Last Sunday night, three minivans packed with balaclava-wearing militants and displaying the black flag of Somalia-based jihadist group al-Shabaab rolled into the small agricultural town of Mpeketoni in Kenya’s Lamu District. Capitalizing on the molasses-slow response of Kenyan authorities, the attackers managed to slaughter citizens for hours. They began by burning two workers’ hostels where people watched World Cup soccer in the bar area to the ground before going on a broader rampage in which three financial institutions were razed and businesses and vehicles destroyed. A survivor told the Daily Beast that non-Muslims were singled out for execution. Militants returned to the area the following night, massacring about ten more in Poromoko village.
Despite Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s puzzling claim that the Mpeketoniattack was the work of local political networks rather than al-Shabaab, most observers accept Shabaab’s statement taking credit for the incident. The balance of evidence suggests that Shabaab’s account is indeed more credible: after all, the attackers flew Shabaab's banners and used methods associated with the Somali group, and the type of weaponry the attackers employed is not typical of land clashes in Kenya.
Assuming that Shabaab is indeed to blame, the Mpeketoni attack serves twin purposes for the group: harming Kenya’s tourist economy and undermining political support for its military operations in Somalia.
From their beachside resorts on nearby Lamu Island, Western vacationers couldn’t hear the echoes of automatic gunfire reverberating from Mpeketoni, located just 25 miles away. They couldn’t hear the roar of flames engulfing Mpeketoni’s hotels, banks, and government buildings. But as word of the attacks leaked out, tourists bound for Lamu’s coastal area quickly abandoned their plans.
Shabaab’s assumption of responsibility made clear that the tourist sector was a primary target. Describing Kenya as “a war zone,” the group stated that “any tourists visiting the country do so at their own peril.” It further warned that foreigners who value their safety “should stay away from Kenya or suffer the bitter consequences of their folly.”
Other attention-grabbing Shabaab attacks underscore the group’s focus on Kenya’s tourist economy, which accounts for about 14 percent of the country’s GDP. The group’s notorious assault on the Westgate Mall in September 2013, which killed 67, targeted a destination popular with Westerners. Estimates made shortly after the attack projected that the impact on the tourist sector would amount to between $200 million and $250 million, potentially slowing the growth of Kenya’s GDP by around 0.5 percent.
Although the pace of Shabaab attacks in Kenya temporarily declined after the Westgate assault—only twelve took place during the following seven-month period—that number began to rise noticeably in May 2014. On May 3-4, four separate bomb attacks killed at least five people and injured nearly 100 in Nairobi and Mombasa. Three of the bombs targeted crowded passenger buses, while the fourth struck a coastal hotel. On May 16, two explosions in a Nairobi market killed at least 10 and injured 70. Overall, the nine attacks that Shabaab carried out in Kenya during the month of May killed up to 45 people and wounded an estimated 156.
Tourists took note of the renewed violence, and several Western governments issued travel advisories. Kenya typically receives about 200,000 British tourists annually, more than from any other country. In response to the escalating violence, however, the United Kingdom warned its citizens against traveling to Kenya’s coastal areas. As a result, a striking 80 percent of Mombasa’s hotel rooms remain empty today.
In addition to impacting tourism, Shabaab’s attacks aim to erode Kenya’s political will. The mitants even drew an explicit connection between their actions and the Kenyan military presence in Somalia to the victims of the massacre in Mpeketoni. A woman left widowed by the assault said the attackers told her that because the Kenyan “government has refused to pull our soldiers from Somalia, they had come to leave us ‘widows and orphans.’”
Even before this latest attack, there was growing political opposition to Kenya’s military mission in Somalia. In May, Kenyan Senate Minority Leader Moses Wetangula argued that “in our attempt to help a neighbor we have suffered a lot,” and declared that it was time to “end our presence in Somalia and save the country from further conflicts.” Ronald Tonui, a member of Kenya’s National Assembly, agreed. “It does not make any sense that our forces are trying to keep peace in Somalia at the expense of Kenyans’ safety,” he stated around the same time.
Further internal demands that Kenya withdraw from Somalia have been made since the Mpeketoni attack. Member of Parliament Abdulswamad Nassir called for Kenyan troops to “come back home and patrol our visibly porous borders.” Former presidential candidate Peter Kenneth, who had supported Kenya’s mission in Somalia, penned an editorial arguing that the Somalia mission “has not improved our security” and that Kenya must instead “think of bringing back our men and women in uniform to protect our borders.”
The strategic logic behind Shabaab’s attacks outside Somalia has been consistent, including those conducted in Kenya as well as a suicide attack it carried out in Djibouti in late May. The question of whether Shabaab can maintain a pace of strikes that will continue to undermine its enemies’ economy and resolve—and whether it might one day overplay its hand and inadvertently create even more determined foes—remains, however.