The Islamic militants who slaughtered at least 50 people last Sunday in a small town on Kenya’s coast are members of al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, a group that had been on the run in recent months but just displayed a ferocity not seen since they took down a Nairobi mall last September.
After the Westgate Mall siege, in which militants killed nearly 70 people, Kenyan security forces rounded up anyone connected to the group. As recently as last month, Somalis in Kenya and Kenyans of Somali decent were sent back to Mogadishu in an effort to eradicate the group from Nairobi’s slums.
The series of attacks in the Kenyan coastal town of Mpeketoni show that these efforts have failed--al Shabaab militants conducted a series of raids over a number of hours, killing hotel guests who were watching the World Cup as well as police officers at a local station.
“Kenya is now officially a war zone and as such any tourists visiting the country do so at their own peril," the group said in a statement.
A Reuters report says the militants killed men on the basis of their religion. Those who could not speak Somali were killed, as were non-Muslims.
“The attackers were so many and were all armed with guns. They entered the video hall where we were watching a World Cup match and shot indiscriminately at us," Meshack Kimani told Reuters. "They targeted only men, but I was lucky. I escaped by hiding behind the door.”
Predecessors of al Shabaab have been around for nearly 20 years; the militants who bombed the American embassy in Nairobi in 1998 were the first incarnation of the group. Until recently, it was not well known outside of Somalia, where it continued to battle Kenyan troops struggling to stabilize it.
The group, which has formally been tied to al Qaeda by leader Ayman al Zawahiri, has repeatedly stated it would continue to terrorize Somalia and Kenya until the Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) leaves Somalia.
The group’s profile got a boost last September when it caused a three-day siege of a mall in an upscale neighborhood in Nairobi, killing 67 people. Weeks after the raid, SEAL Team 6 - the one that killed Osama bin Laden - was turned away by al Shabaab when it attempted to apprehend a leader of the group at a coastal fishing village in Somalia.
Until Sunday, the group had kept a low profile on the international stage while conducting small-scale attacks in Nairobi’s slums. This gave Kenyan authorities the chance to round up people suspected to be part of the group. Sunday’s attacks show these efforts have fallen short.
Al Shabaab is not just a threat to Kenya; it has international members, including Americans who could be a threat to the homeland. The group openly recruits from large Somali refugee populations in Minnesota and Arizona.
A number of Americans have already been arrested on U.S. soil for helping to finance the group. The group also boasts members from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
So far, the group has been unable to strike the west. But that’s little consolation for Kenyans, who just received a reminder of the threat that looms over them every day.
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