Khalil Senosi / AP

Why is Al-Shabab attacking Kenya?

Armed group raises its international profile, retaliates against Kenya for sending troops to fight it in Somalia

As with its assault on the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, Al-Shabab’s attack on a Kenyan university Thursday in the northeast town of Garissa is another example of the armed group striking at vulnerable civilian targets in retaliation for Kenya’s involvement in a regional military action against it in Somalia, analysts say.

The Garissa attack left at least 148 students dead, in a siege of the university that lasted nearly 15 hours after gunmen shot their way into the college. The attack, the deadliest since the United States embassy in Nairobi was bombed in 1998, comes less than two years after Al-Shabab fighters raided the Westgate mall in Nairobi, taking dozens of hostages and killing 67 people.

Experts on armed insurgent groups in East Africa say that Al-Shabab is targeting Kenya because of the government‘s decision in 2011 to provide troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), with United Nations approval. This peacekeeping mission, which includes a military component that draws troops from Ethiopia, Djibouti, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Uganda, was put together to root out Al-Shabab from its strongholds in south and central Somalia. The mission has counted a number of significant successes in recent years, such as the recapturing of important port cities along the Somali coast and the killing of several Al-Shabab leaders.

In March, AMISOM seized Kuday, an island off the port city of Kismayo, which Al-Shabab fighters used to smuggle contraband charcoal that it sells to Gulf states to sustain its operations. The killing that same month of Adnan Garaar, who allegedly helped plan the Westgate attack, by a U.S. drone also delivered an important blow to the organization, the Pentagon reported. Much of the capital of Mogadishu is back in the Somali government’s hands, AMISON reported, but car bombs and suicide attacks continue to rock the capital.

These recent military setbacks suffered by Al-Shabab help explain why the group is targeting vulnerable populations within in Kenya, said Joshua Meservey, assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “They [Al-Shabab] can’t control as much territory as they once did,” Meservey said. “They can’t fight AMISOM in a conventional military battle, so really they’re left with terror attacks.”

Al-Shabab is also exploiting partisan rifts within Kenya, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group. Historical grievances of marginalization of Muslim communities and their discrimination in national institutions have divided the government, the opposition and Muslim leaders. Political stakeholders cannot decide on how best to tackle the insurgency. “The absence of a common Kenyan Muslim agenda and leadership has meant little resistance to the extremist message,” the group noted.

The rise of the Islamic State In Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an armed group that has captured swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, may also play a role in Al-Shabab’s decision to launch a large-scale attack. ISIL has dominated international headlines over the past year, and recently became affiliated with Boko Haram, an insurgency that originated in Nigeria and aims to establish a “caliphate” there.

Al-Shabab, meanwhile, has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and may see headline-grabbing attacks, like the ones at Westgate and Garissa, as a way of raising their profile, according to Katherine Zimmerman, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “There is some traction that Al Shabab can get in labeling [itself] a crusader army,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a recruitment tool.”

Al-Shabab, Somalia's largest armed group, started out as one of many factions fighting against the U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government based in Mogadishu. It morphed into what the United States labeled a "terrorist" organization after staging attacks on prominent foreign and national targets.

With wire services

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