Al-Shabaab’s attacks come amid backdrop of West’s waning interest

Two significant attacks have been carried out by al-Shabaab in recent weeks. On 6 January 2020, the Somali-based terrorist group attacked a Kenyan military base close to the former coastal holiday destination of Lamu. The killing of a US service man and two US contractors in this attack inflicted the first ever American military combat losses inside Kenya.

The target of the assault, Manda Bay base, serves as a forward reconnaissance base for the US and is used for its drone warfare against al-Shabaab. The base is part of the American “train, assist, and enable” strategy for supporting African allies in their struggle against local organisations affiliated with Al Qaeda and Islamic State. It is also home to parts of the US 475th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron.

The other attack was on 28 December when a bomb went off at a checkpoint used by vehicles entering Somalia’s capital Mogadishu from the nearby city of Afgoye. Among the 85 killed in the attack were two Turkish engineers. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, saying the target had been a convoy of Turkish and Somali forces.

The two attacks, though different, shared some similarities: both targeted some of the group’s main enemies outside the region, Turkey and the US. Al-Shabaab’s global enemies have figured in its propaganda for more than a decade. Turks and Americans have been targeted before. And as recently as last year a US base in Somalia was targeted.

Al-Shabaab portrayed the Manda Bay attack as a direct response to the US administration’s designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The group further claimed that the attack was conducted under the “guidance and direction” of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It is significant that these attacks come at a time when the US – as well as other western countries such as France – are increasingly discussing scaling down their military efforts against African extremist organisations, as well as drawing in new partners to share their burden.