The United States warned its citizens residing in Kenya of possibly imminent attacks by terrorist groups, referring particularly to the Islamic fundamentalist organization al-Shabaab. This warning comes just weeks after an attack on a Nairobi Hotel by al-Shabaab, which resulted in the deaths of 21 people, including an American citizen. Currently the U.S. embassy considers Nairobi one of Kenya’s most vulnerable areas for attack, along with other popular tourist destinations such as Naivasha, Nanyuki, and other coastal areas.
Monday’s statement by the U.S. embassy read that “credible information indicates Westerners may be considered targets,” further the embassy warned its citizens to be especially vigilant “in public spaces such as shopping malls, hotels, and places of worship.” The United States, however, was not the only nation expressing concern for its nationals in Kenya. As the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office warned: “there is a heightened threat of terrorist attacks across Kenya, including Nairobi and the coast and resort areas around Mombasa and Malindi, and northern border counties.” Attacks against Westerners are a fairly common terror strategy designed to attract large amounts of media attention. As stated by Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former national security adviser in Somalia, “a terror attack is … purely media theatre. The number of casualties is not the primary objective. It is to attack a high-profile target, especially where westerners are going to be so the west is interested.”
The threat posed by al-Shabaab is, unfortunately, not uncommon on a global scale. Violent religious extremism is allowed to fester in failed states such as Somalia for a multitude of reasons. First, failed states lack the centralized government necessary to combat the expansion of terror, thereby allowing groups to grow unchecked by an organized military or police force. Second, extremist groups may actually enjoy a degree of localized support if they are able to provide the otherwise inaccessible necessities of daily life. Together, these factors render the elimination of terror a highly difficult process, one that often requires the work of an international coalition and the backing of a global superpower, as in the case of efforts to counter the Islamic State in Syria. Already, the United States has engaged in airstrikes against al-Shabaab targets, in an attempt to weaken their network and undermine their capacity to carry out attacks. Efforts such as those of the United States and Kenya have had a distinct impact on al-Shabaab, which is experiencing a sharp decrease in both funds and manpower. Considering these factors, perhaps the “credible information,” which inspired Monday’s warning, is best viewed as an attempt by the terror group to send a message to international opposition. A message that they have yet to be defeated and still have the ability to carry out large scale attacks.
Still, al-Shabaab remains among the greatest terror threats in Eastern Central Africa, and their violence is far from new. This insurgency group has waged a decades long struggle in Somalia in order to impose Islamic Sharia law. Even as they have been forced out of Somalia’s major cities, al-Shabaab controls much of the failed state’s southern and rural areas, close to the Kenyan border. Although originally a militant group opposed to the Somali government, al-Shabaab has issued public threats to Kenya due to Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. Recent years have seen a number of attacks in Kenya at the hands of this group, particularly in Garissa, Lamu, and Mandera counties, as well as other areas close to the Somali border. These indiscriminate attacks have resulted in the deaths of members of both the Kenyan security forces as well as civilians. In response, Kenyan security forces have increased their presence in affected areas, providing security but increasing the likelihood of conflict. As a result, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised against all travel within 60 km of the Somali border, other than that which is absolutely necessary.
Terrorism is unfortunately an unavoidable byproduct of our current international system. Where there is the power there will be those who lust after it. Often this results in challenging those who hold at least nominal authority and propagating a unifying ideology, one that justifies violence and abuse. Al-Shabaab is not unique in a global context, and neither is Monday’s warning. In a unipolar international climate dominated by the hegemon of the United States, westerners abroad are prime targets for foreign terror groups. As unfortunate as it may be, the death of an American is much more salient to a western oriented media than the death of a Kenyan. For a weakened al-Shabaab, attacks against U.S. citizens therefore require less scale, and fewer resources while still achieving maximum exposure. Recognizing context is imperative to understanding any global event, particularly in attempting to understand the motivations of international actors. Al-Shabaab is a terrorist group; all exposure in media is beneficial to their cause, particularly when this exposure unsettles a western audience.