East Africa's Terrorist Triple Helix: The Dusit Hotel Attack and the Historical Evolution of the Jihadi Threat.

AuthorBryden, Matt

On January 15, 2019, a group of terrorists carried out a deadly attack against 14 Riverside Drive, an office complex in Nairobi's upscale Westlands neighborhood that also hosts the Dusit D2 luxury hotel. During the course of the overnight siege, 21 people were killed and at least 28 injured. (1) In contrast with the shambolic response to al-Shabaab's 2013 attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall, Kenya's security forces reacted with alacrity and professionalism, assisting some 700 people in the compound to reach safety. By mid-morning the following day, the siege was over and the terrorists dead. The Somali jihadi group Harakaat al-Shabaab al-Mujaahidiin, commonly known as al-Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the attack. (2)

The D2 operation, as it came to be known, bore the classic hallmarks of an al-Shabaab complex attack: the tactics, techniques, and procedures employed by the assailants were all too familiar, tried and tested dozens of times over the past decade by al-Shabaab in Somalia. Nor was it the first time that the group has conducted mass casualty 'martyrdom' operations beyond Somalia's borders. Only the successful deployment of a suicide bomber--something the group has managed to do in Uganda and Djibouti--distinguished the operation from previous al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya. (3) But the Dusit attack was unique in one important respect: it was the first successful al-Shabaab martyrdom operation planned, led, and carried out primarily by Kenyans not of Somali descent. (4)

Although one operation does not in itself indicate a trend, key aspects of the D2 operation suggest that this is a new phase in the evolution of the terrorist threat in East Africa and the Horn. The reasons are twofold: first, the coming of age of al-Shabaab's East African fighters, gradually transforming a predominantly Somali organization into a more inclusive regional avatar of al-Qaida in East Africa; and second, the faltering of Somalia's political reconstruction under the administration of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo and Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, (5) offering al-Shabaab ample time and space to plan and prepare new operations.

Historically, the threat of terrorism in the region has been at its most acute when three main strands of jihadism--Somali, East African, and global--have intertwined in a kind of 'triple helix': Somalia serves as the geographic and organizational host; East African extremists provide the foot soldiers who can operate most effectively across the wider region; and al-Qa'ida provides the ideological legitimacy and global appeal. The 1998 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 220 people and wounding thousands more, were the work of just such a triad: al-Qa'ida, the Somali jihadi group al-Ittihad al-Islami, and a network of Kenyan extremists that later came to be known as al-Hijra. So, too, were the bombing of a tourist resort near Mombasa and attempted shooting down of an Israeli passenger jet in 2002. (6)

After 2002, the remnants of al-Qa'ida East Africa (AQEA) and al-Ittihad bound together out of necessity, giving rise to al-Shabaab. Their East African comrades-in-arms entered a mutually supportive relationship with al-Shabaab, but initially pursued an independent path. In 2009, however, that trajectory began to shift, and in recent years, al-Hijra's identity has been steadily subsumed by al-Shabaab: (7) the terrorist 'triple helix' that once posed such a danger to the entire region is now re-emerging.

This article, therefore, begins by revisiting the genesis of the jihadi presence in East Africa in the early 1990s, from al-Qa'ida building a presence in the region to its intersection with the first Somali jihadi organization, al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI), to the nexus between it and extremist fringe of the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK), and responsibility for the spate of terrorist attacks that shook the region between 1998 and 2002. Part two of the article then traces the emergence of al-Shabaab, first as a successor to AIAI and host of residual al-Qa'ida elements in Somalia, then as a jihadi movement in its own right and full-fledged affiliate of al-Qa'ida with their sights set on regional jihad. This section also examines the evolution of al-Hijra from a gaggle of Kenyan militants left ideologically adrift by the disintegration of the IPKs demise into an organized, clandestine movement that became progressively affiliated with al-Shabaab until it was ultimately assimilated as an integral part of al-Shabaab's regional ambitions. Lastly, the article describes how these discrete strands of jihadi activity have become fused in the threat network that attacked the D2 compound and why this potentially represents a dangerous new phase of al-Shabaab activity across East Africa and the Horn.

The Dusit hotel attack was by no means the most deadly or destructive al-Shabaab terrorist action in Kenya: the raids on West-gate shopping mall (2013), Mpeketoni (2014), and Garissa University College (2015) all claimed more victims. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Dusit attack as simply another atrocity perpetrated by Somalia's preeminent terrorist organization: several key aspects of the operation suggest that it represented a milestone in the realization of al-Shabaab's longstanding ambition to become a genuinely regional jihadi movement. The assault on Riverside Park not only featured al-Shabaab's first suicide bombing on Kenyan soil, but also the first Kenyan al-Shabaab suicide bomber to attack his home country, and it was the first major al-Shabaab attack in Kenya carried out by terrorists of non-Somali origin.

To understand why these characteristics matter and the degree to which they represent a potential shift in the nature of the al-Shabaab threat, it is necessary to revisit nearly three decades of jihadi activity across the region and to unravel the 'triple helix' of genetic material from which al-Shabaab inherited its unique configuration of ideological, strategic, and operational DNA: Somali, internationalist, and East African, respectively.

Al-Shabaab's Somali provenance provides it with a vulnerable population to exploit, vast ungoverned spaces across which to operate, and a conflict environment in which to train its forces and expose them to combat. The movement's al-Qa'ida credentials permit al-Shabaab to transcend its Somali identity, frame its mission in global terms, and appeal to regional and international audiences. And al-Shabaab's expanding contingent of trained and experienced East African fighters enables the group to operate more discreetly across the region, establishing new cells, gathering intelligence, and planning fresh strikes. The D2 attack showcased the fusion of these three organizational traits and signaled the advent of a new phase in al-Shabaab's regional campaign.

Part One: The Genesis of the Jihadi Presence in East Africa, 1992-2002

The Emergence of al-Qa'ida in East Africa

Al-Qa'ida first made its debut in East Africa in 1992, when Usama bin Ladin and his entourage settled in Sudan. (8) With the support of his Sudanese hosts, notably the ideologue Hassan al-Turabi, bin Ladin set to work amassing resources, building a network of alliances, and training a new generation of jihadis. At the time, AQEA was indistinguishable from al-Qa'ida Core. Operations in the region were led and orchestrated by Egyptian members of bin Ladin's inner circle, including his deputy, Abu Ubaidah Al-Banshiri; al-Qa-'ida's military chief, Mohamed Atef (aka Abu Hafs Al-Masri); and Saif al-'Adl.

The deployment of U.S. troops to Somalia in December 1992 prompted bin Ladin to stage his first operations, (9) bombing two hotels in Aden, Yemen, (10) where U.S. troops were believed to be staying, and sending instructors to provide training, strategic guidance, and even some tactical leadership to anti-U.S. Somali militias, including the nascent jihadi organization al-Ittihad al-Islami. (11) Ultimately, however, al-Qa'ida's Somali operations fizzled as its local allies failed to unite, the Somali jihadi movement stumbled, and U.S. forces withdrew in 1994. The last remaining al-Qa'ida toehold, a shared training camp with al-Ittihad in Somalia's remote Gedo region, was destroyed by Ethiopian forces in early 1997. (12)

More importantly, however, al-Qa'ida had established a robust regional infrastructure to support its Somalia operations, including charities and shell businesses to facilitate the movement of people and money around the region. (13) When, in 1996, bin Ladin was expelled from Sudan and relocated to Afghanistan with most of his senior leadership, he left behind an extensive, well-developed network and enough senior operatives to sustain al-Qa'ida's mission in the region. (14) In 1998, suicide bombers struck the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 200 people and wounding thousands more. In the aftermath of the attacks, many of those responsible--notably those from outside the region like Wadih El-Hage and Mohamed Sadiq Odeh (15)--either fled the region, were captured, or were killed, leaving behind a diminished al-Qa'ida presence.

The remaining AQEA cell was then led by and composed almost exclusively of nationals from East Africa and the Horn. Tariq Abdallah (aka Abu Talha al-Sudani), the group's coordinator and financier, was a Sudanese based in Mogadishu. Fazul Abdallah Mohamed (commonly known as Harun Fazul), a cerebral al-Qa'ida veteran from the Comoros Islands who was simultaneously involved in setting up bin Ladin's diamond business in West Africa, emerged as the team's operational leader. (16) Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior operational leader from Mombasa, was believed to have been the owner of the vehicle used to bomb the Paradise Hotel; in Somalia, he was allegedly responsible for the management of jihadi training camps. (17)

It was this leaner, more local AQEA team that planned and carried out the...

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