Abstract: On January 15, 2019, a group of al-Shabaab terrorists carried out a deadly attack against an office complex in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, that also hosts the Dusit D2 luxury hotel. During the course of the overnight siege 21 people were killed and at least 28 injured. Although al-Shabaab has struck Kenya several times previously, and with more deadly consequences, the D2 attack, as it came to be known, represented a disquieting milestone in al-Shabaab’s evolution. In the past, the group had relied almost exclusively on ethnic Somalis to carry out its ‘martyrdom’ operations both inside and outside Somalia. The terrorist cell that conducted the assault on the Dusit compound, however, comprised Kenyan nationals of non-Somali descent, including a suicide bomber from the Kenyan port town of Mombasa. In the aftermath of the attack, al-Shabaab issued a statement claiming that it had staged the operation in accordance with an al-Qa`ida edict demanding retaliation for the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The raid on the D2 compound brought together three strands of al-Shabaab’s organizational DNA: its Somali provenance, its ideological affiliation with al-Qa`ida, and its growing cohort of trained, experienced East African fighters. The successful combination of these traits in a single operation suggests that al-Shabaab’s longstanding ambition to transcend its Somali origins and become a truly regional organization is becoming a reality, representing a new and dangerous phase in the group’s evolution and the threat that it poses to the region.

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-Qa`ida 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 IPK’s 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 Westgate 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 Odeh15—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 next round of terrorist attacks in Kenya. To prepare the next phase of their operations, they established a base in Mogadishu, where they blended in easily and could travel freely between Somalia and Kenya. Two junior members of the team settled near Kismayo to set up a lobster fishing business, while Fazul acquired a second home in the Kenyan village of Siyu, near Lamu, where he married and set up a local madrassa while recruiting and planning for the next round of attacks.18

On November 28, 2002, two Kenyan gunmen drove a vehicle loaded with explosives through the gate at the Paradise Hotel in Kikambala, near Mombasa—a beach resort frequented by Israeli tourists—killing 15 people and wounding approximately 80 others. At roughly the same time, Nabhan and a Kenyan-Somali named Issa Osman Issa took up a position near Moi International Airport, Mombasa,19 and fired two SA-7 Strela man-portable surface-to-air missiles at an Israeli charter flight with 246 passengers on board. Both missiles, which had been smuggled into Kenya by boat between Kismayo and Siyu, missed their target, and the flight arrived in Tel Aviv safely.20 Immediately after the operation, the surviving members of the team fled to Somalia21 where, together with their Somali jihadi hosts, they would begin laying the foundation for al-Shabaab.

Al-Ittihad al-Islami—al-Qa`ida’s Original Partner in Somalia
Al-Qa`ida’s original partner in Somalia had been the jihadi organization al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI), but by 2002, when Fazul and his associates fled to Somalia in the wake of the Mombasa and Kikambala operations, AIAI was long defunct. All that remained of the movement were small clusters of die-hard extremists waiting for the opportunity to revive their ‘jihad.’ Their most prominent leader was Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former deputy chairman and military commander of AIAI, and it was to Aweys and his acolytes that al-Qa`ida’s remaining East African cell turned for support.

AIAI had started out as an underground salafi organization founded in Somalia in the 1980s, but which openly materialized as a jihadi movement following the collapse of the Siyaad Barre regime in January 1991. Several of AIAI’s early leaders, including Hassan Abdullah Hersi ‘Turki’ and Ibrahim Haji Jama ‘Al-Afghani’ (himself a veteran of the ‘jihad in Afghanistan) enjoyed close ties with al-Qa`ida.22

In 1991, al-Ittihad grew rapidly and attracted a cross-clan following,23 fueled in part by support from Saudi charitable foundations and other Gulf sponsors.24 Better organized and more disciplined than other Somali militias, AIAI nevertheless struggled to gain traction in Somalia’s clan-based society. In mid-1992, it launched an unsuccessful bid to establish an Islamic emirate in northeastern Somalia but was defeated and expelled by local clan-based militias. For several months, AIAI forces migrated from region to region in search of new bases, but were met with mistrust and, in several cases, military defeat.25 But as 1992 drew to an end, following the deployment of U.S. forces to Somalia, al-Ittihad found a new ally in bin Ladin and his al-Qa`ida network.26

With al-Qa`ida’s support, between 1992 and 1995, al-Ittihad fought alongside other factions opposed to the U.S. and U.N. presence in Somalia. But it continued to meet with hostility from various clans and their militias, and in 1995, when U.N. forces finally withdrew, the movement had little effective presence beyond northern Gedo region in southwest Somalia.27 From its main base in Luuq, it sustained forward operating bases inside Ethiopia, engaging in raids against Ethiopian security forces and conducting a series of terrorist attacks, notably in Addis Ababa.28 In late 1996, the Ethiopians lost patience, and conducted a series of raids across the border, dismantling al-Ittihad’s camps, and dispersing its membership. While most of its members returned to civilian life and others established a non-violent salafi political movement named Al-I’tisaam b’il Kitaab wa Sunna, a handful of die-hards remained committed to the cause of jihad.29

By 2002, small numbers of these AIAI veterans had congregated around an emerging network of Islamic courts in Mogadishu, the most influential of which was named Ifka Halan, whose patron and unofficial leader was Hassan Dahir Aweys.30 Another group of jihadis established itself in Somalia’s Lower Juba region, near the Indian Ocean, near the Kenyan border. Its leader was another former AIAI commander suspected of longstanding ties to al-Qa`ida: Hassan Turki.31 After a long period of relative inactivity, the arrival of al-Qa`ida’s East African leadership in Somalia would serve as a catalyst for AIAI’s scattered remnants, together with a new generation of extremists, to coalesce as a unified movement with renewed commitment to the cause of jihad.

The Islamic Party of Kenya
Islamist activism in Kenya, especially in the coastal areas, has existed in various forms since the early 20th century, primarily as a progressive movement to protect and promote the interests of the Muslim community in the context of growing Western influence during the colonial and immediate post-colonial periods. In 1973, the Kenyatta government established the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) as a way of harnessing Muslim leaders to the ruling party and containing any potential unrest. But in the early 1990s, the advent of multiparty democracy fueled heated debate amongst Kenyan Muslims about their status not only in Kenya but also as part of an imagined global Muslim community.32

At the heart of this debate stood the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK), which was set up in 1992 to lobby for the betterment of the Muslim community, but whose overt challenge to the legitimacy of SUPKEM and whose youthful radical wing made the establishment uneasy. Although most supporters of the IPK were non-violent activists seeking only to promote and protect the rights of Kenyan Muslims, a militant fringe sought to re-interpret their own grievances in the context of jihadi narratives of global Muslim victimization and the need for armed resistance.33

This militant minority tainted the reputation of IPK’s broader constituency and provided the Kenyan government with a sufficient pretext to deny the party registration in 1994. Many observers went so far as to accuse the movement of inciting ‘jihad’ against the government,34 and a convicted member of al-Qa`ida who associated with IPK members in the mid-1990s described them as “serious jihad types.”35 The banning of the IPK led to a period of protest and political turmoil, followed by a splintering of Islamist activism on the coast. New Islamist associations and organizations proliferated, some seeking to take advantage of new political space for activism, while others, in lieu of a formal political platform, turned to mosques, informal groupings, and self-published media to articulate more militant, populist messages.36

Masjid Musa and Masjid Sakina were among a small number of religious institutions involved in propagating Islamist activism. Among the most popular and charismatic of the emerging activists were sheikhs Abdul Aziz Rimo, Aboud Rogo, and Abubakar Shariff Ahmed ‘Makaburi.’37 The followers of these men included the future leaders of the Kenyan jihadi group that would become known as al-Hijra, as well as several key members of AQEA. In 1996 and 1997, Rogo’s madrassa regularly hosted meetings of young militants, including Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, Haruni Bamusa, Fumo Mohamed Fumo, and Ahmed Salim Swedan.38 Nabhan’s future status as an al-Qa`ida icon, including his leading role in al-Qa`ida’s 2002 Mombasa operation, has become a matter of historical record. Haruni Bamusa and Fumo Mohamed Fumo drove the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) into the Paradise Hotel in 2002.39 And Swedan, who was accused of involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings, fled to Pakistan where he was reportedly killed in a drone strike in 2009.40

In the aftermath of the 2002 attacks at Kikambala and Mombasa, police arrested hundreds of suspects, most of whom were subsequently released.41 Among those who actually faced trial were Aboud Rogo, Fazul’s father-in-law Kubwa Muhammad, brother-in-law Muhammad Kubwa, neighbor Said Saggaf Ahmed, and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan’s brother, Mohamed.42 All were subsequently acquitted for lack of evidence (although some were immediately re-arrested),43 but it would be more than a decade before al-Qa`ida’s East African offspring would manage to stage another major attack in Kenya.

In the meantime, the center of gravity for Kenyan jihadism shifted from Mombasa to Nairobi where Ahmed Iman Ali, one of Rogo and Makaburi’s promising young acolytes, was being groomed for the leadership of the Muslim Youth Center (MYC). Ostensibly a self-help group affiliated with Nairobi’s renowned Pumwani Riyadha Mosque,44 under Ali’s leadership and Rogo’s guidance, the MYC would soon emerge as the nucleus of al-Shabaab’s new Kenyan affiliate, al-Hijra.45

Part Two: Al-Shabaab and its Evolution into a Regional Terror Threat, 2003-2013
For a decade, between 1992 and 2002, these three jihadi groups—al-Ittihad al-Islami, al-Qa`ida East Africa, and the nebulous network of Kenyan militants that later coalesced as al-Hijra—had operated as mutually supportive fellow travelers. The lines between them had not always been distinct: their aims, membership, and activities often overlapped, working as close allies, providing one another with mutual support, and collaborating in terrorist attacks. But between 2002 and 2018, their objectives, membership, and loyalties became intertwined to such an extent that their identities fused within a single entity: al-Shabaab.

Al-Shabaab has long been regarded as a Somali jihadi organization with essentially nationalist objectives: it seeks to establish an Islamic Emirate in Somalia founded on its own draconian interpretation of sharia law.46 This perception of al-Shabaab is justified to the extent that the movement originated in Somalia, is still based there, and its membership is predominantly of Somali origin. But since the very outset, al-Shabaab has included elements from the wider region, and in line with its al-Qa`ida affiliation, the movement has persistently demonstrated its determination to broaden its horizons beyond Somalia proper.

In the wake of the 2002 Mombasa attacks, the remnants of AQEA and AIAI regrouped in Somalia to rebuild the shattered jihadi movement in East Africa and the Horn. The key al-Qa`ida leadership consisted of al-Sudani, Nabhan, and Fazul; their counterparts from AIAI included Ahmed Abdi Godane and Adan Hashi Ayrow, who had trained and fought alongside al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan.47 Under the umbrella of the embryonic Islamic Courts Union (ICU), al-Ittihad veterans began assembling militias and raising funds. Most had either fought or trained side-by-side with al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan. Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former vice chairman and military commander of al-Ittihad who had reinvented himself as the driving force behind the emergent Islamic Courts, provided space and protection for this terrorist nucleus to mature.48 The U.S. government, tracking the AQEA fugitives from Kenya, monitored this confluence of actors and organizations with concern, initially labelling it as the “Special Group.”49

Between 2003 and 2006, the group established a number of clandestine training camps, mainly in Lower Shabelle region, where small groups of recruits—not more than a dozen at a time—could train in secret.50 A small bomb-making cadre, reportedly led by an Afghanistan veteran known as Hassan ‘Afgooye,’ began to develop an explosives team.51 And teams of jihadi assassins from the same group traveled from Mogadishu to the relatively stable, self-declared state of Somaliland to murder foreign aid workers and disrupt the emergence of a multi-party electoral system, which the extremists considered haram (forbidden).52

The U.S. government responded by backing Somali militia leaders in Mogadishu to hunt down suspected members of al-Qa`ida and their associates.53 Al-Qa`ida’s Somali protectors, who would later become known as al-Shabaab, responded by assassinating anyone they believed worked for the warlords or might otherwise threaten their survival.54 When open war erupted in early 2006 between the warlords and the ICU, the jihadis were the primary beneficiaries.

The dramatic ascendance of the ICU across southern Somalia in 2006 had a galvanizing effect and triggered a first wave of foreign fighters, including East Africans, to join the movement.55 In 2007, recruiting surged even further as Ethiopia’s military intervention (launched in December 2006), backed by the United States, cast the conflict in the context of a much wider, global struggle.56 As the ICU’s mainstream leadership fled Somalia to establish a new opposition alliance based in Asmara, Eritrea,57 al-Shabaab remained on the battlefield, positioning itself as the standard bearer for the resistance, the main beneficiary of external contributions, and a magnet for foreign fighters—including young ethnic Somalis from the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.58

Given the key role of AQEA leaders in the inception of al-Shabaab, it is not surprising that al-Shabaab offered its allegiance to al-Qa`ida on multiple occasions, such as the 2009 video Labayk ya Osama (“At your Service Osama”).59 Al-Qa`ida reciprocated with expressions of support, including a message from bin Ladin himself entitled “Fight On, Champions of Somalia,”60 but discouraged a formal alliance between them primarily on the grounds that it would give Western powers the excuse to attack al-Shabaab.61 Following bin Ladin’s death, Ayman al-Zawahiri changed course and announced an official merger with al-Shabaab in a video message released in February 2012.62

Al-Zawahiri’s endorsement, however, coincided with a decline in al-Shabaab’s fortunes. In 2011, a combination of AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) military pressure and infighting between al-Shabaab’s senior leaders forced the jihadis to conduct a ‘tactical withdrawal’ from Mogadishu, ceding the capital to pro-government forces. Then, in September 2012, the Kenyan Defense Forces, together with a Somali militia known as the Ras Kamboni forces led by a former al-Shabaab leader named Ahmed Madoobe,63 seized the port town of Kismayo, weakening the jihadis’ presence in the Kenyan border region and depriving al-Shabaab of its principal source of revenue.64

Al-Shabaab’s formal merger with al-Qa`ida also served to bring simmering tensions within the movement to a head. In June 2013, ‘Amir’ Ahmed Abdi Godane had brought to an end nearly two years of discontent and division in the movement’s senior ranks with a bloody purge of his critics and rivals.65 The move consolidated Godane’s control over al-Shabaab, centralizing power in his hands and resolving longstanding ideological disputes in favor of the movement’s extremist faction. Al-Shabaab would retain its al-Qa`ida affiliation, but nationalists and strategic pragmatists had been silenced, leaving the organization to be defined by a takfiri ethos that legitimized the killing of other Muslims, including civilians, and a renewed commitment to international jihad in pursuit of an Islamic caliphate.66

Godane’s coup had also enhanced the importance of the Amniyat, which now served both to enforce his diktat within al-Shabaab and project ‘jihad’ beyond Somalia’s borders.67 Al-Shabaab was in the process of reinventing itself in ways that would not only transform the insurgency inside Somalia, but also redefine the terrorist threat for the region as a whole.

Al-Hijra and Jihad Beyond Somalia
In July 2010, al-Shabaab staged its first major terrorist attack outside Somalia. Suicide bombers struck two pubs in Kampala, Uganda as revelers gathered to watch the World Cup. As the largest and longest-serving troop-contributing country to AMISOM, Uganda was a natural target. Although planned and directed from Somalia,68 and one of the suicide bombers was subsequently identified as an ethnic Somali,69 the major figures in the plot, including the main attack planner, were found to be Ugandans and Kenyans.70 Despite its overwhelmingly Somali membership, it appeared that al-Shabaab had made significant progress in expanding its membership from East Africa and developing networks capable of staging attacks beyond Somalia’s borders.

In a video recorded shortly before his departure from Somalia, one of the Kampala suicide bombers, identified as Salman al-Muhajir,a warned of the group’s plans to expand the scope of its ‘jihad’ to other countries in East Africa:

“Also beware because soon we are also going to come into your countries to attack you there. And it’s going to be very soon. The Mujahideen who are coming to undertake this operation are not of Somali origin, unlike what you think. We are your citizens! We are neither Somalis, nor do we have any Somali lineage and we are coming to undertake this operation in your country; a country that we know inside out. We will be in your neighborhoods while you are in your homes and busy conducting your daily activities, so don’t be surprised when the operation takes place … Don’t be deceived. The fact that we could reach Burundi or Uganda doesn’t mean that we have forgotten about Nairobi. Passing through Nairobi on our way to Burundi or Uganda (without carrying out an operation in Nairobi) doesn’t mean that we have forgotten you, rather be forewarned of an imminent operation in the making! Insh’allah …b Yesterday, the war was in Mogadishu; tomorrow, it is going to be in Nairobi, Kampala, and Bujumbura.”

Al-Shabaab was already in the process of becoming a truly transnational organization, attracting a growing number of followers and recruits from across East Africa and elsewhere.71 As a United Nations monitoring team observed at the time, the planning and organization of the Kampala attacks suggested “not only that Al-Shabaab possesses the will and capability to conduct such attacks but that it is giving rise to a new generation of East African jihadi groups that represent a new security challenge for the region and the wider international community.”72

In the years that followed the Uganda bombings, al-Shabaab continued to strike neighboring countries with deadly attacks, but such operations were conducted almost exclusively by ethnic Somalis operating at the direction of the Amniyat. The group’s apparent inability to deploy non-Somali, East African operatives throughout this period appeared to contradict al-Muhajir’s dire predictions of East African ‘Mujahideen’ wreaking havoc across the region. But inside Somalia itself, East African fighters among al-Shabaab’s ranks were steadily gaining in skills and experience that they would eventually employ elsewhere in the region.

In the three years prior to the Kampala bombings, al-Shabaab’s East African contingent was rapidly emerging as the largest group of foreign fighters,73 estimated at between 200-500.74 Many of these were deployed to an area of operations near the Kenyan border known as the ‘Majimmo’ sector, under the command of Titus Nabsiwa ‘Mwalim Khalid’ (also known as ‘Mwalim Kenya’).75 Ahmed Iman Ali, the MYC leader from Nairobi, relocated to Somalia in 2009, from where he inspired an aggressive campaign of radicalization and recruitment for ‘jihad’ through MYC supporters and sympathizers in Kenya.76 Even Rogo was spurred to visit his former protégé in late 2009 and returned to Kenya several months later, determined to transform the MYC into a ‘gateway’ for al-Shabaab into Kenya.77

While other foreign fighters in al-Shabaab’s ranks were falling out of favor with their hosts, al-Hijra and al-Shabaab continued moving ever closer. In 2010, al-Shabaab made its first public overture to its East African brethren, releasing a propaganda video entitled “Message to the Umma: And Inspire the Believers.”78 The film featured nine foreign fighters with al-Shabaab in Somalia, six of them from East Africa.79 Subsequent propaganda videos would show al-Shabaab trainees speaking in Swahili and drilling to chants of “Sisi ni Al-Shabaab” (“We are al-Shabaab”).80 In January 2012, the convergence of the two organizations was consummated by the announcement that Ahmed Iman Ali ‘Abu Zinirah’ had been named al-Shabaab’s ‘emir’ for Kenya.81 Soon after the merger, MYC renamed itself Al-Hijra.82

The appointment of an al-Shabaab figurehead for Kenya came just as al-Hijra faced a renewed onslaught from the Kenyan security services and other, unidentified adversaries. In April 2012, two clerics accused of supporting al-Shabaab disappeared while visiting Mombasa together. The body of Samir Khan was found dumped and mutilated 200 kilometers away; his companion, Sheikh Mohammed Kassim, was never found.83 The following month, an active al-Hijra ‘emir’ named Sylvester Opiyo (aka “Musa Osodo”) disappeared, followed by two senior figures known as Jeremiah Onyango Okumu and Steven Mwanzia Osaka (aka “Duda Black” and “Duda Brown,” respectively) in June.84 In August 2012, less than a month after being designated for U.N. sanctions, Rogo was gunned down by unknown assassins.85 One week later, having been designated for U.N. sanctions and facing new charges in Kenya for allegedly instigating violent protests against Rogo’s murder, Makaburi handed himself in to the Kenyan authorities to stand trial.86

Al-Hijra’s depleted ranks struggled to remain operationally relevant. Between 2012 and 2014, the group and its sympathizers were suspected of involvement in a spate of attacks against churches, bars, and public minibuses, employing grenades and IEDs that caused dozens of casualties.87 But their methods were crude and amateurish; the targeting lacked strategic focus, messaging around the explosions was absent, and the absence of ‘martyrs’ willing to deliver the devices and to die in the attempt appeared to demonstrate a lack of genuine commitment among the Kenyan ‘mujahideen.’88 In September 2013, when al-Shabaab staged its first complex attack on Kenya, the assault on the Westgate Shopping Mall, the Amniyat led the operation while al-Hijra was relegated to a supporting role.89

The atrocity at Westgate brought a fierce reaction from the Kenyan government and its international partners. During the course of 2014, a string of police raids on Mombasa mosques suspected of fomenting militancy, including Masjid Musa and Masjid Sakina, resulted in hundreds of arrests and reported seizures of weapons.90 In April 2014, Makaburi was gunned down by unknown assassins.91

The clampdown enraged the Muslim community, dismayed many other observers, and fed al-Shabaab with a steady diet of material for its propaganda machine, but it also placed al-Hijra’s remaining cadres under intense pressure. Most opted for exile, either in Somalia to join the fighting front92 or in Tanzania93 where they could rest, regroup, and plan to fight another day. More junior adherents of the group, including recent recruits, were dispersed throughout Kenya, away from extremist hotspots in parts of Mombasa and Nairobi, to serve in more remote communities, often with small Muslim populations, where a small mosque or madrassa was unlikely to come to the attention of the authorities.94 While lying low, operatives and sympathizers were fed a steady diet of motivational lectures by al-Hijra ‘emirs’ like Ahmed Iman Ali,c Ramadhan Kufungwa, and Sheikh Abu Ismail Ibrahim.95 d

Al-Hijra’s misfortunes coincided with the protracted and turbulent transition within al-Shabaab’s core leadership that culminated in Godane’s purge. But unlike al-Hijra, whose leadership was dispersed and in disarray, Godane deftly transformed crisis into opportunity, centralizing the power of the emir while decentralizing operational authority to build strategic depth and resilience.96 And even as al-Shabaab ceded ground to its enemies inside Somalia, Godane breathed new life into the movement’s international aspirations and its ability to strike beyond Somalia’s borders.97

The Westgate shopping mall attack in September 2013 was the organization’s first major external operation since the 2010 Kampala bombings. A team of four gunmen stormed the upscale mall in Nairobi, leaving 67 people dead.98 An attempted suicide bombing of a soccer game the following month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, went awry when the bombers decided at the last minute that security was too tight, returned to their apartment, and accidentally blew themselves up.99 But in May 2014, a suicide bombing claimed by al-Shabaab killed three people and wounded 11 more at La Chaumière restaurant in Djibouti.100

The death of al-Shabaab ‘emir’ Ahmed Abdi Godane in a drone strike in September 2014 made no apparent impact on the group’s operational tempo or its determination to conduct attacks across the region. A September 2014 plot to attack Kampala was foiled by a joint Ugandan-U.S. operation that resulted in 19 arrests and the seizure of explosive materials.101 The following month, a second attempt to strike Ethiopia by bombing a popular shopping mall in the capital was detected by Ethiopian security services and disrupted when the U.S. embassy in Addis issued a public alert about the threat.102 But al-Shabaab’s primary target continued to be Kenya, where al-Hijra’s disarray necessitated a restructuring of the relationship between the two groups.

One key dimension of this reform involved delegating to al-Shabaab’s forces along the Kenyan border the responsibility for operations into adjacent parts of Kenya: the Gedo sector, along the northern section of the boundary, was to target the border town of Mandera; further to the south, the Middle Juba sector was to target the towns Wajir and Garissa, deeper inside Kenya toward the capital, Nairobi; and the southernmost Lower Juba sector, adjacent to the Indian Ocean, was responsible for neighboring Lamu County and, if possible, further south down the Kenyan coast.103 The results were swift and savage. In late November 2014, al-Shabaab raiders hijacked a bus in Kenya’s Mandera County, near the Somali border, then murdered the passengers, leaving 28 dead.104 A week later, another al-Shabaab raid near Mandera at a quarry left 36 workers dead. In both cases, the attackers singled out non-Muslims for execution.105 In April the following year, al-Shabaab gunmen struck a university in Garissa, northeastern Kenya, killing 148 people and wounding 79 more—the worst attack since Westgate. Al-Shabaab subsequently issued a statement accusing the Kenyan government of having perpetrated “a countless number of atrocities against the Muslim population” and affirming its determination to ‘liberate’ the “Muslim Lands” of Northeastern Province and the coast from “Kenyan occupation.”106

A second aspect of the new relationship, initiated under Godane’s leadership, was the formation of a new unit, known as Jaysh Ayman, comprising mainly East African fighters operating into Kenya’s Lamu County from the Lower Juba region.107 In June 2014, Jaysh Ayman fighters raided the localities of Mpeketoni and Hindi, killing at least 77 people.108 One of the principal leaders of the Lamu operations was Abdifatah Abubakar Abdi (aka Musa Muhajir),109 a Kenyan Somali who has since been designated by the United States and United Nations as a global terrorist.110

A propaganda video released by al-Shabaab in March 2015 appeared to document the June raids, employing the title “Mpeketoni: Reclaiming back Muslim Lands under Kenyan occupation.”111 In addition to graphic footage of the massacre in Mpeketoni, the film shows Jaysh Ayman fighters addressing Muslim villagers in Swahili at a local mosque in the nearby village of Pandanguo, denouncing the “oppression” of Muslims by the Kenyan government, and calling for its overthrow.112 Another passage of the film includes a clip from a sermon by Aboud Rogo, in which he describes Mpeketoni as Muslim land that had been occupied and taken away by ‘disbelievers,’ before exhorting his followers to take up ‘jihad’.113 The video’s narrator avers that although Rogo has not lived to see it, “his words are being transformed into reality.” 114

Taken together—the choice of targets, the presence of Swahili-speaking fighters, the attempt to invoke Kenyan social and economic grievances as justification, and the explicit homage to Aboud Rogo—all pointed to a growing convergence of al-Hijra objectives and al-Shabaab capabilities. In this sense, Jaysh Ayman’s first major operation marked a symbolic turning point in the evolution of al-Hijra from a semi-autonomous affiliate into an integral part of al-Shabaab.

Part Three: The Road to Dusit, 2014-2018
While Jaysh Ayman and other al-Shabaab units carried out cross-border attacks into northeastern Kenya, al-Shabaab never lost sight of its ambitions to strike more high-profile targets in Nairobi and across East Africa. One of the most effective units engaged in transnational operations was based in Somalia’s southwestern Gedo region and headed by Adan Garaar, a notoriously brutal commander believed to have been responsible for the massacres of Kenyan civilians in Mandera County.115

Garaar also oversaw a sophisticated IED production cell, which in March 2014 had produced a large, sophisticated car bomb for delivery to Mombasa. Kenyan police impounded the vehicle and arrested its two occupants for importing it to the country illegally, but failed to realize that they had seized a VBIED containing 130 pounds of plastic explosive until a week later.116 In October the same year, Garaar’s IED team prepared the explosives for the abortive attack on Addis Ababa’s Edna Shopping Mall, but failed to deliver them to the target.117

Meanwhile, police raids on radical mosques in Mombasa in February 2014 triggered an exodus of al-Hijra members and sympathizers seeking to escape the scrutiny of the Kenyan security forces. Among these was an Imam from Masjid Musa named Sheikh Ramadan Kufungwa, a disciple of Rogo and Makaburi, who decided to seek refuge in Somalia with al-Shabaab.118 Kufungwa eventually settled in Bardheere, Gedo region, where he retained his ties to al-Hijra networks in Kenya. In October 2014, two more members of Masjid Musa, Said Nyange Salim and Abdulrazak Abdallah Salim, were instructed to travel to Bardheere, where they received training in firearms from al-Shabaab. While in Bardheere, both Said and Abdulrazak claimed that they met with Kufungwa.119

By 2016, enough al-Hijra members had received training from al-Shabaab in Somalia that the group was not only approaching the capacity to conduct attacks inside Kenya, but to do so with a much greater degree of autonomy and effectiveness than at any time in the past. In May 2016, a number of these newly trained operatives met at a safe house in Komarock, Nairobi, to discuss plans for a specific mission.120 According to a former al-Hijra member with direct knowledge of the meeting, three of those present would later take part in the Dusit attack, including Mahir Riziki who was the sole suicide bomber.121 While the others were instructed to remain in Kenya, Riziki returned to Somalia to prepare for his role in the operation.

The Komarock cell was not the only al-Shabaab threat network active in Kenya. At least one other team was simultaneously planning a mass-casualty attack against an undetermined target in Nairobi. In February 2018, Kenyan police intercepted a four-wheel drive vehicle near Isiolo in what they described as a “routine” check. One of the vehicle occupants opened fire and was killed while the others fled. Two more were arrested and the remaining two escaped. Upon inspection it was discovered that the Mitsubishi had been converted into a sophisticated VBIED containing approximately 100 kilograms of explosives concealed under the dashboard and within the door panels. Also discovered in the vehicle were five AK-pattern assault rifles, 36 magazines of ammunition, 36 hand grenades, and a black al-Shabaab flag.122

A subsequent report by a U.N. monitoring team revealed that at least four of the key cell members were Kenyan citizens, including one of Somali descent and one believed to possess dual Somali-Kenyan nationality.123 They selected routes, rendezvous points, and safe houses in locations not normally associated with al-Shabaab activity (e.g., Meru, Ongata Rongai, Langata), and they relied on a secondary network of non-Somali (and non-ideological) fixers and facilitators to assist with logistics, fake identification documents, and false insurance certificates. Al-Shabaab appears to have retained overall direction of the operation through a suspected Amniyat commander known only as ‘Dheere’ (meaning ‘Tall’), who also supplied the team with cash.124

The abortion of the February 2018 attack was an important success for the Kenyan security services, but it should also have raised a number of red flags. Al-Shabaab had apparently begun testing the potential of its Kenyan threat networks to stage operations inside Kenya, and notwithstanding the plot’s disruption, the team had succeeded in laying the ground with extensive and relatively sophisticated preparations. The growing threat from homegrown Kenyan terrorist cells, albeit directed from al-Shabaab strongholds in Somalia, clearly merited close attention.

The Dusit Attack
The attack at 14 Riverside Drive began shortly before 1530 hours on January 15, 2019, when one of the terrorists entered the compound and positioned himself in a grassy space outside the Secret Garden restaurant.125 CCTV footage of the man shows him becoming agitated, pacing tightly back and forth, and speaking into his phone.126 Abdullahi Ogello, a customer on his way to the restaurant, heard him asking where the others were.127 Seconds later, at 1528, the terrorist’s suicide vest exploded, killing him along with several patrons inside the restaurant.128

Even before the smoke from the detonation had cleared, the remaining four attackers alighted from a vehicle at the front gate, armed with Kalashnikov-pattern assault rifles, hand grenades, and magazine pouches containing extra ammunition.129 As they approached the main gate of the compound, they opened fire on the guards and threw hand grenades, setting fire to several parked vehicles. The attackers then divided into two teams, moving deeper into the compound via separate paths. One team moved to the main entrance of the first office block, named Hanover, while the other moved to the rear of the building, past the bomber’s remains and entered through a back door beside the restaurant.130

After superficially clearing the first office block, moving floor by floor, shooting and throwing grenades, they walked to the far end of the compound where the Cavendish office block housed several organizations engaged in development work in Somalia. After sweeping the office tower, they entered the Dusit D2 Hotel in the middle of the compound.131 By 1600 hours, Kenyan security forces and other first responders were on scene, seeking to find and contain the gunmen, while others assisted trapped civilians to escape. Just before 1700 hours, within an hour and a half of the start of the attack, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility on Twitter.132 The siege continued overnight until the last attackers were confirmed killed by 0800 the following morning. Two hours later, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, declared the attack to be over and more than 700 people to have been rescued from the complex.133

The Dusit D2 hotel complex is seen on January 16, 2019, after security forces had killed all four militants who stormed the upscale hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. (Baz Ratner /Reuters)

Within days of the Dusit attack, police named several of the terrorists, including the suspected team leader, Ali Salim Gichunge, nicknamed ‘Farouk.’ A 26-year-old from Nyeri, in central Kenya, ‘Farouk’ had been sent to study at a Catholic school in Isiolo, where his sister claims he was radicalized.134 Police also named Eric Kinyanjui, who was reportedly born in Isiolo but resided in Limuru, just outside Nairobi.135

Both ‘Farouk’ and Kinyanjui fit an emerging pattern of non-Somalis being recruited into al-Shabaab, regardless of their faith. A 2018 study funded by USAID estimated that since 2013, about 200 young men had been recruited into al-Shabaab from the county in which Isiolo is located.136 Officials in Farouk’s hometown of Nyeri claim that al-Shabaab recruiters are active in its slums, recruiting not only Somalis but also members of the Kikuyu ethnic group.137

The third Dusit attacker to be named by police was the suicide bomber outside Secret Garden restaurant: Mahir Riziki. Unlike ‘Farouk’ and Kinyanjui, Riziki was a known extremist with a history of violence. According to police, Riziki had frequented Mombasa’s Masjid Musa where he encountered Sheikh Ramadhan Kufungwa and been recruited by him into al-Shabaab.138 Riziki subsequently learned his terrorist tradecraft from senior al-Hijra cell leaders such as Ibrahim Ramadhan Mwasi (aka Ruta)e and Ismael Mohamed Shosi (alias Ismael Mmanga).f In November 2014, Riziki fled Kenya to escape a warrant for his arrest in connection with the killing of a police officer at Royal Court Hotel in Mombasa. After a brief sojourn in Tanzania, Riziki called family members from Somalia to tell them he was training with al-Shabaab.139 Based on subsequent events, it seems possible that, while in Somalia, Riziki reconnected with Kufungwa.

Just two days before the Dusit attack, on January 13, 2019, Riziki re-entered Kenya from Somalia’s Gedo region, through Elwak in Mandera County, then to Takaba (near Moyale), and boarded a Moyale Raha bus in Marsabit town to Nairobi.140 When he arrived in the city, he immediately proceeded to Muchatha, on Nairobi’s outskirts, to link up with ‘Farouk’ and receive instructions on his role for the planned operation.141 Less than 48 hours later, he would be dead.

A day after the Dusit attack, al-Shabaab issued a statement in Arabic and English taking responsibility for the operation, which it labeled “Al-Qudsu Lan Tuhawwad” (“Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized”). The statement claimed that the attack was a response to the U.S. government’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,142 “in accordance with the guidelines of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri … in targeting western and Zionist interests worldwide and in support of our Muslim families in Palestine.”143

This ex post facto justification for the Dusit operation should be taken with a degree of skepticism: the attack was clearly in the planning stages long before the U.S. government announced its decision; the Dusit Hotel chain is Thai-owned with no obvious links to either Israel or the United States;144 and only one American was among the victims. Instead, the reference to Ayman al-Zawahiri serves to renew al-Shabaab’s public allegiance to the al-Qa`ida movement and to burnish its international aspirations—a cynical appropriation of global jihadi narratives to challenge the perception that al-Shabaab is a fundamentally Somali organization with parochial, essentially nationalist objectives. It may also be intended to tout al-Qa`ida’s superiority at a time when its jihadi rival, the Islamic State, is striving to expand its influence across Africa.

In contrast with its lofty bombast, key aspects of the attack at Riverside Park situate it more firmly in the context of al-Shabaab’s strategy for regional expansion and its longstanding ambitions for Kenya. Al-Shabaab’s high-profile attacks against Kenya typically serve to underscore al-Shabaab’s relevance, create a public sense of insecurity, and undermine public support for the Kenyan Defense Forces’ presence in Somalia. Moreover, the date of the Dusit attack—January 15—was probably no coincidence, evoking al-Shabaab’s humiliation of the Kenyan Defense Forces at Eel Adde, precisely three years earlier. And the attribution of the attack to the “Saleh an-Nabhan battalion” was probably less a reflection of reality than a rhetorical tribute to its most revered Kenyan ‘martyr.’g It is far more likely that the operation was planned and directed by al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing, the Amniyat, and that the reference to Nabhan was invoked chiefly because the target was in Kenya.

The true significance of the Dusit operation, in terms of the threat that al-Shabaab poses in the region, lies neither with the organization’s Somali origins, its expanding ranks of Kenyan followers, or its al-Qa`ida affiliation. Rather, it is the combination of the three—the resuscitation of East Africa’s jihadi ‘triple helix’—that should be a source of concern.

Al-Shabaab’s strongholds in Somalia play a key role in in the training of recruits and their exposure to combat. They also provide safe havens from which the group can plan and prepare operations both inside and outside the country. But al-Shabaab’s ability to project force beyond its borders has been previously limited by its predominantly Somali membership and the challenges it has historically faced in grooming operational cadres and ‘martyrs’ from other ethnic groups. The Dusit attack and the abortive VBIED operation that preceded it in 2018 suggest that a decade of investment in East African—notably Kenyan—outreach is beginning to pay dividends.

Al-Shabaab’s allegiance to al-Qa`ida is also of symbolic importance as the movement seeks credibility and adherents beyond Somalia’s borders. As the Islamic State claims to be winning adherents across Africa from Nigeria to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique,145 al-Shabaab will be faced with a choice of switching loyalties to an ascendant rival or to invoke the al-Qa`ida ‘brand’—as it did in the wake of the Dusit operation—in order to cast its struggle in global terms and attract foreign fighters to its banner.

Al-Shabaab will no doubt attempt more such attacks in the future, and the authors expect it to rely increasingly on non-Somali East Africans, both to avoid detection and disruption by the security services and to burnish its regional credentials as an al-Qa`ida franchise. If so, it will have important implications for the ways in which intelligence and law enforcement officials approach the evolving threat, while reinforcing the importance of regional political leaders seeking the trust and engagement of their publics in identifying warning signs and mitigating the socio-political drivers of radicalization and recruitment. Salman al-Muhajir, the Kampala suicide bomber, would no doubt have perceived in the Dusit operation the fulfillment of his testament that an al-Shabaab vanguard of East African fighters would set their own countries ablaze with terrorist violence, but if regional leaders and security services are sufficiently alert to the threat of this jihadi ‘triple helix,’ there is no reason that al-Muhajir’s baleful prophecy should be fulfilled.     CTC

Matt Bryden is an analyst with 29 years of experience working on peace and security issues in the Horn of Africa. He is a co-founder and strategic adviser at the think-tank Sahan and has authored numerous papers and publications on al-Shabaab.

Premdeep Bahra is an investigative research analyst working with the think-tank Sahan on issues affecting the Horn and East of Africa. She has been in this field since 2012 when she consulted with the UN Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group as a field analyst focusing on extremist groups in East Africa.

Substantive Notes
[a] Possibly an individual referred to by United Nations monitors as ‘Kakasule.’ The other suicide bomber is described as “an unknown male of Somali origin.” See Matt Bryden, Jörg Roofthooft, Ghassan Schbley, and Babatunde Taiwo, “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 1916 (2010),” United Nations Security Council (S/2011/433), p. 137.

[b] ‘Al-Muhajir’ may be referring to the fact that the IEDs employed in the Uganda bombings were assembled in Somalia and dispatched to Uganda via Kenya. See Ibid., pp. 136-139.

[c] According to news media, Kenyan security services believe Ahmed Iman Ali was killed in an airstrike on the Somali town of Bu’aale on March 22, 2019. See Nyaboga Kiage, “Al-Shabaab’s Kenyan commander suspected to have been killed in airstrike,” Nairobi News, March 25, 2019. However, a former al-Hijra member interviewed by the authors claimed that Ahmed Iman Ali was still alive and in communication with other members of al-Hijra in April 2019.

[d] Sheikh Abu Ismail Ibrahim allegedly acted as an al-Shabaab recruiter in Mwanza, Tanzania, prior to his arrest in 2014. His arrest was noted in a laudatory article on the pro-al-Shabaab website Somalimemo. See “Maaskari wa Tanzania wavamia nyumba ya Sheikh Abuu Ismail na kumdhalilisha mke wa Shekhe,” Somalimemo, July 13, 2014.

[e] Ruta was among six suspects in a grenade attack on the Machakos bus station in Nairobi on March 10, 2012, that killed nine people and injured at least 60. The Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) subsequently arrested six suspects who were later released on bond. See “Kenya: Killings, Disappearances by Anti-Terror Police,” Human Rights Watch, August 18, 2014.

[f] Shosi was allegedly involved in several assassinations, including the killing of a police officer at Royal Court Hotel, Mombasa, for which a warrant was also issued for Mahir’s arrest. He was killed by security officers on September 27, 2016, at his hideout in Mwandoni after he resisted arrest and engaged them in an exchange of gunfire. See, for example, Enock Sikolla, “Homegrown terrorist: The humble beginnings of suicide bomber in Riverside attack,” Citizen, January 21, 2019; Cyrus Ombati, “Terror suspect Ismael Shosi killed in Kisauni shootout with police,” Standard, September 27, 2016; and Willis Oketch, “Widow knew of husband’s terror links in Somalia but kept mum,” Standard, January 20, 2019.

[g] “AS has a special battalion that is designed to take the battlefield from the enemy and gain much-needed supplies. This battalion has been referred to as Saleh Nabhan Battalion and Abu Zubayr Battalion, depending on the occasion.” From Al-Shabab’s Military Machine, Hiraal Institute, December 2018, p. 4.

[1] “Kenya terror attack: What happened during the Nairobi hotel siege?” BBC, February 12, 2019.

[2] “Gunmen storm Nairobi hotel complex,” Al Jazeera, January 16, 2019.

[3] Hamza Mohamed, “Kenya’s leaders face a new dilemma in fighting al-Shabab,” Al Jazeera, January 24, 2019.

[4] See, for example, Duncan Miriri, “Spreading the net: Somali Islamists now target Kenyan recruits,” Reuters, May 17, 2019, and “2 Dusit killers were from Kiambu, Nyeri,” Star, January 17, 2019.

[5] See, for example, “Political Turbulence Still Threatens Somalia’s ‘Positive Trajectory’, Special Representative Warns in Briefing to Security Council (SC/13654),” United Nations Security Council Meetings Coverage (8440th Meeting), January 3, 2019, and “Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia (S/2019/393),” United Nations Security Council, May 15, 2019.

[6] Caroline Theuri, “2002: Terrorists hit Paradise Hotel after elaborate planning,” Daily Nation, November 10, 2013.

[7] Matt Bryden, The Decline and Fall of Al-Shabaab? Think Again, Sahan, April 2015, p. 10.

[8] “Profile: Osama bin Laden,” Al Jazeera, March 18, 2018.

[9] Clint Watts, Jacob Shapiro, and Vahid Brown, Al-Qaida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2007), pp. 37-38.

[10] Kenneth Katzman, Al Qaeda: Profile and Threat Assessment, Congressional Research Service, February 10, 2005, p. 3.

[11] Watts, Shapiro, and Brown, p. 6.

[12] “Somalia’s Islamists,” Africa Report No. 100, International Crisis Group, December 12, 2005, pp. 7-9.

[13] “Executive Summary: Bombings of the Embassies of the United States of America at Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania August 7, 1998,” United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, November 18, 1998.

[14] “Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?” Africa Report No. 95, International Crisis Group, July 11, 2005, p. 7; Watts, Shapiro, and Brown, p. 79.

[15] Oriana Zill, “A Portrait of Wadih El-Hage, Accused Terrorist” in PBS’ Frontline, updated September 12, 2001.

[16] “Abdullah Muhammad Fazul,” (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2011), pp. 8-10.

[17] “Profile: Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan,” BBC, September 15, 2009.

[18] “Abdullah Muhammad Fazul,” p. 10.

[19] “Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?” p. 8.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Al Ittihad Al Islamiya,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, last updated June 18, 2016.

[23] Watts, Shapiro, and Brown, p. 35.

[24] “Somalia’s Islamists,” pp. 22-23.

[25] Ibid., pp. 5-7.

[26] Watts, Shapiro, and Brown, p. 39.

[27] Ibid., p. 7.

[28] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[29] “Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds,” pp. 10-11.

[30] “Can the Somali Crisis Be Contained,” Africa Report No. 116, International Crisis Group, August 10, 2006, pp. 10, 14.

[31] “Somalia’s al-Shabab Reconstitutes Fighting Force,” CTC Sentinel 1:3 (2008): p. 2.

[32] Ngala Chome, “From Islamic Reform to Muslim Activism: The Evolution of an Islamist Ideology in Kenya” in African Affairs 1-22 (published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society, 2019), p. 14.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Hassan Ndzovu, “Kenya’s Jihadist clerics: Formulation of a liberation ideology and challenges to secular power,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 38:3 (2018): pp. 360-371.

[35] “Interview with of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani,” U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, December 12, 2008.

[36] Chome, p. 13.

[37] “Radicalisation: Where it all began,” Sunday Standard, February 10, 2019.

[38] “Interview with of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.”

[39] Bruce Hoffman and Fernando Reinares, The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), p. 420.

[40] “Pakistan al-Qaeda leaders ‘dead,’” BBC, January 9, 2009.

[41] Odindo Ayiekoi, “Long walk to freedom for terrorism suspects,” Daily Nation, June 13, 2005.

[42] Jeremy Prestholdt, “Kenya, the United States, and Counterterrorism,” Africa Today 57:4 (2011): pp. 2-27.

[43] Ayiekoi.

[44] Matt Bryden, Jörg Roofthooft, Ghassan Schbley, and Babatunde Taiwo, “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 1916 (2010),” United Nations Security Council (S/2011/433), annex 2, para 4.

[45] Ibid., p. 16, para 34.

[46] “Al Shabaab,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, last updated February 20, 2016.

[47] Hoffman and Reinares, p. 604.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Author interviews, U.S. government officials, Nairobi and Washington, D.C., 2006.

[50] Author interview, prominent Somali Islamist leader, Mogadishu, February 2005.

[51] Author interview, Somali counterterrorism contractor, Mogadishu, February 2005; author interview, regional intelligence official, December 2018.

[52] “Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?” pp. 4-6.

[53] Ibid., pp. 9-10.

[54] Ibid., pp. 11-13.

[55] Bryden, Roofthooft, Schbley, and Taiwo, annex 2, para 10.

[56] Seth G. Jones, Andrew M. Liepman, and Nathan Chandler, Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency in Somalia: Assessing the Campaign Against Al Shabaab (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), pp. 13-15.

[57] Simon Tisdall, “Our mission is liberation, says Somali Islamist leader,” Guardian, May 22, 2008.

[58] “The Future of Al-Qaeda: Results of a Foresight Project,” World Watch: Expert Notes, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, May 2013, p. 58. See also, for example, Rafaello Pantucci, “American Jihad: New Details Emerge About al-Shabaab Recruitment in North America,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor 7:37 (2009).

[59] Ibid.

[60] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Strategic Challenge of Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Dimensions of Jihad,” Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2009).

[61] Nelly Lahoud, Stuart Caudill, Liam Collins, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Don Rassler, and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, Letters From Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012), p. 38.

[62] “Somali militant group al-Shabaab formally joins al-Qaida,” Guardian, February 9, 2012.

[63] “Ras Kamboni Movement,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, last updated January 12, 2016.

[64] Bryden, Roofthooft, Schbley, and Taiwo, p. 12.

[65] Bryden, The Decline and Fall, p. 1.

[66] Ibid., pp. 14-15.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Bryden, Roofthooft, Schbley, and Taiwo, p. 24.

[69] Ibid., annex 2.l1, para 8.

[70] Ibid., annex 2.1.

[71] Ibid., p. 24.

[72] Ibid., p. 24.

[73] Ibid., p. 144.

[74] Ibid., p. 144.

[75] “Al-Shabaab as a Transnational Security Threat,” IGAD Security Sector Program and Sahan Foundation, March 2016, p. 22.

[76] Bryden, Roofthooft, Schbley, and Taiwo, pp. 142-148.

[77] “The Future of Al-Qaeda,” p. 62.

[78] Bryden, Roofthooft, Schbley, and Taiwo, annex 2, para 11.

[79] Christopher Anzalone, “Kenya’s Muslim Youth Center and Al-Shabab’s East African Recruitment,” CTC Sentinel 5:10 (2012).

[80] Bryden, The Decline and Fall, p. 8.

[81] Nyambega Gisesa, “A portrait of a jihadist born and bred in Nairobi,” Daily Nation, January 30, 2012.

[82] Matt Bryden, Emmanuel Deisser, Aurélien Llorca, Jörg Roofthooft, Ghassan Schbley, Babatunde Taiwo, and Kristele Younes, “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2002 (2011),” United Nations Security Council (S/2012/544), p. 16.

[83] Leela Jacinto, “Kenya’s mysteriously killed, disappeared Islamic clerics,” France24, May 9, 2012.

[84] Bryden, Roofthooft, Schbley, and Taiwo, p. 14.

[85] “Kenyan cleric ‘with al-Shabab links’ killed,” Al Jazeera, August 27, 2012.

[86] “The Future of Al-Qaeda,” p. 63.

[87] See, for example, “Deadly Kenya grenade attack hits children in church,” BBC, September 30, 2012, and “Kenyan church attack leaves four worshippers dead and 17 injured,” Guardian, March 23, 2014.

[88] Bryden, The Decline and Fall, p. 8. See also, for example, Thomas Mukoya and Ben Makori, “Bomb rips through Nairobi minibus, killing six,” Reuters, November 18, 2012; Cyrus Ombati, “Panic as bomb is found in matatu in Nairobi,” Standard, April 1, 2013; and Kennedy Kangethe, “At Least 4 Dead in Matatu Explosion,” Capital News, December 14, 2013.

[89] Bryden, The Decline and Fall, p. 8.

[90] Simon Ndonga, “One person killed as police raid Mombasa mosques,” Capital News, November 17, 2014; “Kenya police find explosives in mosque raids,” Al Jazeera, November 20, 2014.

[91] Galgalo Bocha, “Radical cleric Makaburi shot dead,” Daily Nation, April 1, 2014.

[92] “IG unveils Kenya’s faces of terror,” People Daily via Mediamax, August 18, 2015.

[93] “Al-Shabaab as a Transnational Security Threat,” p. 27.

[94] Ibid., p. 29.

[95] Author interview, former al-Hijra member, March 2019.

[96] Matt Bryden, The Reinvention of Al-Shabaab, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), February 2014, p. 11.

[97] Ibid., p. 11.

[98] Tristan McConnell, “‘Close Your Eyes and Pretend to Be Dead’: What really happened two years ago in the bloody attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall,” Foreign Policy, September 20, 2015.

[99] Aaron Maasho, “Suicide bombers die in failed plot at Ethiopia football match,” Reuters, October 15, 2013; Bryden, The Decline and Fall, p. 9.

[100] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Henry Appel, “Al-Shabaab Strikes in Djibouti,” War on the Rocks, June 3, 2014; Mohammed Tawfeeq, “3 killed in explosion at restaurant in Djibouti,” CNN, May 24, 2014.

[101] Nicholas Bariyo, “Uganda Forces Discover Suicide Vests, Explosives at Suspected Terrorist Cell,” Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2014.

[102] “Al-Shabaab as a Transnational Security Threat,” pp. 37-43.

[103] Ibid., p. 20.

[104] “Kenya bus attack: Mandera residents flee to army base,” BBC, November 25, 2014.

[105] Angira Zadock and Manase Otsialo, “Another Massacre in Mandera: 36 Killed,” Daily Nation, December 2, 2014.

[106] “Statement on Garissa University College Attack,” Harakat Al-Mujahideen Press Office, April 4, 2015.

[107] “Al-Shabaab as a Transnational Security Threat,” p. 20.

[108] Sunguta West, “Jaysh al-Ayman: A ‘Local’ Threat in Kenya,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor 16:8 (2018).

[109] Ibid.

[110] “E.O. 13224 Designation of Abdifatah Abubakar Abdi, aka Musa Muhajir as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” A Notice by the State Department on 03/12/2018, Federal Register; “Security Council 751, 1907 Committee on Somalia, Eritrea Adds Two Names to Its 1844 Sanctions List (SC/13242),” United Nations Security Council, March 8, 2018.

[111] Bryden, The Decline and Fall, p. 9.

[112] Ibid.

[113] Ibid.

[114] David Ochami, “Al-Shabaab releases chilling video about Mpeketoni attack,” Standard, March 9, 2015.

[115] “Al-Shabaab as a Transnational Security Threat,” p. 43.

[116] Mike Pflanz, “Kenyan police park massive car bomb outside their offices after missing explosives in vehicle,” Telegraph, March 19, 2014.

[117] “Al-Shabaab as a Transnational Security Threat,” pp. 43-45.

[118] Ibid., p. 30.

[119] Ibid., p. 29.

[120] Author interview, former al-Hijra member, March 2019.

[121] Author interview, former al-Hijra member, March 2019.

[122] James Smith, Jay Bahadur, Charles Cater, Mohamed Babiker, Brian O’Sullivan, Nazanine Moshiri, and Richard Zabot, “Somalia report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea submitted in accordance with resolution 2385 (2017),” United Nations Security Council (S/2018/1002), November 9, 2018, annex 2.3.

[123] Ibid.

[124] Ibid.

[125] “Kenya terror attack: What happened during the Nairobi hotel siege?”

[126] Unedited CCTV footage viewed by the author.

[127] “Abdullahi Ogello bypassed suicide bomber in the Riverside terror attack,” Kenya CitizenTV, YouTube, January 18, 2019.

[128] “Kenya terror attack: What happened during the Nairobi hotel siege?”

[129] Unedited CCTV footage viewed by the author; “Kenya terror attack: What happened during the Nairobi hotel siege?”

[130] “Kenya terror attack: What happened during the Nairobi hotel siege?”

[131] Ibid.

[132] “[IN TWEETS] Nairobi under explosive attack,” CNBC Africa, January 15, 2019.

[133] “Kenya terror attack: What happened during the Nairobi hotel siege?”

[134] Duncan Miriri, “Spreading the net: Somali Islamists now target Kenyan recruits.”

[135] “2 Dusit killers were from Kiambu, Nyeri,” Star, January 17, 2019.

[136] Miriri.

[137] Ibid.

[138] Cyrus Ombati, “Police identify suicide bomber as radicalised Mahir Khalid from Mombasa,” Standard, January 19, 2019.

[139] Willis Oketch, “Widow knew of husband’s terror links in Somalia but kept mum,” Standard, January 20, 2019.

[140] Ombati, “Police identify suicide bomber as radicalised Mahir Khalid from Mombasa.” 

[141] Ibid.

[142] Amanda Sperber, “Al-Shabab Wants You To Know It’s Alive and Well,” Foreign Policy, January 19, 2019.

[143] Thomas Joscelyn, “1. Shabaab (Al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa) has released a statement on yesterday’s attack in #Nairobi, #Kenya. It was published along with an English-language translation. Some points to follow.pic.twitter.com/avUVWo0yBE1. Shabaab (Al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa) has released a statement on yesterday’s attack in #Nairobi, #Kenya …” Twitter, January 16, 2019.

[144]“Major Shareholders,” Dusit Thani Public Company Ltd.

[145] Jason Burke, “Isis claims sub-Saharan attacks in a sign of African ambitions,” Guardian, June 6, 2019.

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