October 18, 2023

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, October 18, 2023: Al Qaeda May Attack International Forces or Foreigners in Sub-Saharan Africa to Support Hamas

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CTP has temporarily paused the Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and Pakistan sections of the Salafi-Jihadi Weekly Update to support the production of CTP’s Iran Update, which is covering the Israel-Hamas war. This update will continue to cover the Salafi-jihadi movement in sub-Saharan Africa on a weekly basis in the interim. 

Data Cutoff: October 17, 2023, at 10 a.m.

Key Takeaway: Al Qaeda’s affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa may exploit the Israel-Hamas war to attack their regional or Western adversaries under the pretext of supporting Hamas. These attacks would simultaneously advance the affiliates’ transnational propaganda narratives while furthering their preexisting local campaigns. Al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate will likely increase the rate and scale of attacks in Kenya and against US and Kenyan forces in the Horn of Africa. The group’s Sahelian affiliate is unlikely to do the same against UN peacekeepers or foreigners because international disengagement from the region has removed many potential targets and incentives.

Al Qaeda’s affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa may take advantage of the Israel-Hamas war to attack their African or Western adversaries under the pretext of supporting Hamas to advance transnational propaganda narratives and draw recruits. Al Qaeda’s Sahelian and Somali affiliates have released several statements celebrating the October 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel and framing the attacks within a broader global jihad against the international world order.[1] Al Qaeda’s General Command also issued a statement on October 13 encouraging these affiliates to target American airports, bases, and embassies in the affiliates’ areas of operation.[2] These sub-Saharan affiliates previously carried out attacks against African and Western targets for their relationship with Israel in a campaign from 2019 to 2020, called “Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized.”[3] Al Qaeda’s Somali branch, al Shabaab, referenced this campaign for the first time since 2021 in an October 14 press release about anti-Israel protests in al Shabaab–controlled Somalia.[4]

  • Al Shabaab devoted most of its first press release after the October 7 Hamas invasion, on October 10, to berating the Kenyan government for condemning Hamas.[5] It noted that the battle against Israel and its American and European supporters is not limited to Palestine and called on the Muslim community to support jihadists across the globe in another press release on October 11.[6]
  • Al Qaeda’s Sahelian branch al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its more active affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) praised Hamas in a press release on October 13. The latter offered its support as JNIM “[races] against time to obtain the capabilities that will bring [JNIM] to [Hamas].”[7]

Al Qaeda affiliate attacks under the pretext of supporting Hamas would almost certainly target regional or international personnel that are directly working against the affiliates. Attacking such personnel simultaneously advances the affiliates’ transnational narrative as resistors to the Western-led world order while advancing their local campaigns. Al Qaeda affiliates exclusively attacked targets at this nexus in their areas of sub-Saharan Africa under the original Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized campaign.

Al Shabaab attacked civilians in the Kenyan capital and US forces in the Horn of Africa, while JNIM targeted Chadian peacekeepers.[8] Al Qaeda’s affiliates have prioritized their local campaigns over transnational attacks in recent years but still aspire to attack the West.[9] The US Department of Justice linked a multiyear, 9/11-style al Shabaab plot against the United States to the Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized campaign in 2020, demonstrating a potential risk to the US homeland if these groups have preexisting attack cells in place.[10]

  • Al Shabaab regularly attacks Kenyan and US forces for supporting the Somali Federal Government (SFG). The United States has nearly 450 troops and at least 60 contractors in Somalia training and advising Somali forces against al Shabaab, and Kenya has more than 4,000 soldiers in Somalia as part of the African Union peacekeeping mission supporting the SFG.[11]
  • The group also regularly targets Kenya to feed its pan-Somali narrative that brands Kenya as a foreign, Christian occupier to gain Somali recruits.[12] Al Shabaab specifically highlighted American and Western casualties in its press releases on a January 2019 attack on a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, that was part of its Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized campaign, showing the overlap between multiple objectives in a single attack.[13]
  • Al Shabaab targeted US forces in Kenya and Somalia as part of the campaign.[14] The group’s attack on the Manda Bay military camp in northeastern Kenya in January 2020 killed three Americans. JNIM also carried out a suicide bombing targeting Chadian UN peacekeepers supporting the Malian government after Chad renewed diplomatic ties with Israel.[15] The attack killed at least 10 soldiers.

Al Shabaab will likely increase the rate and scale of its attacks in Kenya and against Kenyan and US forces in the Horn of Africa. Attacking these forces allows al Shabaab to pursue its local goal of expelling foreign forces from Somalia while attaining its broader goals of inciting transnational support by striking at countries supporting Israel. The nearly 500 US personnel training and advising Somali forces and 4,000 Kenyan peacekeepers in Somalia provide easy targets.[16]

Both governments have already condemned Hamas’s attacks, and al Shabaab already regularly attacks Kenyan and US forces in Kenya and Somalia.[17] Al Qaeda–affiliated militants in the Horn of Africa have also been carrying out major regional terror attacks for several decades.[18] The United States and Kenya released separate security warnings since October 12, warning of potential terror attacks targeting civilians in the Kenyan capital and other high-traffic areas of the country, highlighting that these strong regional networks are still capable and active.[19]

  • Al Shabaab wounded an American contractor in an attack on a military base in southern Somalia on September 22, showing that bases with US personnel are still feasible al Shabaab targets.[20]
  • Kenya’s counterterrorism police warned that al Shabaab could conduct attacks in solidarity with Hamas in a tweet on October 12.[21] The US Embassy in Kenya released a security alert on October 13 warning that Nairobi and other tourist destinations would be likely targets for those “planning to conduct potentially imminent attacks.”[22]
  • Four al Shabaab militants attacked Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, killing at least 67 people over four days.[23] Al Shabaab militants also stormed Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya in April 2015, killing at least 148 people.[24]

JNIM is unlikely to increase the scale or geographic scope of its attacks against UN peacekeepers or foreigners in the Sahel. International disengagement from the Sahel over the past several years means the West is not involved in security operations against JNIM in its primary area of operations for the first time in a decade.[25] This trend removes in-theater targets and incentives to attack UN forces and Westerners. It also increases the risk that any attack could backfire and cause an unwanted military response.

UN forces are rapidly drawing down in Mali to complete a six-month withdrawal period by the end of 2023.[26] The short time frame and growing violence between Malian forces and separatist rebels trying to backfill UN forces has rushed some aspects of the UN withdrawal, which increases the risk of security gaps that JNIM could still exploit.[27] Attacks against certain UN contingents would allow the group to loot UN weaponry while fitting the transnational propaganda narrative of striking countries supporting Israel.[28] A string of major attacks targeting foreigners in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali from 2016 to 2018 shows JNIM also has the capabilities to target Westerners in politically sensitive areas, if it chooses to do so.[29]