GABORONE, Botswana — More than 200 fighters of the Somali militant group al-Shabab have reportedly defected from the al-Qaida affiliate and established the first coherent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL) military brigade in East Africa.
In a terror alert issued over the Christmas holiday, the Kenyan Police Service (KPS) Inspector General Joseph Boinnet said al-Shabab has split into two groups with one remaining loyal to al-Qaida while the new unit, which is made up mainly of foreign fighters, has pledged its allegiance to ISIL.
He said intelligence reports show that the split has led to competition for recruits with one faction keen to prove its power by staging attacks on soft targets including crowded places, shopping malls, entertainment spots, restaurants, buses, airports, college campuses and places of worship.
"They (al-Shabab) have split. As a result of the splits, particularly the ones along ideological and religious lines, are very keen to promote that internal competition by proving a point. They plan to prove a point by staging attacks.They are competing to spread an international jihadist agenda, which could be deadly if and when their attacks happens," Boinnet told media in Nairobi on Christmas Eve.
Further, Boinnet said al-Qaida- and ISIL-affiliated groups are among the estimated 100 al-Shabab members operating on either side of the Somali-Kenyan border, which they regularly cross to attack targets in both countries. Police say the pro-ISIL group has established itself in the Lafey area of Mandera county in northeastern Kenya, while the pro-al-Qaida group largely operates from the Boni Forest in southern Kenya.
For the past two months, the Kenyan Defense Force (KDF) has been deployed to the Boni Forest and the Mandera border area to flush out the militants, but the crackdown has largely failed to secure the border areas. The announcement of a new ISIL group in Kenya comes nearly three months after small units of al-Shabab began defecting in small numbers to align with the Syrian-based group in a move that prompted widespread purges of pro-ISIL fighters from the militia ranks.
More than 20 fighters suspected of being pro-ISIL have been arrested, jailed or beheaded by the al-Shabab internal security unit over the past two months. Recent Kenyan intelligence reports suggest that most foreign fighters in the al-Shabab army, estimated at 1,400 strong, are leaving to join the new ISIL affiliate.
Apart from the Kenya-Somali border area, ISIL fighters are reportedly active in central Somalia and in the mountains of northern Somalia, where they have fought numerous battles against the armed forces of the self-declared State of Puntland. The expansion of ISIL to Somalia and Kenya marks an extension of the Syrian-Iraqi group's to East Africa for the first time.
ISIL already has powerful and militarily capable North African affiliates in Egypt and Libya. In West Africa, its affiliate is the Nigerian Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram, which operates extensively in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Addressing a counter-terrorism conference in Johannesburg that discussed the ISIL presence in Africa, US State Department Under-Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller said early this month that ISIL will be a threat to Kenya once it establishes in Somalia:
“Looking at Somalia, ISIL is trying to insert itself and then may threaten to move into Kenya,” she said. Somali Defense Minister Gen. Abdulkadir Sheikh Ali Dini told the Voice of America (VOA) his government will fight to prevent ISIL from setting up its Horn of Africa base in the country.
"The Somali National Army (SNA), with the support of the people will jointly prevent al-Shabab defectors to create Daesh [another name for ISIL] and its ideology in the country," he said. However, the ISIL group has over the past month captured several towns in the Juba and Geddo regions to consolidate its hold in southern Somalia.