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Islamic State a threat seven years after we went to Somalia


Monday October 8, 2018


Demonstrators protest against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in front of the White House on August 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. PHOTO | MANDEL NGAN | AFP

October 2018 marks seven years since the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) crossed the border into Southern Somalia on October 16, 2011 in pursuit of the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabaab group, which had kidnapped foreign tourists and aid workers inside Kenya.

KDF will most likely be back home by 2020 when the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) is expected to transfer responsibilities to the Somali military.

However, even before the guns against the Al-Shabaab fall silent, a new asymmetrical threat is looming large.

The Islamic State (IS), a Salafi jihadist militant group that rose to global prominence in early 2014, has been making serious inroads into East Africa, potentially eclipsing Al-Shabaab as the face of radical Islamism.

As a recent report by the European Institute of Peace (EIP), The Islamic State in East Africa (September 2018), shows IS has extended its footprints across the region, including in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, DRC, and Mozambique.


Despite this, at this point, there is no consensus on the extent of the threat that IS poses to the region.

By June 2018, the Kenyan National Intelligence Service (NIS) reportedly characterised the Islamic State as “a potential rather than an immediate threat to the security of the country”.

In June 2016, around 100 men and women may have gone to join the Islamic State in Libya and Syria.

By 2018 these fighters are returning home, and swelling the ranks of IS cells.

By July 2018, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for 65 attacks in East Africa, at least two of them in Kenya.

On February 18, 2017, Kenya arrested two suspected members of IS, Nasra Hyder Faiz and Salim Mohamed Rashid, who had returned from Syria.

Another high profile arrest is that of Ali Hassan Ali in Malindi in March 2017. Ali, a suspected IS militant on the country’s “most wanted list”, had helped send recruits to Libya and Somalia.


These events serve as a wake up call that IS maintains a small but steady and dangerous foothold in the region.

As IS attracted large flows of foreign fighters in 2014 and 2015, Kenyan recruits managed to join the caravan by flying to Istanbul, then crossing the Turkish border into Syria.

Among those who used this route is Mohammed Atom, an associate of Abdirahim Abdullahi, one of the masterminds of the Al-Shabaab attack on Garissa University in April 2015.

Islamic State’s recruiters have targeted university students in the high-end technical areas including computer science, engineering, information technology and medicine.

They use social media sites to target potential recruits and prioritise them according to their skill sets, knowledge of and devotion to IS’s globalist view of ‘jihad’.


In 2016, one such group was tracked down to Moi University, Eldoret, where students were travelling to Libya.

Here, IS recruiters have prioritised bright but financially needy students who are offered low-interest loans with flexible payment regimes.

“A condition of the loan is conversion to Islam”, says the EIP report. IS “loan officers” then follow this with gradual radicalisation into its ideology.

Details of another IS network emerged in May 2016 when the police in Kenya arrested Mohamed Abdi Ali (also known as Abu Fida’a) and foiled an IS attack.

In Uganda, police also arrested his wife, Nuseiba Mohammed Haji, and another woman on suspicion of planning a mass attack.

When Abu Fida’a was arrested, he was conducting research on the use of anthrax as a biological weapon.


Two of his associates, Farah Dagane Hassan and Hiishi Ahmed Ali, both medical interns, fled to Libya when they learnt of his arrest. The two died in a US air strike in March 2017.

Abu, Farah and Hiishi studied medicine at the Kampala International University before returning to Kenya.

Back home, Abu was appointed an intern at the Wote Hospital while the other two went to Kitale, western Kenya.

Poverty is not the sole driver of violent extremism. Abu Fida’a’s network comprised mainly of medical practitioners.

In the network was the Malindi-based doctor Abudulla Adelqani Allin, who was arrested in October 2016.

Also in the cell were two medical interns at Malindi Hospital, Shukri Mohammed Yerrow (a graduate from Saratov Medical University in Russia in 2015) and Abdulrazak Abdinuur.

The two were planning to join ISIS in Puntland when they were arrested.


The Islamic State’s Kenyan cell also had linkages with Samatar Ullah, a UK-based IS supporter arrested in 2017.

Kenya experienced two low-level attacks in 2016.

On September 11, 2016, a three-some female cell comprising Tasnib Yaqub Abdullahi Farah, Fatima Omar Yusuf and Mariam, attempted to burn down Mombasa Central Police Station.

The three, who gained entry into the station under the pretext of reporting the theft of one of their cell phones, lit a petrol bomb and tossed it on the police officers and attempted to stab an officer before they were shot and killed.


Secondly, on October 27, 2016, Abdimahat Ibrahim Hassan stabbed and tried to snatch a gun from a Kenyan police officer manning the outer perimeter of the American embassy in Gigiri, Nairobi. He was shot and killed.

The attackers pledged their allegiance to IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In both cases, the IS claimed responsibility.

Earlier on, Kenya fiddled as Jihad came to our country. Today, better intelligence gathering is helping dismantle IS networks and foiling its attacks. But the Islamic State remains a potent threat.

Prof Kagwanja is chief executive, Africa Policy Institute. Notes from the ‘Conference on Crises, Conflict and Cooperation: Their Effects on Violent Extremism’, organised by the European Institute of Peace (EIP), Zanzibar, October 1-4, 2018.


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