World Cup Ambush Kills 48 in Kenya
Al Shabab targets soccer fans in operation resembling the 2013 Westgate Mall attack
The attack, which the authorities and many observers attribute to the Somali insurgent group Al Shabab, closely resembles last year’s terror attack on the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi, which killed 67 people.
Westgate, Mpeketoni as well as dozens of other recent attacks across Kenya highlight the inability of the Kenyan government to counter Al Shabab as the extremist group evolves from a conventional Islamist insurgency with roots in Somalia into a transnational terrorist group.
It’s an evolution that Kenya’s own actions encouraged.
World Cup ambush
Many of the victims had gathered in Mpeketoni, a town close to the famous tourist destination Lamu, to watch some of Sunday’s soccer World Cup matches.
Several media organizations are reporting that the attackers entered the town at 8:30 PM in one or two minivans, which are a common means of public transportation in Kenya.
According to an AP report cited by The New York Times, the gunmen began targeting civilians, shooting victims at close range. A Dutch development aid worker told the Website NOS that the shooting continued for several hours into the night.
It’s unclear whether security forces engaged the assailants.
Official sources speak of at least 48 victims, while the Dutch development worker said that he himself saw “more than 100” bodies. If his count is accurate, it would be the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya, surpassing even Westgate’s death toll.
The attackers—up to 50 of them in all—were able to leave the scene. According to a local journalist, Al Shabab has by now claimed responsibility for the attack, which a spokesperson called “revenge” for the killings of civilians by the Kenyan army in Somalia.
Dangerous security policy
Since 2011, Kenya has deployed its security forces to fight Al Shabab in the southern part of Somalia. The Kenyan government apparently wanted to create a buffer zone between Kenya and its unstable neighbor.
Nairobi plans to invest heavily in harbor and oil facilities near Lamu and Mpeketoni in coming years, linking them via pipeline and rail to South Sudan and Ethiopia.
While the invasion of southern Somalia has succeeded in robbing Al Shabab of much of its territory and some of its most important sources of income, it has also compelled the group to adapt an asymmetrical strategy.
Before 2011, Al Shabab attacked Kenya only infrequently, possibly because the group preferred to use the neighboring country as a safe haven and to invest large sums of money in Nairobi’s housing boom.
But since the Kenyan invasion, Al Shabab has begun targeting security forces and civilians inside Kenya.
The Kenyan authorities have reacted by tightening security measures in the northeast, as well as by harassing the large Somali refugee and ethnic minority population in Kenya.
After a series of car bombings in Nairobi earlier this year, security forces began rounding up large numbers of Somalis and deporting them either to refugee camps close to the Somali border or directly back to Somalia itself. Human rights organizations have detailed frequent abuses during these operations.
This policy has backfired. The deteriorating security situation has prompted Western countries to issue travel warnings. Kenya’s tourism industry has suffered. There’s little indication that Nairobi has a comprehensive strategy in place to increase security—nor the means to successfully implement one.