Kenya could overtake Syria as new jihadist destination: expert

With the advent of possible British jihadist Thomas Evans killed in the al-Shebab attacks in Kenya, the east African country could supplant Syria as a place for Europeans seeking jihad, says Horn of Africa expert David Anderson, a professor of African history at the University of Warwick in the UK.


“Having caucasian European recruits on the Kenyan side of the border yes, this is a surprise to Kenyans,” Anderson told RFI. “But when one thinks about Shebab’s operations and logistics, it’s not really that surprising.”

Kenya's Defence Forces stopped a militant attack on an army base in Baure on Sunday -- at least 15 fighters with Somalia-based al-Shebab were killed, as well as two Kenyan soldiers. This was just one of four attacks Shabab is thought to have carried out in the area this weekend.

Anderson says that if Shebab is going to increase their cross-border attacks, Western jihadist faces will not be a rarity.

RFI spoke to Kenya Defence Force spokesman Colonel David Obonyo who said that the KDF did not know western Shebab fighters were in Kenya, but that there had been a number of local reports saying that white jihadists were in the Lamu county region.

“We’ve not had direct reports that he was there, only that there have been isolated reports of foreign fighters within Shebab which did not actually point to this gentleman,” says Obonyo.

“There aren’t that many [foreign fighters] left with Shebab, but there are concerns in Europe that they are still actively recruiting. And for some people who are attracted to the jihadi message, they may find Kenya easier to enter and to get access to Shebab than, for example, going to Syria to join ISIS,” adds Anderson.

Somali-based Shebab, who have been previously linked to militant group al Qaeda, have been carrying out attacks in Kenya since KDF sent troops to Somalia in 2011 to fight Shebab. The jihadists maintain that they are attacking Kenya to retaliate against the troops entering Somalia, and AMISOM, an AU-UN peacekeeping force.

Obonyo says that Kenya’s police are still dealing with the forensics in order to positively identify Thomas Evans, but that Luqeman Osman Issa, a Shebab commander in the area, is among the 15 dead.

The KDF is hunting the reported 100 Shebab fighters who escaped into Boni Forest. At press time, he told RFI none had been captured, but that those who were in pursuit were part of the regular security team on the ground.

And as the Shebab operations in southern Somalia wind down, says Anderson, more Shebab attacks are likely in Lamu county and Garissa county, not solely because they are on the border: “They will thrive where there are political divisions, where they can exploit local grievances, where they can come into local politics and find leverage.”

He says Wajir and Mandera, two northern counties in Kenya are also vulnerable, but cohesive local politics make it harder for Shebab to operate there.

Although Syria had been the go-to place for those seeking jihad, recent tougher anti-terror measures put in place by European countries could make Kenya the new fighting destination.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app