Nairobi — Kenyan authorities claim to have foiled a “large-scale” biological terrorist plot by militants linked to the Islamic State (IS), raising fears that the Iraq- and Syria-based group may be extending its influence in Africa.
Police arrested Mohammed Abdi Ali, a medical intern at the Wote District Hospital in southeastern Kenya, on Friday and a court has since authorized his detention for 30 days while investigators complete their work, Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet said in a statement released Tuesday.
Ali’s wife was reportedly taken into custody in neighboring Uganda, along with another suspected accomplice. Two other medical interns have been identified as suspected co-conspirators and are thought to have gone into hiding.
“The suspects were planning large scale attacks akin to the Westgate Mall attack with the intention of killing innocent Kenyans,” Boinnet said, referring to the 2013 attack by the Somali militant group al-Shabab that claimed at least 67 lives. He added that the terrorist network “has links to” the Islamic State and “planned to unleash a biological attack in Kenya using anthrax.”
He did not name the specific group that was allegedly behind the plot.
Kenya has faced a surge in terrorist attacks since it invaded Somalia in 2011, a move it claimed would help contain the Shabab threat but which provoked a deadly backlash instead. The Somali militant group has since recruited hundreds of Kenyans and vowed to continue pummeling its southern neighbor until the Kenyan military withdraws. There were 45 terrorist attacks in Kenya last year, according to data compiled by the U.K. consultancy Verisk Maplecroft — down from 94 in 2014, but still substantially higher than pre-2011 figures.
Little is known about the Islamic State’s activities in Kenya, but the foiled plot comes less than two months after Kenyan police arrested four people on suspicion of attempting to travel to Libya to join the Islamic State. Authorities say that at least 20 Kenyans have done so already, increasing the possibility that the extremist group could eventually establish a foothold in Kenya. Already, a group calling itself Jahba East Africa has announced itself as an IS affiliate and claims to have operatives in Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda.
“The numbers cited by the Kenyan authorities remain low, although social media monitoring suggests that there is a considerable level of interest in IS among parts of Kenyan society so the figure is likely to grow over time,” Matt Bryden, an expert on extremism and the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, told the Associated Press. “While Kenya is right to be concerned, youths from dozens of countries have travelled to join IS and there is no indication that Kenya is being especially targeted by the group.”
But the Islamic State has undoubtedly targeted Africa more broadly as a potential growth area. The continent has featured prominently in the group’s propaganda, including on the cover of its monthly magazine, Dabiq, which blared “Shari’ah Alone Will Rule Africa” in March of last year. That was the month the group solidified its alliance with Nigeria-based Boko Haram, adding to the Islamic State franchises in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. (In Algeria, an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb splinter group briefly pledged loyalty to the Islamic State as well.)
But in East Africa, the Islamic State has struggled to make much headway. Last year, it dispatched an emissary to Somalia to urge al-Shabab’s emir to abandon the group’s longstanding alliance with al Qaeda. It has also repeatedly called on Somali “mujahideen” to join its ranks. But al-Shabab’s top leadership resisted the Islamic State’s entreaties and reportedly purged pro-IS fighters from its ranks. So far, only a few minor factions of the Somali militant group have switched their allegiance.
“The Islamic State has failed to win over any notable al-Shabab commanders,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian researcher who is working on a book about the spread of Islamist groups in Africa. “It seems that train really has gone because they have killed most of the IS sympathizers.”
Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the Africa Center at the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council, was more optimistic about the Islamic State’s future prospects in Somalia. “These relationships are fluid and not all that meaningful from an operational standpoint,” she said. "In the past, Somali fighters switched allegiances, from the Union of Islamic Courts to al-Shabab to clan militias to government and back again, depending on who was paying them that day. The top leadership may be ideologically invested in al-Qaeda, but the interest in forging alliances has historically stemmed mainly from a desire to get resources and cash. It may be that IS one day offers them a better deal.”
Regardless of whether or not Somalia will ultimately prove to be a dead end for the Islamic State, the group’s failure so far to plant its flag there may be fueling its drive to establish a presence in neighboring Kenya, where it enjoys considerable popular support but little in the way of organizational capacity.
Hansen described al Qaeda’s continued dominance in Somalia as its “first heavy victory” over the Islamic State and a “symbolic” blow to the group. “The Question is whether IS can rebound in East Africa,” he said.
But both analysts cautioned against reading too much into the Kenyan government’s claims about the planned biological attack. Human rights advocates have alleged that some of the suspected terrorists had previously been taken into custody, and that the plot was concocted after the fact in order to hide their disappearance. Such claims are hardly beyond the pale in a country were security services stand accused of routinely executing and disappearing suspected Islamic terrorists.
“It could be a part of a strategy of the Islamic State in Somalia and East Africa to get more attention and to compete with Shabab,” said Hansen. “But it could also be something that the Kenyan police have made up.”