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When al-Qaida brought terror to East Africa

Jan Philipp Wilhelm
August 6, 2018

Twenty years ago, Arab jihadists attacked US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Since then, terrorism has been taking root in East Africa. But the perpetrators and their aims have changed.

Debris in front of the US embassy in Nairobi after the 1998 bombing
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It's August 7, 1998, 10:30 a.m. Two assassins detonate a tanker truck filled with explosives in front of the US embassy in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Only nine minutes later, another bomb explodes, this time in neighboring Tanzania in front of the US embassy in Dar es Salaam. A total of 224 people were killed in these attacks, most of them in Nairobi, where the impact of the explosion destroyed the embassy’s facade and caused a neighboring house to collapse.

"The attacks on the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7th came as a real shock to many people," recalls Murithi Mutiga, a security expert at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "Most Kenyans and Tanzanians could hardly comprehend what could motivate people to unleash carnage on such a scale."

Read more: 'World on the brink,' warns Munich Security Report 

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The attacks on the US embassies were a new phenomenon — not only for Kenya and Tanzania, but also for the rest of the world. Never before had there been so many civilian casualties in an attack by the then relatively unknown terrorist network, al-Qaida. Previously, Islamic attacks had mostly been directed against military institutions. Practically overnight, Osama bin Laden and his organization gained international fame. Many experts consider the attacks to mark the beginning of the so-called war on terror, because the USA reacted with missile attacks against targets in several countries.

Read more: Attack on Sahel counterterror force puts jihadists in focus

Africa an 'unwitting victim'

Although the attack was not aimed at Africans, East Africa became the scene of the first al-Qaida attack with several hundred civilian victims. "Unfortunately, Africa proved to be what can be termed as a soft target," Mutiga told DW.

Western embassies across Africa were not as well guarded as elsewhere, and porous borders made it easy for the terrorist network to smuggle in people and bombs. "Africa unfortunately became an unwitting victim of this global war," says Mutiga.

Hooded Al-Shabab militants riding a truck in Mogadishu
Al-Shabab militants in Mogadishu, 2009Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Abikar

Many commentators at the time predicted that Africa would become the hotspot of global terrorism in the future. The fear was that fragile state structures, especially in the civil war-torn Somalia, could offer terrorists ideal retreats and recruitment opportunities.

"I think this has only partially come true," says Annette Weber, East Africa expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. The Somali terrorist militia al-Shabab, which is part of the al-Qaida network, still has strong connections in the region and is still carrying out attacks today. But the idea that the Islamic terrorism of the 21st century would predominantly play out on the African continent has not come to pass. "It remains quite clear that the main locations are ultimately in the Middle East," Weber told DW.

Read more: Life in Somalia under peacekeepers and al-Shabab threats

New base of terrorism

Nevertheless, terrorism has settled in the Horn of Africa. Two attacks in Kenya, in particular, gained worldwide attention. One was on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi in 2013, and the other was at the University of Garissa in 2015.

But according to East Africa expert Weber, the perpetrators of today are different from those of twenty years ago. Instead of the "small, mobile al-Qaida units that traveled to the region to carry out attacks," it is now "groups that are much more anchored in the population," says the political scientist.

According to experts, economic circumstances often play a greater role in recruitment than religious or political extremism. Kenyan security expert Murithi Mutiga also notes a change in the objectives behind terrorist attacks in the region. While the early attacks were explicitly directed against Western targets such as embassies, the local population is now also being increasingly targeted. 

"Citizens became perpetrators against their fellow citizens," says Mutiga. In October 2017, a truck with explosives was detonated in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, killing almost 600 people. No terrorist group has publicly claimed responsibility for the attack.

US drone attacks cause concern

Security forces in the region have adapted their strategies to deal with homegrown terrorism, but sometimes this leads to counterproductive results, Mutiga says. "They opted for what was quite an unfortunate strategy of mass targeting of groups along religious and sometimes ethnic lines." The Kenyan government has accused Somalis across the board for the attacks in their country. In the meantime, however, the overall fight against terrorism has been more strongly guided by the rule of law and intelligence findings, apparently with success: "Of course, you can never know when the next attack will occur," says Mutiga. "But certainly they appear now to have a lower capacity to stage regular attacks than they did a few years ago."

Read more: Former al-Shabab militants in Somalia share their story

Mutiga is, however, worried about the US government's new strategy in Somalia, which focuses primarily on increased drone attacks against al-Shabab. It is true that such strikes can sometimes have positive effects by curbing terrorist groups’ operational capability, "but they potentially can also inflame local opinion," Mutiga warns. According to the British journalists' association TBIJ, the USA has so far flown 16 air attacks in Somalia this year. Nearly 90 people were killed, mostly al-Shabab fighters.
A previous version of this article gave the number of fatalities as 242. This has now been corrected. The department apologizes for the error.

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