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The Evolution of East African Salafi-jihadism
Image: Ahmad Iman Ali

The Evolution of East African Salafi-jihadism

James Barnett

In the early hours of January 5, 2020, roughly a dozen militants from al-Qaeda’s East African affiliate, the Somalia-based al-Shabaab, sneaked onto a discreet U.S. airfield nestled among the mangrove forests of eastern Kenya. The ensuing firefight at the base in Manda Bay lasted for hours, killing three Americans and destroying a U.S. surveillance plane.1 The assault was overshadowed in international media by the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq two days prior, but it marked a significant inflection in al-Shabaab’s long efforts to expel “infidel” forces from East Africa as a means of establishing an Islamist state.

The group had attacked Kenya numerous times and had killed two American Soldiers in separate firefights in Somalia.2 But never before had al-Shabaab succeeded in breaching a U.S. military installation. The January 2020 attack further underscored the ease with which al-Shabaab operates across the border in Kenya. A U.S. strategic partner, and generally seen in the West as one of Africa’s more stable and prosperous states, Kenya was clearly vulnerable despite years of counterterrorism efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. security assistance.3

U.S. security officials had already grown increasingly concerned about al-Shabaab’s improving capabilities prior to the attack. In March 2020, those officials revealed to The New York Times that al-Shabaab operatives had attempted to take commercial flying lessons within the past year and were also seeking to acquire shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles.4 A failed strike on an American base in Somalia in October 2019 received praise from both al-Qaeda Central and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a subsequent pledge from the group’s reclusive emir, Ahmad Umar aka Abu Ubaidah, to wage more attacks against Americans. This also had been cause for some alarm.5 The view that al-Shabaab is uniquely dangerous among Africa’s Salafi-jihadi groups is one this author has heard repeatedly from U.S. defense officials; it is also reflected in the high volume of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia in recent years.

We can only speculate about whether and how al-Shabaab might next strike against U.S. interests, presumably in East Africa but potentially further afield. We can be more confident in asserting that al-Shabaab is poised to grow stronger in the coming years if current conditions persist. Within Somalia, the group is mired in a bloody stalemate with African Union peacekeepers and Somali forces. Yet this stalemate is set to turn in al-Shabaab’s favor as AU peacekeepers are expected to draw down fully by December 2021, leaving security in the hands of an ineffectual Somali state. At the same time, conditions in Somalia’s larger neighbors in East Africa are such that al-Shabaab—and potentially its smaller rival, the Islamic State in Somalia—may be able to expand its influence there.

For example, Ethiopia, with a Muslim population of more than 30 million, faces mounting instability that may prove a vector for al-Shabaab or Islamic State expansion.6 In Kenya, al-Shabaab has begun expanding its recruitment net in innovative ways, targeting regions and ethnic groups outside traditional Islamist networks, and even recruiting youths from Christian-majority communities. These trends are worrisome in their own right given the potential to further destabilize a volatile region. Such trends also offer important lessons for the wider analytical community, as they demonstrate the adaptability and resilience of Salafi-jihadi groups. Indeed, for precisely these reasons, the history of how Salafi-jihadism gained a foothold in East Africa over the past several decades is one that merits close examination.

Bin Laden’s Khartoum Years

Sudan of the 1990s was the epicenter of a new type of revivalist Islamism in East Africa. As in the Middle East, leftist and nationalist ideologies had initially held more sway over East Africa’s Muslim elites in the post-WWII period, while in Sudan, Islamist politics was dominated by traditional Sufi sects.7 But this began to change in 1989, when Col. Omar al-Bashir seized power in Sudan with the support of Hassan al Turabi’s National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF helped Bashir reimagine Sudan as a more strictly Islamist society with a constitution influenced by the works of Islamist revivalists like Abul Ala Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb.8 In the early 1990s, pro-Bashir clerics sanctified a counterinsurgency effort in the country’s south as a jihad.9 Then came Turabi’s most consequential decision—to invite Islamist dissidents and militants from around the world to Sudan, most famously Osama Bin Laden, who settled in Khartoum in 1992 after being declared persona non grata in Saudi Arabia.10 As the son of a construction magnate, Bin Laden helped finance and organize various infrastructure projects in Sudan, ingratiating himself with the Bashir regime.11 The Sudanese government eventually bowed to U.S. and Saudi pressure and begrudgingly expelled Bin Laden in 1996, insisting that the Saudi had merely been a charitable businessman.12

In fact, the Sudan years were formative for al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s organization opened camps in Sudan and began laying the groundwork for its first major attack against American interests: the 1998 twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.13 The attacks killed 224 people in total, primarily Kenyans (the blast in Dar being less deadly).

Bin Laden’s East African cells, collectively known as al-Qaeda in East Africa (AQEA), conducted the attacks with support from al-Qaeda operatives based across the Middle East and Central and South Asia.14 In 2002, AQEA would strike again in Kenya, this time in the port city of Mombasa. The Mombasa-born Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan oversaw two attacks on November 28 of that year: the bombing of an Israeli-owned beach resort and an unsuccessful attempt to down an Israeli charter plane with a shoulder-fired missile.15 After the attacks, Nabhan fled Kenya for Somalia, a refuge for AQEA operatives and a land that al-Qaeda leadership had once hoped would become a launching pad for their global project.16

The Roots of Somali Jihad

Somalia slid into civil war in the late 1980s as various clan-based rebel movements took up arms against longtime strongman Mohamed Siad Barre, who was eventually toppled in 1991. One group that stood out from the alphabet soup of rebel factions was al Ittihad al Islamiya (AIAI), a Salafi organization formed in the 1980s that publicly disavowed clannism.17 Somalia’s Salafi community had mobilized in opposition to Barre’s project of “scientific socialism” in the 1970s and ‘80s, a time when increasing numbers of Somalis were gaining exposure to various pan-Islamist and Salafi ideas through scholarships, madrassas, and NGOs funded by Gulf petrodollars.18 In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, some AIAI members trained in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda or at other “Afghan Arab” camps. Al-Qaeda in turn sought to support the nascent Somali movement from its offices in Khartoum.19

Somalia’s appeal for jihadists was clear: the collapse of Siad Barre’s state provided an opportunity for a Muslim polity to reorganize itself around Sharia law. Furthermore, since 1992 U.S. forces had been present in Somalia to support a United Nations peacekeeping and humanitarian relief mission. Bin Laden had been unable to evict the Kuffar militaries from his own Arabian homeland, but he felt that the Somalis might be more successful with help from his mujahideen. With this in mind, in December 1992 al-Qaeda conducted its first “external” attack—a hotel bombing in Yemen (albeit an unsuccessful one) targeting U.S. forces en route to Somalia. Several months later, some al-Qaeda trainers entered Somalia via Kenya.20 Al-Qaeda-trained fighters may have taken part in the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in October 1993, a battle which shaped al-Qaeda’s worldview: the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia reinforced Bin Laden’s conviction that the “Far Enemy” would withdraw from the Muslim world rather than see its own blood spilled (19 American servicemen died in the battle along with several hundreds of Somalis).21

But Bin Laden’s hopes for a Salafi-jihadi proto-state in Somalia were premature. Al-Qaeda’s Arab operatives were frustrated by the warlordism of the ‘90s, in which militias mobilized around seemingly inscrutable clan grievances rather than a higher religious calling. Somalia was also difficult to operate in from a logistical standpoint. When he was expelled from Khartoum, Bin Laden opted for a base of operations in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which had some of the infrastructure lacking in Somalia.22 The U.N. and U.S. designated AIAI in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 for its ties with al-Qaeda, but the group was already defunct by then.23

As warlord factions increasingly fractured in the late 1990s, clan elders began forming grassroots Sharia courts in Mogadishu to fill the governance void. The courts proved quite popular for the semblance of law and order they offered: Businessmen could transport their products across town and women could walk the streets again.24 In an effort to expand their reach, a number of these courts developed militias and eventually banded together to form the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2000.25 By late 2006, the ICU had taken over much of southern Somalia, though it remained an incoherent if not factional organization.

Unsurprisingly, many AIAI members found a new home in the ICU. The jihadist presence in Somalia and the suspected role of the ICU in sheltering AQEA members thus drew the attention of U.S. intelligence officials to Somalia after 9/11. Throughout the early and mid-2000s, the CIA funded Somali warlords to hunt down suspected jihadists, though the program had limited success.26

The Rise of al-Shabaab

Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“the movement of youth mujahideen”) emerged as one radical armed wing of the ICU in the early 2000s, with many former AIAI members in its ranks.27 The group’s identity began to crystalize after December 2006, when Ethiopian forces backed with U.S. air support invaded Somalia to dislodge the ICU from Mogadishu and install the exiled, U.N.-recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG).28 The invasion fractured the ICU but also allowed the nascent al-Shabaab to capitalize on an upsurge of nationalism.

Somalis harbor deep historical grievances against Ethiopia, historically an expansionist and Christian kingdom, that fuels irredentism to this day.29 From the outset of the 2006 invasion, Ethiopian forces were met with suspicion if not outright hostility from many Somalis. The Ethiopians’ heavy-handed, Soviet-influenced military doctrine did little to help it to win hearts and minds.30 However, al-Shabaab’s narrative was not simply, or even primarily, anti-Ethiopian. It stressed the U.S. support for the invasion against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan and troop surges in Iraq. To al-Shabaab, the invasion was the latest incarnation of “Zionist-Crusader aggression” against Muslim lands.31 To this day, al-Shabaab propaganda addresses Somali nationalist grievances in a Salafi-jihadi framework that links the plight of Somalis to that of other East African Muslims and, more broadly, the Umma.32

As part of an exit strategy for Ethiopian forces, the U.N. authorized the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in February 2007.33 When the first Ugandan AMISOM forces entered Somalia, the TFG was based in a town near the Ethiopian border and held a mere sliver of conflict-torn Mogadishu.34 AMISOM forces faced four years of block-to-block urban warfare, something akin to a 21st century Stalingrad, until al-Shabaab withdrew from the city in August 2011.35

Since then, AMISOM has been fighting a grueling counterinsurgency, belying its label as a “peacekeeping mission.” AMISOM expanded to a peak force of more than 22,000 men from six nations in 2014.36 Kenyan forces invaded southern Somalia in October 2011, ostensibly to stop cross-border raids by Somali militants.37 Kenya formally joined AMISOM six months later, followed by Ethiopia in 2014.38 Participating in AMISOM, which is funded by Western donors, was a logical way for Nairobi and Addis Ababa to underwrite a military presence they would have likely maintained unilaterally in any event (to this day, Ethiopia maintains additional forces in Somalia separate from its AMISOM contingent). However, the Kenyan and Ethiopian presence has proven controversial, playing into al-Shabaab’s narrative that AMISOM is another colonial tool meant to dismember Somalia.

Since al-Shabaab’s early days, its leadership had sought a formal merger with al-Qaeda. The cautious Bin Laden had urged against such a move, seeking to maintain a degree of plausible deniability between the organizations. Bin Laden feared that a formal merger would draw international counterterrorism efforts to the Horn of Africa, citing affiliates in Algeria and Iraq that faced increased pressure after announcing bay’ah. Additionally, Bin Laden hoped to convince Gulf businessmen to support development projects in Somalia and worried that a formal al-Qaeda link to Somalia’s insurgents would dissuade donors from pursuing such philanthropy.39 However, Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, proved less apprehensive.40 On February 9, 2012, al-Shabaab’s leadership publicly announced its bay’ah to Zawahiri, cementing al-Shabaab’s role in the al-Qaeda network.41

Al-Shabaab began conducting external operations in the 2010s aimed primarily at compelling AMISOM troop-contributing countries to withdraw their forces from Somalia. In July 2010, al-Shabaab militants bombed a World Cup watch party in Kampala, Uganda, killing 76 people. The attack backfired insofar as it prompted Uganda to go on the offensive within Somalia.42 In 2014, two al-Shabaab suicide bombers attacked a restaurant in Djibouti, killing a Turkish national and wounding several European soldiers.43 Then in 2016, an al-Shabaab militant detonated a laptop bomb on a Djibouti-bound flight from Mogadishu, blowing a hole in the plane’s side but failing to bring it down.44

In terms of international coverage, the most noteworthy al-Shabaab attacks have struck neighboring Kenya. The group rose to global prominence in September 2013 when four militants stormed the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people, including multiple Europeans. Al-Shabaab live-tweeted details of the attack to a global audience, embarrassing Kenyan authorities who were trying to hide details of their delayed and ineffective response.45 In April 2015, al-Shabaab killed 148 people in a gruesome hours-long siege of Garissa University in eastern Kenya.46 Then in January 2019, al-Shabaab militants again struck a high-profile target in Nairobi, killing 21 people in a siege of the Dusit D2 hotel complex.47

Al-Shabaab Today: Stalemate, Resilience, and the Islamic State Challenge

Between 2009 and 2015 al-Shabaab lost most of the cities and towns under its control to AMISOM-led offensives. These offensives have largely ceased in recent years, producing a bloody stalemate. AMISOM forces are overextended and have begun repositioning and drawing down ahead of their mandate’s expiration in December 2021.48 Thus al-Shabaab operates freely throughout much of the Somali countryside and still holds several sizeable towns, notably in the fertile Jubba River Valley, which acts as the group’s primary base of operations.49 AMISOM has long promised a “final offensive” against these strongholds, but we are unlikely to see one before 2021. Even if the U.N. votes to again extend AMISOM’s mandate, it is doubtful the force will have the resources or willpower for such campaigns. Kenya may intend to maintain a troop buffer near the Jubba River Valley in the event AMISOM concludes its mission, but such a posture would likely be defensive.50

U.S. military engagement in Somalia, which increased under Presidents Obama and Trump, can do little more than disrupt al-Shabaab’s operations. The U.S. launched 25 airstrikes in the first two months of 2020 alone, nearly as many as it conducted in Iraq and Syria in the same period.51 Between 500 and 800 American troops, primarily special operations forces, operate in Somalia with another 350 or so in Kenya.52 U.S. military officials have modest expectations for this mission: their approach of “tailored engagement” is meant to buy time and space for Somali partners to develop the capacity to independently combat al-Shabaab.53

Unfortunately, the Somali state in its present form cannot effectively backfill AMISOM. The successor to the TFG, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), lacks the capacity to wage sustained offensive operations against al-Shabaab. The most effective units, American-trained Danab special forces, rely on U.S. airlift and are not ideally suited for the type of clear-hold-build operations of a counterinsurgency. Regular Somali forces frequently lack basic supplies, which has led to mutinies and rampant desertion.54 The FGS is failing in governance as well. Somalia is possibly the most corrupt country on earth and it is crippled by perennial political infighting.55 The FGS’s relations with Somalia’s five semi-autonomous Federal Member States (FMS) have soured considerably of late.56 Cooperation between FGS and FMS security forces is limited, while clashes between the two are not unheard of. Friction within AMISOM has exacerbated FGS-FMS tension, particularly in Jubbaland State in southern Somalia where Kenya and Ethiopia are engaged in a proxy competition.57

Al-Shabaab’s enduring presence owes both to the failings of the Somali state as well as the group’s own resilience, adaptability, and internal discipline. Its ideological rigidity is largely a product of its late emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane, who purged several officials with more nationalistic outlooks in 2013. Godane perished in a U.S. airstrike the following year, but his imprint on the organization remains.58

Al-Shabaab deftly navigates (and manipulates) inter-clan and intra-clan tension to maintain a degree of popular support.59 It also frequently provides better governance than the Somali state. Somali civilians willingly turn to al-Shabaab’s courts for arbitration.60 Merchants have reported that it is easier to transport goods through al-Shabaab-controlled checkpoints, where militants, for example, will honor a receipt from a previous checkpoint, than through those controlled by state security forces where shakedowns are routine.61 Al-Shabaab also distributes humanitarian assistance and runs public health campaigns.62

This is not to say that the group is widely popular among Somali society. Al-Shabaab’s bombings have killed countless civilians, particularly in Mogadishu, and have sparked popular backlash.63 But in the absence of a functional state, many Somalis have little option but to cooperate with al-Shabaab. Even in FGS-controlled Mogadishu, Somali merchants are subject to al-Shabaab extortion. The city is racked with near-daily assassinations, many of which are likely linked to criminal rackets.64

Al-Shabaab’s cohesion was put to the test with the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In early 2015, Somali Islamic State members in Syria began a public push for the group to drop its bay’ah to Zawahiri and re-pledge to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.65 Such a pivot did not seem unlikely at the time given how Islamic State affiliates had popped up across Africa over the previous 12 months. But Godane’s successor, Ahmad Umar aka Abu Ubaidah, instead doubled down on his allegiance to al-Qaeda. In September 2015, Al-Shabaab’s internal security services, the Amniyat, began purging Islamic State sympathizers. It is conceivable that the purge had more to do with Abu Ubaidah’s need to assert authority as a new emir than with any strong ideological opposition to the Islamic State. In fact, contemporaneous media reports suggested that Abu Ubaidah had flirted with joining the Islamic State as late as July 2015.66

Those sympathizers who escaped the purge coalesced around former al-Shabaab cleric Abdulqadir Mumin. In late 2015 they established a base of operations in rural Puntland in northern Somalia, far from al-Shabaab’s stronghold in the south. Official Islamic State media recognized this group as a wilayat (a province of the caliphate) in December 2017.67 Al-Shabaab has made two concerted efforts to date to eradicate the group in Puntland; both have failed.

The Islamic State in Somalia is small—fielding roughly 250-300 men to al-Shabaab’s 5,000-9,000—and its operations are limited to Puntland and the occasional crude attack in Mogadishu or central Somalia.68 Yet the group has proven resilient in the face of attacks from al-Shabaab and Puntland security forces as well as U.S. airstrikes.69 This resilience owes in large part to Mumin’s clan connections in Puntland, as well as to the group’s successful extortion of businesses in Puntland’s Bossaso port.70

Both the Islamic State and al-Shabaab have accused the other of deviating from Islam, indicating an ideological element to the rivalry that is present in the larger dispute between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. However, practical considerations are also likely at play, such as control over smuggling routes and overlapping extortion rackets. Al-Shabaab may also feel that its legitimacy rests on its monopoly on jihadist violence in Somalia, while aggrieved Puntland clans may see the Islamic State as a means of protecting and advancing their interests.

Kenya’s Perplexing Salafi-jihadi Problem

After Somalia, Kenya has borne the brunt of al-Shabaab’s insurgency. Kenyan citizens are estimated to comprise the largest number of non-Somali fighters in al-Shabaab, a product of the historical overlap between Kenya and Somalia’s Salafi circles.71 Kenya’s Islamist organizations grew active in the 1990s during a period of moderate political liberalization. Islamism found some adherents along the Swahili coast, where the population had been Muslim for hundreds of years, prior to European colonialism, and also felt marginalized in post-independence politics.72 Additionally, members of Kenya’s long-repressed ethnic Somali population were historically active in Kenya’s Islamist circles.73 Given the porosity of Kenya’s borders, it was no surprise that some Kenyans trained in AIAI- and later ICU-linked camps in Somalia in the 1990s and early 2000s.74

Al-Shabaab began recruiting Kenyans in the late 2000s through the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC), a Kenyan Salafi group, later renamed “al-Hijra” and incorporated into al-Shabaab. The MYC was established in 2008 at the Pumwani Riyadha mosque in the Majengo slums of Nairobi, a community of predominantly coastal emigres. The MYC network was strongest along the coast, drawing on the support of hardline Mombasa clerics like Aboud Rogo and Abubakar Shariff “Makaburi” (both of whom had been close to Mombasa’s most famous hometown terrorist, Saleh Nabhan).75 The MYC funneled funds and fighters to al-Shabaab while disseminating al-Qaeda propaganda, yet it operated relatively openly in its early days. Many Kenyan Muslims overlooked or were ignorant of the group’s radical views—which included urging Muslims to boycott national politics on the grounds that the Kenyan state represented a colonial occupation of Muslim lands—and supported its work in keeping youths off the street.76

The MYC became more visibly militant after the Kenyan incursion into Somalia in October 2011. MYC members along the coast as well as al-Shabaab-linked networks in Eastleigh—the “little Mogadishu” neighborhood of Nairobi—responded to the invasion with a campaign of crude shootings and grenade attacks against security forces, businesses, and public transportation.77 In January 2012, the MYC declared Kenya “a war zone” and al-Shabaab named MYC founder Ahmad Iman Ali its leader for Kenya.78 Kenyan security forces responded with a brutal crackdown—which accelerated after the September 2013 Westgate attack—that led to scores of extra-judicial killings.79 Leading radical clerics such as Rogo and Makaburi were killed—many suspect by police. The killings sparked riots in 2014 and the temporary closure of two MYC-linked mosques in Mombasa, Masjid Musa and Masjid Sakina.80

The crackdown forced the MYC network to go underground. Many fled to neighboring Tanzania, where law enforcement was less focused on counterterrorism.81 Others joined Ahmad Iman Ali in Somalia.82 Al-Shabaab shifted to conducting cross-border raids from southern Somalia, a trend that continues to this day. These raids mostly strike Kenya’s Somali-majority border counties—Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa—and coastal Lamu County, where Manda Bay is located. Some of the raids are conducted by a special unit of predominantly Kenyan and Tanzanian fighters called “Jaysh Ayman,” which is based in southern Somalia and maintains camps in Lamu’s Boni Forest.83

In late 2019, al-Shabaab attempted a dramatic return to Mombasa. Kenyan security forces foiled a plot in late September that would have seen attacks on landmarks around the city and possibly in neighboring counties. The plot appears to have been more ambitious than anything al-Shabaab had previously attempted in Mombasa, likely involving coordination between multiple cells.84 Further evidence of renewed al-Shabaab activity along the coast came in October, when Kenyan authorities released a list of 10 terrorist suspects believed to be operating around Mombasa; all had Swahili or Digo names.85

The January 2019 Dusit D2 attack marked an even more dangerous evolution in al-Shabaab’s Kenyan operations, underscoring the group’s ability to leverage an increasingly diverse pool of fighters to strike at the heart of Kenya. In its statement following the attack, al-Shabaab labeled the operation “Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized.” The group claimed that it had conducted the attack in accordance with Zawahiri’s call to target worldwide “Western and Zionist interests,” following the Trump administration’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem.86

This was likely an ex post facto justification for an already planned attack, but it underscores how al-Shabaab sees itself as part of a global Salafi-jihadi community and how its operations serve to advance al-Qaeda’s interests—the expulsion of foreign forces from Muslim lands.87 The attack also carried symbolic importance for Kenyan jihadists, occurring on the third anniversary of al-Shabaab’s most successful operation against Kenyan security forces: a 2016 raid on the Kenyan AMISOM base in El Adde, Somalia that killed upwards of 140 soldiers and kicked off a political firestorm in Nairobi. As a further homage to Kenya’s jihadist community, al-Shabaab claimed that the Dusit operation had been carried out by the “Martyr Saleh Nabhan Brigade,” which had also been credited with the El Adde attack.88

The most alarming element of the Dusit attack is the ethnic makeup of the five-man assault team. The cell leader, Ali Salim Gichunge, was the son of a Kenya Defence Forces soldier, a relatively typical middle-class Kenyan by all accounts, and an ethnic Meru—a Christian-majority ethnic group from central Kenya. The cell’s suicide bomber, Mahir Riziki, had been part of the Mombasa MYC network and had fled to Tanzania amid the crackdown on Masjid Musa. A third suspect named by police, Eric Kinyanjui, was Kikuyu—another Christian-majority ethnic group from central Kenya.89 This diversity marked a departure from al-Shabaab’s previous high-profile attacks, which were almost always led and executed by Somalis.90

Following the revelations of the “local” role in the attacks, officials in central and western Kenya came forward with more evidence of al-Shabaab recruitment among Christian-majority communities in their counties.91 These data points seem to confirm earlier reporting that after the intense Kenyan crackdown of 2012-2014, some elements of the MYC network had eschewed “hijra” (migration) to Somalia or exile. Instead, they had dispersed into communities in Kenya’s interior that had historically been peripheral to the country’s Islamist networks. This was likely a deliberate strategy on the part of al-Shabaab, both a means of avoiding detection and of expanding its recruitment. Recruiters in those communities even reportedly urged their new acolytes to retain their Christian names whenever applicable in order to avoid suspicion.92

The question of how al-Shabaab is recruiting so well in central and western Kenya, including winning Christian converts, merits further investigation. Kenyan authorities have suggested that these recruits are driven by financial incentives, which tracks with reports that most of the recruiting occurs in slums.93 But the economic angle is rarely a sufficient explanation for so broad a phenomenon as radicalization—and also a convenient one for Nairobi to push as it seeks more aid and a trade agreement with the United States. Some civil society actors have suggested that these recruits’ ignorance of Islam makes them susceptible to al-Shabaab’s radical religious teachings.94 This seems likely, but may only reflect part of the equation. Given al-Shabaab’s record of successfully exploiting social and political grievances elsewhere, we should consider that the group may be crafting more comprehensive socio-political-economic messaging tailored to diverse Kenyan communities, Christian ones included.

Somalia’s Jihadists Eye Ethiopia

Ethiopia has so far avoided the al-Shabaab attacks that have plagued Kenya. This, despite Ethiopia’s porous borders, its longstanding status as an arch-enemy of the Somali Salafi-jihadi movement, and the presence of Ethiopian fighters in al-Shabaab. The group came closest to striking Ethiopia in October 2013, when several operatives accidentally blew themselves up in an Addis Ababa safehouse prior to a planned attack on a soccer match.95 That same month, Godane reportedly ordered the creation of a special unit of Ethiopian fighters, Jaysh al Usra, to conduct operations in the country, although it is unclear if the unit has staged any attacks to date.96 Ethiopian authorities thwarted another plot in Addis Ababa, this by al-Shabaab’s Amniyat branch, in the fall of 2014.97

We can only speculate as to why there appear to have been relatively few al-Shabaab plots in Ethiopia. One possibility is that Ethiopian authorities have foiled numerous attacks since 2014 but have kept mum. This is conceivable given the opaque nature of Ethiopia’s security state, which has only recently—and haltingly—begun to open up under the country’s new reformist Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. It is equally plausible, however, that after the failure of the 2013 and 2014 plots, the group decided to pause operations in Ethiopia and focus resources on Kenya, which—perhaps for reasons of geography, human networks, or international press coverage—offered a more attractive target.

It was a surprise, then, when Ethiopian authorities announced in September 2019 that they had rounded up dozens of al-Shabaab and Islamic State operatives across Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s Somali region, and Oromia state (home to the Muslim-majority Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group). The counterterrorism operation was supported by U.S. and European intelligence agencies as well as by authorities in neighboring Djibouti and Somaliland, through which some of the cells had entered or planned to enter Ethiopia. Authorities stated that one of the al-Shabaab cells was scouting locations in Addis Ababa and acknowledged that the Islamic State had “recruited, trained, and armed some Ethiopians.”98 However, given the animosity between al-Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia, it is unlikely that the two groups were cooperating within Ethiopia.

Prior to the arrests, both al-Shabaab and the Islamic State had made new efforts to recruit inside Ethiopia. Al-Shabaab produced its first Oromo propaganda video in 2017.99 In July 2019, an Islamic State-linked Telegram channel announced that it would begin releasing material in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.100 Subsequently, in February 2020, the Islamic State in Somalia released a video in Amharic and Swahili.101 These media efforts and the recent arrests suggest that both groups believe Ethiopia is susceptible to Salafi-jihadi expansion.

Unfortunately, they may be right. Time and again, al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-linked groups across Africa have found ways to insert themselves into or otherwise capitalize on inter-ethnic strife. Ethiopia faces such strife on a staggering scale. The country is presently one of the world’s leaders in internally displaced people as a result of ethnic conflict—conflict that stems in large part from the country’s turbulent transition under Abiy.102

Political divisions in Ethiopia, with a population that is roughly a third Muslim, have traditionally fallen along ethnic rather than religious lines (several ethnic groups have sizeable Muslim and Christian populations alike). But that could change. There are indicators that the violence is already taking on more confessional implications in certain areas, with a rise in reported arson attacks against churches and mosques since 2018.103 In a country with such a large, disaffected youth population and growing ethnic tension, more Ethiopian Muslims may see in Salafi-jihadi groups a path towards security, the restoration of family and individual honor, material gain, and adventure.

Even if Salafi-jihadism only appeals to a small minority of Ethiopian Muslims, it will pose an additional challenge to the Ethiopian state at a time when it can ill afford it. Significantly, it is not clear that Abiy Ahmed’s government exercises full control over Ethiopia’s security sector, as evidenced by the behavior of regional police forces, a mutiny, and an apparent coup attempt since 2018. In the worst case, Ethiopia is at risk of a larger state breakdown, perhaps fueled in part by regional geopolitical competition and the economic and political fallout of COVID-19 (the pandemic has forced Ethiopia to delay its elections, which risks throwing Abiy’s government into constitutional limbo come autumn). Such a scenario would likely be a boon for East Africa’s Salafi-jihadi groups.

Conclusion

State fragility and social upheaval across much of East Africa offers fertile ground for the expansion of Salafi-jihadi groups. In addition to the countries discussed, Sudan faces the prospect of a greater Salafi-jihadi presence as it navigates a rocky and uncertain political transition.104 In southeastern Africa, a Salafi-jihadi insurgency has erupted in northern Mozambique that appears to be drawing in fighters from throughout Central and East Africa, and particularly Tanzania, which also has a long history of al-Shabaab recruitment.105 This insurgency operates under the banner of the Islamic State’s newest wilayat, the Central Africa Province, which also claims attacks by a pre-existing Islamist group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Much about these insurgents and their ties to the Islamic State remain unknown.106

The U.S. and its partners are engaged in a many-faceted struggle against Salafi-jihadism in East Africa.107 This is not simply a “War on Terror”—which is itself a misnomer, terrorism being a tactic employed by diverse groups. Rather, the struggle is ideological and political as much as it is a military fight. It is clear, moreover, that the problem will not go away on its own. Across the globe, Salafi-jihadi groups are today far more numerous and deadlier than they were at the turn of the century. East Africa has already witnessed at least three generations of Salafi-jihadis: those who partook in the anti-Soviet jihad; the likes of Saleh Nabhan, who oversaw attacks on his hometown, Mombasa, at the age of 23; and the young foot soldiers of today’s al-Shabaab. Given current trends, we may expect the next generation to be larger and more diverse than any that preceded it.

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