Terrorist attacks loom large from Nairobi to Manbij
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Two deadly terror attacks rocked Syria and Kenya and show that extremist groups such as Islamic State and Al-Shabab have not been dented in their ability to strike at the most sensitive and important targets. On Wednesday, an attack claimed by ISIS struck Americans meeting with locals in the sensitive town of Manbij in northern Syria. Four Americans were reported killed. In Nairobi, Al-Shabab attacked a luxury hotel on Tuesday and murdered more than 20 people.
The Nairobi attack conjured up memories of the 2013 Westgate massacre when four Al-Shabab members murdered more than 60 in a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack this week on the DusitD2 took place in the same Westlands suburb and was barely a kilometer away from the site of the former attack.
Al-Shabab is based in Somalia but it has been in contact with Al-Qaeda in the past and has learned from the tactics used by ISIS. The attack on the luxury hotel comes in the context of its decade-long battle against the government in Somalia and its attempt to spread terror across east Africa. It has targeted Christian university students in Kenya, and struck at a World Cup match in Uganda in 2010.
The attack by Al-Shabab will encourage Kenyan security to once again look at how gunmen penetrated what should be some of the most secure locations in Nairobi. The hotel that was attacked is frequented by celebrities, athletes and businessmen. For instance, footballer James ‘Odu’ Oduor tweeted his last moments in the massacre at the hotel. The daughter of a former Kenyan Senator was also reportedly trapped in the hotel compound during the gun battle.
Security forces took most of the day to root out the terrorists, which has been one problem security forces have faced in previous attacks such as the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and the 2015 Bomako, Radisson Blu attack in Mali. It also recalls the deadly series of ISIS attacks in Paris and Belgium. Groups like Al-Shabab don’t operate in a vacuum, they are part of a patchwork of groups operating across the Sahel and Sahara in Africa with contacts in the Middle East, central Asia, down into India and all the way to the Philippines. Each exploits religious extremism and weak states, often allying with either ISIS or Al-Qaeda or learning from them.
An ISIS attack on US forces in Manbij may have larger ramifications than the Nairobi attack. It comes amidst the US decision to withdraw. Manbij is the center of controversy in northern Syria, a city liberated in 2016 from ISIS by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF are partners of the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition.
But Turkey views the SDF as linked to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which it calls a terror organization. This has been one reason for the US-Turkey crises in relations and one reason US President Donald Trump chose to withdraw from Syria, a decision he announced in December last year. However the US has been conducting joint patrols with Turkey near Manbij, trying to warn Turkey from launching an operation against the Kurdish and Arab members of the SDF in Manbij.
Manbij has been a safe city since its liberation. US forces patrol peacefully and commands and US politicians who visited were often photographed walking around calmly. The ISIS-claimed attack Wednesday is designed to end that appearance of peace. It is not a coincidence that it comes during this complex time as the US is seeking to withdraw.
ISIS wants to exploit the friction and vacuum of power that is opening up to show it can strike at the heart of what is supposed to be a peaceful city. The ISIS attack could cause the delicate balance to shift in Manbij and Washington. Trump wants to withdraw but he has vowed to hit ISIS hard if they harm Americans. It will fuel calls by Turkey to argue that the city is not safe and that Turkey should intervene. It will also encourage the SDF to say that this is an example of how the US decision to withdraw could fuel ISIS resurgence.
This puts the US in a difficult spot. Withdrawing more quickly will hand ISIS a victory. But the deaths of four Americans will also be seen as evidence the US is paying a price for staying. From Manbij to Nairobi these two attacks will have major repercussions. They show that extremist groups have not been defeated and the road to a world after ISIS and in which terror has been reduced is still long and difficult.