Al-Shabaab’s Riverside attack and likely grand plan for 2023

Riverside Nairobi attack

Somalilandsun- The Somalia-based militant group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack on the Dusit office and hotel complex on 14 Riverside Drive in Nairobi’s Westlands suburb on Tuesday.

Most immediately, it seemed like it was timed to coincide with the attack on the Kenyan contingent of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, Amisom, exactly three years ago in 2016.

That attack, in which Shabaab claimed to have captured 12 Kenya Defence Forces troops with at least 63 killed, was the deadliest up to that point on Amisom.

But even if Shabaab could claim that attack as its biggest prize against Amisom, it isn’t sufficiently emotive to mark with another.

Shabaab has now been at this longer than most of its adversaries and, in recent years, shown that it has a long game.

The Riverside Drive attack repeats a pattern seen in 2011.

In a series of cross-border raids, Shabaab gunmen kidnapped aid workers at the Dadaab refugee camp in Garissa and tourists in Lamu.

The media was flooded with reporting and commentary about then-President Mwai Kibaki government’s inability to protect the country and confront terrorism threats.

The response was “Operation Linda Nchi” (protect the nation) into southern Somalia, the first offensive military expedition by the Kenyan military into another country since Independence.

Until then, Kenya was more renowned as a leading UN peacekeeping troop-contributing country.

Early campaigns

With hindsight, their goal might have been bigger. For, at that point, Kenya was, typically, already in early campaigns for elections that would be eventually held in March 2013 with Kibaki retiring after his two terms.

It was an ugly, bare-knuckle, throw-everything-at-it-including-kitchen-sink brawl pitting eventual victors President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto in the red corner and opposition duo Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka in the orange corner.

The “UhuRuto” triumph would leave a bitter taste in opponents’ and critics’ political mouth, a court battle challenging the victory and a country torn further apart by the ICC case against the winners, arising from the 2008 post-election violence.

With the distraction of the ICC cases, political scuffling, political divisions and a government transition, sections of the State were, inevitably, asleep or paralysed.

Just what Shabaab had prayed for — and it went to work.

On September 21, 2013 it struck, with four of its masked gunmen attacking the Westgate shopping mall.

When the shooting and explosions stopped, and the smoke started to clear, 71 people lay dead and 200 were injured.

The aftershock whacked the Kenyan economy, fanned hostility against the Somali community and forced Kenya to dig in deeper in Somalia.

The Dusit raid could be linked to the 2022 election and seeking to exploit what is turning to out to be a bitter early jostling for that vote.

Should Shabaab keep to the same playbook, then Riverside could be a dress rehearsal for what it plans to do on the 10th anniversary of the Westgate mall attack — in September 2023 — during what will, in all probability, be a transition period after a messy election.


In the short term, it ensures that Kenya will harden its position to keep its ally, Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, as president of the Jubaland State of Somalia, where its Amisom troops are based.

There is a widely held view among African diplomats in Nairobi and the AU in Addis Ababa that Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo”, in alliance with Ethiopia, wants to eject Madobe as they did last month in the Horn country’s restive South West state.

Abdiasis Mohammed “Laftagareen” was elected president but only because the highly popular Mukhtar Robow “Abu Mansur”, a former Al-Shabaab leader, was arrested ahead of the vote and thus locked out of the race.

Ethiopian troops were then deployed in the state to quell likely protests over the result.

Addis has always viewed Madobe as being in cahoots with secessionists in its Ogaden region.

In the wake of Riverside, both Addis and Mogadishu are more likely to be deferential to Kenya’s view of the ideal political order in Jubaland.

But it also means that the tensions between Kismayu and Mogadishu, as well as Ethiopia’s problems with Madobe and, therefore, differences between Amisom, albeit minor, will remain into both the Somalia elections this year and Kenya’s in 2022.

That would be good for Shabaab — and better even, if Ethiopia’s imperial appetite wanes under reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

It’s foolish to think Shabaab are very clever. But it would also be equally foolish to think they are not.


The author  Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer @cobbo3


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