NAIROBI, Kenya — A school teacher was among four people killed Thursday when a government vehicle carrying exam papers was ambushed by gunmen in northern Kenya, in the third attack to strike the country this week.
Police officials said it was too early to say who was responsible, but this latest attack came on the same day that a commander of Somalia’s Al Shabaab Islamist extremists called on its supporters to step up their terror attacks here in retaliation for Kenya’s recent invasion of Somalia.
“Kenya, you have started the war, and so you have to face the consequences,” said Sheikh Muktar Robow Abu Mansoor to a gathering outside Somalia's capital Mogadishu.
He urged larger-scale violence: “The Kenyan mujahideen who were trained by Osama [bin Laden] in Afghanistan, stop throwing grenades at buses. We need a huge blow against Kenya. Hand grenades hurled can harm them, but we want huge blasts.”
Red Cross officials said that machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades were used in Thursday’s ambush, which took place in the sparsely populated semi-desert of northern Kenya, close to the borders with Somalia and Ethiopia.
At the start of the week, two separate grenade attacks struck the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. One targeted a dingy, working-class bar in the early hours of Monday morning, the other a busy bus stop at rush hour that evening.
One person was killed and 28 injured in the attacks, which came two days after the United States embassy in Nairobi issued a terrorist warning.
It is suspected that Somali gunmen were behind Thursday’s ambush, which took place close to a border area where Al Shabaab has a strong presence. But officials have yet to make a statement as to who they believe is responsible.
The string of violent attacks this week followed an incursion into Somalia by hundreds of Kenyan soldiers backed by fighter planes and tanks aiming to defeat the militants, who the government here blames for a spate of recent kidnappings of foreign tourists and aid workers.
A British man was shot dead and his wife kidnapped from a luxury resort on the coast last month, followed three weeks later by the abduction of a disabled and ill French woman, who subsequently died while in captivity. The most recent kidnapping was of two Spanish aid workers, both women, in the Dadaab refugee camp.
Al Shabaab has denied involvement in the kidnappings.
On Thursday, government spokesman Alfred Mutua explained his country’s reason for sending troops into Somalia.
“Al Shabaab presents a clear and present danger to the security of the world, and especially of the East Africa region. It is a terror organization that has made it impossible for there to be peace and stability in Somalia,” said Mutua.
“[Our] strategy is to destroy Al Shabaab’s network within the shortest time possible,” he said. “Kenya has no plans to stay in Somalia an hour beyond [what is] necessary.”
Kenya has stepped up security on the streets of Nairobi and at hotels and shopping centers frequented by foreigners and wealthy Kenyans, but analysts say a large-scale terror attack in Kenya now seems inevitable.
“It is not a question of if, but when,” said Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank.
Last year, Al Shabaab launched its first attack outside Somalia with a double suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 people. Earlier this month, it carried out its most deadly attack ever, killing 100 with a suicide truck bombing in Mogadishu.
Observers suspect freelance Shabaab sympathisers are behind this week’s attacks. On Wednesday, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha, a Muslim convert from Western Kenya, pleaded guilty to carrying out Monday’s grenade attacks and to being a member of Al Shabaab.
Oliacha appeared in court a day after he was arrested with a cache of grenades, pistols, bullets and two assault rifles in a Nairobi suburb. The police said two “accomplices” had also been arrested.
The incursion into Somalia has won popular support, and jingoistic headlines have been splashed across newspapers and TV channels. But the operation's progress has been slow, with Kenyan troops and tanks seemingly bogged down in thick mud and bad weather outside the town of Afmadow.
Fighting was reported in southern Somalia on Thursday between Kenyan troops and a group of around 45 Shabaab fighters.
“There has been a confrontation that is ongoing,” confirmed Kenya’s military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir.
Somalia has been mired in chaos for two decades, but previous military interventions by both the U.S. and Ethiopia have ended in failure. Kenya’s army is untested, having never been involved in a war before. It will face Shabaab fighters hardened by years in battle.
In recent years, Somalia’s anarchy has spawned piracy, banditry and terrorism that worry its neighbors, including Kenya. Mutua, the government spokesman, said the current military operation had been planned for “several months,” confirming the suspicions of many observers who said it had happened too quickly for the recent kidnappings to be the real impetus.
“There is no doubt the Kenyans were desperate for a pretext to go in and clearly, if you look at the speed and scale of the intervention, it was well-choreographed and pre-planned,” said Abdi, the analyst.
Mutua denied reports that U.S., French or other foreign forces were involved, although U.S. drone strikes have been reported close to the Shabaab stronghold of Kismayo in recent months. “This is a Kenyan operation together with [Somali forces], but other countries are not involved at all in the current operations in Somalia," he said.