But that doesn’t make either the threat or the people who made the threat any less dangerous, nor Kenya any less vulnerable, security analysts say. It may indicate a split among the group's leadership between jihadists and nationalists.
With hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees residing within its borders, and a sizable indigenous Somali ethnic community as well, Kenya must remain vigilant against potential threats such as the Islamist Al-Shabab militia, which professes close ties to and a shared ideology with Al Qaeda. Kenya’s vulnerability was seen plainly last week, after protests over the planned deportation of a radical Jamaican cleric turned violent in Nairobi’s Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh, and as protesters unfurled the black flag of Al Shabab to show their radical allegiances.
“If the Mungiki [an ethnic Kikuyu militia] can carry out attacks in Nairobi, anybody can,” says Richard Cornwell, a veteran Africa analyst from Tshwane (Pretoria). “Whether this is really Al Shabab or ordinary criminal elements pretending to act in the defense of Islam – we’re more than just bandits, we’re religious bandits – it doesn’t really matter. They can do bloody well what they want.”
'When we arrive we will hit, hit until we kill'
This week, after Kenya’s security forces detained hundreds of protesters in the Somali-dominated neighborhood of Eastleigh, Al Shabab’s official website carried an audio recording of a threat to attack Kenya.
"God willing we will arrive in Nairobi, we will enter Nairobi, God willing we will enter ... when we arrive we will hit, hit until we kill, weapons we have, praise be to God, they are enough," Reuters news agency quoted the seven-minute long chanting message from Swahili.
Al Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage later told Reuters that the audio recording was fake.
"We didn't threaten Kenya. That story is a false one,” Mr. Rage told a Reuters reporter. “We never posted that on the Internet. ... Everything needs to be checked first by the media to make sure they know what they are writing about."
Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa specialist at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, says that the threat – even if disavowed by Al Shabab’s leadership – could indicate splits within top Al Shabab leadership.
“I think you have a nationalist group within Al Shabab, who are fed up with global jihadist agenda, and they saying our plate is already full with fighting the African Union and Western-backed transitional government, so we have no business taking on Kenya,” says Mr. Abdi. “On the other side you have the foreign jihadis, who say, ‘no, no, no, you signed up for global jihad.”
In any case, the threat against Kenya is likely to prompt Kenya to clamp down on Islamists in particular and the Somali community in general, which will likely push more young Muslims into the arms of Al Shabab. “If the jihadis don’t want peace, then this is good for their agenda. It will radicalize ethnic Somalis in Kenya, and boost their recruitment.”
'Measured response' is needed
Al Shabab – a militia that controls most of southern Somalia, including most of the capital of Mogadishu – has threatened to attack other countries before: against Ethiopia for its December 2006 invasion of Somalia, and against Uganda and Burundi for contributing troops for the African Union peacekeeping mission that supports the shaky transitional government in Somalia. As yet, none of its threats have been carried out, although Al Shabab has claimed credit for a series of suicide bombings throughout Somalia itself.
Security analysts say that the porous nature of Kenya’s borders with Somalia, and the fact that Al-Qaeda influenced supporters have carried out bombing attacks in Nairobi – most notably the 1998 bombing of the US embassy – are reason enough for Kenya to be on its guard. But Mr. Cornwell says that Kenya must be careful to be measured in its response.
“This called for a measured response and circumspection about one's foreign policy,” says Cornwell. “When the American government supported Ethiopia in its invasion of Somalia, for the first time the mullahs in Eastleigh were putting politics into their sermons.”
Strong actions can have unintended consequences and actually fan the flames of radical sentiment, Cornwell says, “but unfortunately, that isn’t the way people’s minds work” in the world where foreign policy is made.