from Africa in Transition

Al-Shabaab and Foreign Fighters in Kenya

June 19, 2015

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The Kenyan military has announced that it killed a British subject, by appearance ethnically English, during an al-Shabaab attack on a military base in Lamu county. The Kenyan police have issued a $100,000 reward for the capture of a German national who appears to be ethnically German who also took part in the al-Shabaab attack.

Al-Shabaab has long attracted foreign fighters, both in Somalia and in Kenya. But, nearly all of them have been ethnic Somalis. Unlike the self-proclaimed Islamic State , which has attracted significant numbers of ethnic Europeans to its cause, al-Shabaab, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, has not.

The appearance of western nationals among al-Shabaab ranks is unusual but not unique. In the aftermath of al-Shabaab’s attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in 2013 parts of the media had a field day with speculation about the role of “the White Widow” as a leader of al-Shabaab. Identified as Samantha Lewthwaite, an English widow of a Somali al-Shabaab fighter, who is wanted in Kenya for charges of possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a felony. However, the stories of her leadership had little credence, and she was never credibly linked to the Westgate Mall attack. There is also the case of Omar Shafik Hammami, an American of Irish descent, who is believed to have been an al-Shabaab commander until his death at the command of the now deceased al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane in 2013.

The media is also reporting that the Islamic State is attempting to recruit al-Shabaab fighters. There might be a link between that effort and the appearance of European fighters in al-Shabaab’s ranks.

It is too soon to say whether the appearance of a German and a Brit among al-Shabaab fighters is a new development. There is always concern that Europeans or Americans who join radical jihadi groups will return home and carry out “lone wolf” attacks. Hence the need to carefully watch for signs that al-Shabaab is recruiting non-Somali Europeans and Americans.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Nigeria

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Kenya

Wars and Conflict

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