Kenyan governor claims Shabaab controls over half of northeastern Kenya

Ali Roba, the governor of Kenya’s Mandera County, recently stated that Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, currently controls vast swaths of the country’s northeastern counties.

In an op-ed published at The Standard on Jan. 12, Roba painted a dire picture of the current security situation in Kenya’s northeast. Roba provides several stark statistics in his appeal to the national government for increased assistance against the jihadist group.

For instance, when speaking of the situation in northern Kenya, Roba stated:

The government has failed to completely protect Northern Kenya from Shabaab. As it stands, the ugly truth is that Shabaab has taken control of over 50 percent of the landmass of Northern Kenya. The public must now stand up and help the government, by all means, possible to get rid of this terror group.

In speaking of Mandera County specifically, Roba also noted:

Already, Shabaab manages more than 60 percent of Mandera with the will of the public suppressed by terror.

It is unclear how much territory Shabaab actually controls inside Kenya. If Roba is indeed correct in his assessment, this would mean that Shabaab controls vast swaths of contiguous territory across southern Somalia and northern Kenya.

But while public information on Shabaab’s territorial control inside Kenya is relatively scant, the governor’s statement is significant as Kenyan officials are not often forthright in regards to Shabaab’s threat inside the country.

Already the national government has attempted to contradict Roba’s analysis, saying that “contrary to the governor’s claims, since 2013, Mandera County has registered steady gains through our security forces who have been repulsing and deterring threats to lives and property.”

However, it is hard to deny the increased rate in which Shabaab is currently operating inside northern Kenya. Just this week Shabaab has attacked a passenger bus, kidnapped three people after detonating an IED on their vehicle, and destroyed a telecommunications mast and other infrastucture.

Last month, the group assaulted and destroyed a police base, detonated an IED on an ambulance, and brutally murdered a local chief. That execution came after Shabaab militants entered the Gumarey area of Wajir County to lecture the locals.

This was followed by a a military raid conducted by the Kenyan Defense Forces on a Shabaab base in the Boni Forest area of Lamu County, a traditional stronghold of the jihadist group inside Kenya.

And in late November, 5 police officers were wounded in another IED blast. These assaults followed numerous other instances throughout last year. This includes the deadly raid on the joint U.S.-Kenyan base at the Manda Bay airfield inside Lamu County. That attack left one U.S. soldier and two U.S. contractors dead and many aircraft destroyed.

Shabaab has long operated in Kenya, but these recent strikes come after several years of increased operational tempo inside the country beginning in 2017.

These operations are mainly located in the northern and eastern counties of Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Lamu, and Tana River. In 2019, The Standard reported that at least 100 Kenyan security personnel had been killed by Shabaab’s IEDs in those counties since 2016.

That said, Shabaab retains the ability to strike inside the Kenyan capital, as seen in 2019’s attack on the DusitD2 hotel. And last month, Kenyan officials revealed that other attack plots were disrupted.

The DusitD2 raid, as well as the aforementioned Manda Bay assault, were also just recently shown in Shabaab’s propaganda. The group continues to routinely lambaste Kenya in its media showing the residual importance of the country to the al Qaeda branch.

And while Kenyan government officials continue to bicker over the actual threat Shabaab poses inside the country, it is clear that Shabaab itself has prioritized increasing its operations inside Kenya thereby further destabilizing the region.

Note: The spelling of Shabaab was changed in Governor Ali Roba’s quotes to be consistent in spelling throughout the article.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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