The Charcoal Connection: U.S. Security Assistance and Kenyan Counterterrorism

September 30, 2013
Glowing Charcoal

The recent attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya was perhaps the most audacious terrorist operation on the African continent since the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate in the region, mounted a complex “fedayeen” style firearms assault whose target and timing seemed calculated to cause the maximum number of casualties. The gunmen killed and wounded expatriates as well as Kenyans. Moreover, the operation generated wall-to-wall media coverage and international attention—a classic terrorist objective.

As this terrorist spectacular unfolded, government officials, the press, and the public understandably focused on civilian casualties, the response of the security forces, and the fate of the Shabaab gunmen responsible for the attack. Now that the siege that followed the terrorist operation appears to be over, it is appropriate to ask a fundamental question: Did the Kenyan authorities do all they could to prevent the assault on the shopping mall? No government can be expected to prevent every terrorist act. But the evidence suggests that Kenyan officials lacked the will to disrupt and roll up the Shabaab networks that have operated inside the country for the last several years.

U.S. security assistance has been flowing into Kenya ever since the embassy bombings. Successive U.S. administrations have regarded the country as a counterterrorism “pillar” on the continent. Kenya has been one of Africa’s largest recipient of U.S. counterterrorism-related assistance, which has included weapons, equipment, training, and intelligence cooperation aimed a controlling the country’s borders and improving the ability of the army and police to conduct operations against terrorists.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Defense has given additional tens of millions of dollars to support Kenya’s military contribution to a UN-backed African Union mission intended to drive the Shabaab from southern Somalia. The top U.S. military commander for the region announced last March that this effort was bearing fruit and that the Shabaab had been seriously weakened in Somalia.

But the Kenyan government has been far less aggressive in responding to the presence of the Shabaab inside Kenya. Since 2011, the group has carried out lethal grenade attacks on churches, bars, and bus stations across the country. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has reported regularly on Shabaab networks within Kenya. Kenya, which serves as the region’s economic and commercial hub, and is a close security partner of the United States and other Western governments, clearly was a Shabaab target even before the Westgate attack.

What might explain the apparent reluctance of Kenyan authorities to pursue Shabaab networks more aggressively? Every major terrorist event leads almost inevitably to claims that there was an intelligence failure. In Kenya, a debate over the competence of the National Intelligence Service (and its political masters) broke out not long after the Shabaab attack began.

A more interesting explanation involves the political sensitivities surrounding the Somali communities in Kenya and the minority Muslim population more generally. Within the large Somali diaspora and among the many Kenyans of Somali ancestry there is a widespread belief that the state regards them as second-class citizens. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been growing within the country’s largely Christian middle class. The Kenyan authorities may have concluded that more aggressive measures against the Shabaab would further estrange Somalis from Kenyan society. They may have also decided that a crackdown would intensify long-simmering communal tensions. Finally, they may have simply concluded that a more expansive anti-Shabaab campaign would alienate Muslim voters who make up a sizeable part of the electorate.

The Kenyan government has also done less than it could have in Somalia, the wellspring of the Shabaab. The explanation for this lack of action lies not in any concerns about political and social sensitivities, but in the lucrative trade in a humble commodity—charcoal. Widely used as fuel in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, charcoal was a major revenue source for the Shabaab.

In 2012, the Kenyan army succeeding in driving the Shabaab from the Somali port of Kismayo, the group’s major southern redoubt. The army turned the port over to the Ras Kamboni force, a local militia. That same year, a UN resolution banned the export of Somali charcoal in an effort to undercut the Shabaab’s finances. Ignoring the resolution, the Kenyan army and its allied Somali militia has allowed the trade to continue. Members of the army, the Ras Kamboni force, and Kenyan politicians have reportedly benefited from this illicit commerce—as has the Shabaab, which has continued to control and reap considerable profits from the charcoal networks.

The horrific events last week in Nairobi suggest that the Shabaab has moved up several rungs on terrorism’s league table. Despite setbacks in Somalia, the group has been able to maintain a violent presence through a sophisticated cross-border operation that successfully targeted expatriates as well as Kenyans—and in so doing held the world’s attention for nearly a week.

Policymakers outside the continent must now be alert to the group’s potential as a wider transnational threat—perhaps to the United States itself. The FBI has long worked to disrupt Shabaab networks in the Somali diaspora inside the United States, which has been a source of funds and fighters. If the Shabaab does emerge as a global threat, it will be critical to persuade allies like Kenya to move more aggressively against networks operating inside the country and across the border in Somalia.


Ghassan Schbley, an analyst at CNA Strategic Studies, spent two years in Nairobi investigating Shabaab financing as a member of the UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group. William Rosenau is a senior analyst at CNA Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are their own.


Photo Credit: Kenneth Lu, Flickr