Al Shabab could stymie Kenya’s significant economic progress

The Nairobi attack is an attempt by the group to demonstrate that it is still a force to be reckoned with

epa07288747 A Kenyan police officer tries to control the crowd outside the business complex in Nairobi, Kenya, 16 January 2019, a day after the attackers stromed the compound killing several people in an attack claimed by Somalia's Islamist militant group al-Shabab. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said 14 people were killed in an attack and security forces have 'neutralised' all attackers.  EPA/DAI KUROKAWA
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No matter how hard the Kenyan government tries to curb the threat posed by Islamist extremists, this week’s terror attack at a Nairobi hotel and shopping complex demonstrates that groups like Al Shabab remain a potent force.

Shortly before a highly trained and disciplined squad of Somali terrorists carried out the latest attack in the Kenyan capital, in which at least 21 civilians were killed, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had claimed that Al Shabab had all but been defeated in Kenya.

Now the Kenyan leader’s boast appears somewhat hubristic, after the Somalia-based terrorist organisation succeeded in carrying out yet another high profile attack in the heart of Nairobi’s commercial district.

The main target was the Thai-owned DusitD2 complex in the popular Westlands area of the capital. It began when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt in the hotel foyer, followed by his accomplices opening fire inside the luxury resort until they were eventually overpowered the Kenyan security forces, who received valuable support from American and British special forces who were in the vicinity.

There was particular praise for an off-duty British SAS soldier who was out shopping and reportedly ran into the hotel compound to help tackle the terrorists.

The attack on the DusitD2 complex was the latest in a series of deadly attacks that Al Shabab has carried out against the influential east African nation in the past decade. In 2013 the group killed 67 people in an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. This was followed two years later by a well-co-ordinated attack on a university in the Kenyan city of Garissa, in which 148 people died.

Two key factors lie behind Al Shabab's fixation with Kenya: the country is regarded as a close ally of the US and other Western powers in the so-called War on Terror; and Kenyan forces have long been heavily involved in attempts to destroy Al Shabab in neighbouring Somalia.

At the height of its power between 2006 and 2010, Al Shabab, which originally emerged as the radical wing of Somalia’s now defunct Islamic Court’s Union, controlled the country’s capital, Mogadishu. The group, which has declared allegiance to Al Qaeda, supports the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and seeks to implement strict Sharia laws in the area it controls.

Under its aegis women accused of adultery have been stoned to death, and thieves have had their hands amputated. Other restrictions include bans on various forms of entertainment and men are not allowed to shave their beards. The group has recently also displayed an unexpected interest in environmental issues, and have imposed a ban on the use of plastics and logging.

While Kenya has been on the receiving end of some of Al Shabab's most deadly attacks, the group has also carried out terror operations in Somalia, including the twin truck bombings in the capital in 2017 that killed more than 500 people and injured another 300.

The organisation has, though, experienced a sharp decline in its fortunes since it was forced out of Mogadishu by a coalition of African forces, and has since been forced to operate from lawless rural areas of the country. In recent years this has become the main focus of African and Western efforts to destroy the group, with the Kenyan forces playing a lead role in targeting Al Shabab in Somalia.

Indeed, the campaign has grown in intensity since the Westgate atrocity. In the last year, Al Shabab has been the target of a intense campaign of US airstrikes that have inflicted significant casualties and killed several of the organisation’s senior leadership. In addition, Kenyan forces continue to be deployed in Somalia as part of a multi-national effort to destroy Al Shabab.

This week’s attack on Nairobi is now being seen as an attempt by Al Shabab to demonstrate that, despite its recent setbacks, it is still a force to be reckoned with.

At the very least, the group certainly retains an effective propaganda arm. Throughout the assault on the DusitD2 complex, its spokesman provided a running commentary for local television and radio stations, at one point claiming that 47 civilians had been killed.

This latest demonstration of the potency of Al Shabab’s terrorist operations is certainly a significant setback for the Kenyan government which, under the careful stewardship of Mr Kenyatta, has indicated it has all the potential to become a rare African economic success story.

The latest World Bank report on the Kenyan economy painted a positive picture, with gross domestic product due to rise to 5.8 per cent in 2019 - up from 4.9 per cent in 2017. The rise is attributed to a recovery in the agriculture sector, a steady pick-up in industrial activity and a continued robust performance of the services sector, in particular tourism which has been boosted by the decline in recent terrorism activity.

It is this favourable economic picture, encouraged in part by Kenya’s close ties with the West, that has made it a ripe target for Islamist militants.

This latest Al Shabab attack, therefore, could adversely impact these recent economic gains, particularly as a British aid worker and an American are reported to be among those killed in the assault.

The Kenyan authorities certainly have some tough questions to answer following reports that they had been forewarned that Al Shabab was planning another major terrorist attack in the country, but failed to take effective precautionary measures.

A Kenyan government official has defended the government's approach, pointing out that the country was already on high alert, and that the security forces had been confused after the terrorists changed the target locations. But the Kenyan authorities clearly need to raise their game if they are to prevent Al Shabab from reversing the positive gains Kenya has made in recent years.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor