Al-Shabaab re-emerges with deadly new outrage as Kenya attack heightens sense of crisis

Attack comes at bad time for struggling tourism and aviation, with authorities already under pressure over a string of security lapses.

SOMALI militants Saturday staged a horror attack in Kenya’s remote north-eastern regions, massacring at least 28 in a brutal attack that left many in the  region stunned.

Gunmen commandeered a bus leaving for the capital Nairobi from Mandera, a town that shares a border with Somalia, and in cynical move that could fan religious animosity, separated non-Muslim passengers from the other travellers and then executed them after an attempt to drive off with them failed.

Witnesses said the gunmen first made the passengers read the Quran before killing off those who couldn’t. Kenyan police confirmed the attack, blaming it on Islamic extremist group Al-Shabaab, which is allied to Al-Qaeda, and said the gunmen had escaped back across the border.

The group has since claimed responsibility in what would be a further setback in the push to neuter its ability, an operation that has recently been distracted by scandals and political intrigue. 

The Mandera attack would be the biggest yet carried out by group in the aftermath of the killing of Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in September in a US air strike, an event that sent the group into a tailspin, adding to what had been a bad last few months in which it steadily lost territory to African Union and Somali government forces.

The militants swore to avenge Godane’s death, and in the immediate aftermath launched a suicide attack on African Union troops where at least 12 civilians were killed. The group has however been largely off-radar with major attacks as it sought to regroup. (See: Killed Al Shabaab leader Godane: Just who was this man, and why does it matter?)

It picked Abu Ubaidah as its new leader, a hardliner perceive to be just as ruthless as his predecessor. Godane had headed the group since 2008 after then military leader Adan Hashi Ayro was killed in another US missile attack. 

Revenge attack
A Shabaab statement claimed the Mandera attack was in retaliation for the harassment of Muslims in the country’s second city of Mombasa.

Kenyan security forces last week arrested more than 350 people in raids on mosques in the port city, seeking to flush out Shabaab sympathisers and recover arms. 

In apparent revenge attacks, four people were knifed to death on Monday by street gangs, as the raids raised tensions in the city that is popular with tourists.

The Al Shabaab have said they would carry out attacks until Kenya withdrew from Somalia, into which it crossed in 2011 as it pursued the group following  a string of attacks on its soil which it said were harming its national interest.

The Kenyan forces later joined an AU force, AMISOM, battling the Islamists, and whose six member countries have been regular targets for the Shabaab. The force is 22,000 strong.

The AU and Somali troops have steadily pushed back the group, and last month took the strategic town of Barawe following a UN-backed surge. The last major port in Somalia held by the group, Barawe was a financial lifeline for the Al-Shabaab, which is heavily dependent on a multi-million dollar charcoal trade, raising hopes that it could be finally put out of business.

The group exported charcoal through Barawe to the Gulf countries, with the United Nations estimating it earned at least $25 million annually from the trade. 

Sobering message
The loss of Godane and Barawe were thought to be crippling blows for the group, but a recent report by the UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group brought a sobering message to the anti-Shabaab campaign.

The charcoal trade was still generating “significant funding” for the group, and exacerbating a deteriorating humanitarian crisis, it said. To further muddy the waters, a number of countries were in violation of the ban, with destination countries still taking receipt of imports. 

Despite a ban, weapons and military equipment were still flowing to Al-Shabaab, the report noted, adding that this had the potential to seriously destabilise the country. 

The regional force, AMISOM, on the back of its recent gains, also run into headwinds when it was accused of sexually abusing Somali women and children in a report released September by pressure group Human Rights Watch. (Read: Uncomfortable reading: Burundi, Uganda AU peacekeepers ‘sexually exploit & rape vulnerable Somali women)

The fledgling central Somali government has also been bogged down with power politics as the prime minister battles impeachment attempts, in addition to persistent claims of widespread corruption which have threatened to put off donors. 

Bad timing
With this background the timing of the Mandera Al-Shabaab attack could not have come at a worse time for Amisom and the Somali government, as it signifies its latent capabilities. 

Also unnerved would be the Kenyan government, with any resurgence by the group having the ability to further harm it economically. Tourist arrivals to the east African country fell nearly 15% in the first half of the year, and 24% when compared to a similar period of 2012.

Investors blamed insecurity at the Coast, noting that the industry may have to write off the entire year; a tough scenario given tourism generates 11% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, and employs up to 10% of Kenyans.

Last year’s attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, claimed by the Al-Shabaab and in which 67 people were killed, set off a string of travel alerts and negative headlines internationally, helping deepen the sense of crisis.

This, coupled with concerns over Ebola, could further hurt sectors like aviation. The country’s national carrier, Kenya Airways, this month booked $140 million in losses for the first half of its financial year. Airline chiefs said bookings on premier routes like London plunged by up to 40% over the peak summer period, with new executive Mbuvi Ngunze saying fewer attacks could improve numbers. 

That optimism looks already in peril, ahead of a busy holiday period that would have helped bulk up a weak recovery. It will further add to the government’s insecurity headache, weeks after it lost 21 policemen to bandits in what has been a tough year.

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