Last Monday, a shopping center in downtown Nairobi erupted into chaos when a bomb exploded, killing at least one person and injuring dozens. While the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab has not claimed responsibility, evidence, according to Kenyan officials, indicates that the attack was carried out by al-Shabaab or one of its sympathizers.
More sophisticated than the recent spate of grenade attacks, the escalation of violence was not entirely unexpected. Last October, the Kenyan government launched Operation Linda Nchi, sending military forces into southern Somalia to eliminate al-Shabaab. Nairobi blames al-Shabaab for violating its territorial sovereignty through kidnappings and criminal activity, which have greatly hindered the country’s business and tourism industry. In response, al-Shabaab vowed retaliation. Then, in April, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi issued a terrorism alert, warning of a possible attack on hotels and government buildings.
Kenya has a duty to defend its land and citizens, and its contribution to the African Union’s mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is badly needed, but it has come at a cost. Kenya’s geographic proximity to Somalia has resulted in increased skirmishes in the north, and Kenya’s porous borders have allowed significant spillover of Somali refugees. The Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya is the largest in the world, with approximately half a million people. It is also a fertile recruiting ground for Islamist militants seeking to radicalize vulnerable targets. Additionally, Somalis living in Kenya are often discriminated against, as they are stereotyped as criminals and terrorists. With Kenya preparing for elections in March 2013, al-Shabaab might also find opportunities to sow instability.
The United States counts on Kenya as a partner in the fight against terrorism in Africa. In 2011, the Obama Administration provided more than $700 million in assistance, much of it to enhance security and fight terrorism. Last week, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee passed the $631 billion defense budget bill, in which $75 million was approved for counterterrorism operations in Yemen and East Africa.
The Kenyan incursion into Somalia was, according to some critics, impulsive and not thoroughly planned. According to the Obama Administration, Kenya did not coordinate with the U.S. in advance of the incursion, nor did Kenya fully consider the cost of the operation. A month after sending troops, Nairobi requested U.S. assistance in the form of military surveillance and reconnaissance. Kenya is a strategic partner in the fight against al-Shabaab, but it did itself no favors with poor planning and lack of communication with Washington.
Kenya, like Uganda, which suffered al-Shabaab attacks during the World Cup in 2010 for its participation in AMISOM, will continue to be on high alert for terrorist activity. However, unlike Uganda, Kenya shares a border with Somalia and will likely continue to suffer blowback from neighboring terrorists.