Shabaab and Boko Haram take their attacks to remote places - why we should be very afraid

By focusing attacks in smaller, remote areas, insurgents are making a trade-off between publicity and slowly bleeding nations from their edges.

IT’S another bad day for Kenya as suspected al-Shabaab militia killed 14 in the northern town of Mandera, where the borders of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia meet.

The group has claimed responsibility for the pre-dawn attack; the militia hurled grenades and petrol bombs at houses, and then opened fire on the victims.

Mandera County Commissioner Alex Ole Nkoyo said those attacked mainly worked in a nearby quarry, which is reminiscent of a similar attack in December last year, when 36 quarry workers were also killed in a town about 15 kilometres outside Mandera.

Terror groups have intensified their hits over the past few weeks as Islamic State senior leader Abu Mohammad al-Adnani urged militants everywhere to step up their attacks during the holy month of Ramadhan.

In Tunisia, 38 were killed two weeks ago when a lone gunman opened fire on tourists lounging on a beach; the same day saw three other attacks in France, Kuwait, Syria and Somalia in which a total of at least 400 were killed – making it one of the bloodiest single days of co-ordinated terror attacks in recent times.

And a week ago, suspected Boko Haram militants killed nearly 170 people in northeastern Nigeria, opening fire indiscriminately and setting houses ablaze in the deadliest day of attacks since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in May.

The Nigeria attacks occurred in three remote villages in Borno state, the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency.

What ties the Shabaab in Kenya with Boko in Nigeria in recent times is its shift to smaller, more remote, “easier to execute” targets – while the Islamic State seems to be going the opposite way, with larger, more audacious strikes in cities.

Shabaab haven’t managed to pull off a large-scale attack in the capital city Nairobi since the Westgate mall attack in September 2013 that left 67 dead. But they’ve hit many smaller towns and villages in the northeast and at the Coast.

 Boko Haram haven’t hit a major city since the May 2014 bombings in the city of Jos which 118 were killed, Still, they’ve stepped up their insurgency in the latter half of last year and early 2015, capturing towns and villages in Borno and Adamawa states, and at some point, declaring a caliphate over an area of 51,800 sq. km – nearly the size of Rwanda and Burundi combined.

Their recent shift has been necessitated partly by the fact that they have been defeated in their urban enclaves by a more determined Nigerian military, and a combined regional force of Chadian and Niger forces. But often, a remote campaign can be more deadly in the long run.

Thus by focusing the attacks in smaller, far-flung areas, the insurgents are necessarily making a trade-off between publicity (because the media and international community are concentrated in the cities), and slowly bleeding states at very low cost, because governments are rarely able to concentrate security resources in the remote areas.

The distant attacks are therefore easier to pull off, as regular police work like intelligence gathering, following up on leads and emergency responses is weak in those marginalised areas.

But because of the distance, news is slow to trickle out, and terror groups – who live and breathe on publicity and notoriety – may find themselves in the wretched position where they’ve just carried out a major atrocity, but no one knows about it.

To compensate for the “relative” lack of publicity, the groups might possibly find themselves having to do a larger number of attacks so that they can generate the necessary traction in the media’s news cycle.

The body count, therefore, will be higher. In countries like Nigeria and Kenya, some of these remote areas are usually marginalised economically, and there are grievances there about being neglected and being treated like “second class” citizens. The result is that, unlike attacks in urban areas, these ones can stoke bitter secessionist and ethnic politics, making them more deadly in the longer term.

A narrative of “state failure” usually takes root, as the perception that there is territory outside the government’s control. 

These attacks also tend to provoke specific types of responses. In Kenya, some anti-terror measures proposed recently have been criticised as crude and potentially counter-productive. They include, among others, closing the Daadab refugee camp, and building a 700km wall along the entire length of the Kenya-Somali border, measures that tend to look attractive where a government has wide open spaces to act in.


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