Al-Shabaab has been catapulted back into international headlines with its attack on Kenya’s Garissa University, which killed 148 students and drew promises of strong action from President Uhuru Kenyatta. The event has drawn comparisons with al-Shabaab’s 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and is part of the group’s campaign of reprisals against Kenya for the country’s military action in Somalia. However, the timing, location and nature of the Garissa attack suggest that al-Shabaab has been severely weakened by recent developments in Somalia.
Amid the headlines, it is easy to forget that this is the first major attack – and almost the first attack full stop – which al-Shabaab has conducted in Kenya this year. The end of 2014 saw escalating violence in the country’s north-east, for instance with the murder of over 60 people in two weeks by al-Shabaab in Mandera County. However, rather than that campaign continuing into 2015, the first three months of the year were relatively quiet and Kenyan newspapers, previously full of articles about al-Shabaab, broadly moved away from the topic. The absence of regular violence – which has characterised the region over the last few years – suggests that al-Shabaab are losing the ability to operate outside Somalia.
Indeed, the decision to attack Garissa also suggests weakness. Ideally, al-Shabaab would like to attack a major target in Nairobi again, as they did with Westgate in 2013. That operation struck at the heart of Kenya’s elite – one of the victims was the President’s nephew – and demonstrated the long reach of al-Shabaab. Garissa, on the other hand, is a small desert town inhabited by fewer than 120,000 people, mostly ethnic Somalis. Its university, founded in 2011 on the site of a former teacher training college, does not cater for elite students. An attack here, while tragic, will not shake Kenyan society in the same way that Westgate did. Indeed, as a one-off event, it does not even carry the terror-inducing factor of the seemingly relentless carnage around Mandera towards the end of last year. It is far from al-Shabaab’s ideal target.
Al-Shabaab has recently suffered a string of major reverses, beginning with the death of the group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, and intelligence chief, Tahlil Abdishakur, in September 2014. Both men were killed in by a US drone strike, as were other senior commanders such as Yusuf Dheeq and Adnan Garaar, the mastermind of the Westgate attack, earlier this year. Several senior figures have also defected. Most importantly, Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi (known as “Zaki”), another of the group’s intelligence chiefs, surrendered to Somali police officers in December. Military defeats at the hands of the African Union intervention force have caused al-Shabaab to lose territory, morale and men – over 700 have surrendered since August 2014.
In light of these serious setbacks, al-Shabaab’s attack on a poorly defended university close to the Somali border looks like a desperate attempt to return to the international headlines and so appear stronger than they really are. Certainly, the Garissa attack was gruesome and demonstrates that the group does retain some capacity for acting beyond Somalia. However, it also shows that that capacity is considerably diminished. Continued military success in Somalia may cause further spasms of extreme violence from al-Shabaab, but these look increasingly like its death throes.