Who Are the Al-Shabaab Militants Plaguing Kenya?

(Bloomberg) -- The al-Shabaab group in Somalia has claimed responsibility for a coordinated attack on a hotel and office complex in Nairobi, capital of neighboring Kenya, that left at least 14 people dead. The al-Qaeda affiliated group warns that attacks will continue as long as Kenya maintains its soldiers in an African Union force that is helping prop up Somalia’s government.

1. Who is al-Shabaab?

The Islamic militant group splintered from the Islamic Courts Union, which controlled Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, for about six months in 2006. It has waged an insurgency against the government ever since. Its previous attacks in Kenya include a 2015 raid on a university campus that claimed at least 147 lives, and an assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013, when 67 died. Al-Shabaab’s then-leader Ahmed Abdi Godane was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2014 and he was succeeded by Ahmed Umar. The group swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012, and it competes with Islamic State for members and support.

2. How big is it?

The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations estimates that al-Shabaab, whose name is Arabic for “the youth,” has 7,000-9,000 fighters. The Hiraal Institute in Mogadishu says the group “skillfully uses clan elders to manage and control local populations, collect taxes, raise armies, and settle disputes.”

3. What does it want?

Al-Shabaab has sought to topple Somalia’s government and impose its version of Islamic law on the country. It has demanded the African Union withdraw all its troops that are helping support President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s administration. Besides having staged more than 150 attacks in Kenya since the country intervened in Somalia in 2011, its members have carried out bombings in Uganda and Djibouti, which have also contributed personnel to the African mission.

4. How powerful is it?

At the peak of its power, al-Shabaab controlled large swathes of Somalia, including Mogadishu and the port of Kismayo. While it has been weakened by the African Union intervention and driven out of the capital and other urban strongholds, it still wields control over some rural parts of central and southern Somalia, and regularly attacks Somali government facilities and civilians. Its ability to operate in Kenya was curbed after the government there stepped up counter-terrorism efforts, and al-Shabaab has mainly resorted to providing indirect support to affiliates engaged in low-level insurgencies rather than stage complex attacks itself, according to Ed Hobey-Hamsher, an Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg story on the hotel attack and another on how it may affect the tourism industry.
  • A U.S. Council on Foreign Relations report on al-Shabaab.
  • The IMF’s summary page on Kenya.
  • BBC country profile of Kenya.

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