African civil war to full-blown fundamentalist terrorist organization, frequently initiating unprovoked acts of mass-murder against civilians has prompted ever-increasing foreign intervention, most notably from the United States. The US has spent half a billion dollars funding soldiers from the African Union to fight Al-Shabaab. Additionally, the US has launched drone strikes against Al-Shabaab to devastating effect, in 2014 killing the organization’s leader, and killing more than 150 soldiers in 2016. American efforts have increased since 2016 when soldiers killed at least two hundred African Union peacekeepers at a Kenyan military base. The Pentagon stated their main objective is to minimize Al-Shabaab’s ability to further destabilize the Horn of Africa and to harm American allies.
Despite relative silence from Washington, it can be expected that this will only lead to a further increase in strikes against the organization, especially because the base in Kenya is considered a vital front in the war against terrorism. Referring to the three Americans who died in the attack, Army General Stephen Townsend stated: “As we honor their sacrifice, let’s also harden our resolve, we remain committed to preventing Al-Shabaab from maintaining a safe haven to plan deadly attacks.” With a large foreign presence, it’s hard to imagine Al-Shabaab will ever rule over large amounts of territory again. Hopefully, their ability to terrorize innocent people will soon seem equally implausible.
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