The US government has issued a new warning to civilian airlines flying in the Kenyan airspace to watch out for possible attacks by militant groups, in what could heighten anxiety for the industry already weighed down by massive financial losses due to travel restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) said the advisory is consistent with the fact that Somalia-based terrorist group, Al-Shabaab remains in possession of weapons capable of hitting aircraft at low altitudes of up to 25,000 feet — putting at risk arrival and departure phases of flights, especially on the popular aviation route through northeastern Kenya and Somalia.
The air routes covered by the FAA warning include those connecting Nairobi and Far Eastern countries like Dubai (UAE), India and China, among other destinations serviced by major airlines.
Planes plying the routes overpass eastern Kenya counties such as Garissa and exit into neighbouring Somalia.
“The Kesom (FIR) to Mogdu (FIR), which is covered by the warning is a shorter and direct route from Nairobi to Far Eastern countries hence the reason airlines prefer it,” an aviation consultant told the Business Daily on condition of anonymity.
Whereas airlines can choose alternative routes, they often opt for the shortest ones.
“The alternative route is Nairobi (FIR), Addis (FIR) and Djibouti (FIR). It’s a longer route hence more fuel is used, meaning more costs,” the expert added.
While primarily active in Somalia, the terror group has recently shown its capability and intent to conduct attacks targeting Kenyan government security forces, civilians, and western interests in the country, including joint civil-military airfields, mainly near Kenya’s eastern border with Somalia and in the coastal region of Kenya adjacent to Somalia.
“The January 5, 2020, complex attack on Camp Simba, which is co-located with Manda Bay Airport (HKLU), destroyed or damaged multiple aircraft, demonstrating the group’s intent and capabilities to target the aviation sector,” said the FAA in a February 26, 2021 advisory.
In neighbouring Somalia, Al-Shabaab has conducted multiple raids targeting civil aviation, including indirect fire attacks on Aden Adde International Airport (HCMM) and remote airfields where international troops are collocated.
The US says the Al-Shabaab possesses or has access to, a variety of weapons, including small arms, indirect fire weapons such as mortars and rockets and anti-aircraft-capable weapons, including man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS).
“Such weapons present a risk to civil aircraft operating at low altitudes, including during the arrival and departure phases of flight and/or to airports and aircraft on the ground, especially at remote airfields located east of 40 degrees east longitude. Some MANPADS have the capability to reach a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet,” said the US Aviation regulator.
Additionally, the FAA said, Al-Shabaab is likely to target western civil aviation considering a December 2020 incident in which the US Department of Justice announced the opening of an indictment charging Kenyan-national Cholo Abdi Abdullah with six counts of terrorism-related offences arising from his activities as an operative of the Al-Qaeda-linked terror cell. This included conspiring to hijack aircraft in order to conduct a 9/11-style attack in the US.
“This thwarted attack demonstrates al-Shabaab’s continued desire to attack US interests, potentially including civil aviation. The plot reinforces the United States’ concerns about the risk to US civil aviation in eastern Kenya in the Kenya-Somalia border region and the coastal region of Kenya adjacent to Somalia,” said the US government.
Managers, who spoke to the Business Daily on condition of anonymity, said they were assessing the US warning and its impact on their operations.
Al-Shabaab has publicly declared intent to conduct attacks in retaliation for Kenya’s counter-terrorism operations in Somalia, which it conducts as part of the African Union Mission (Amisom) and may be emboldened following the announced US withdrawal of forces from Somalia.
Former US President Donald Trump last December ordered the withdrawal of an estimated 700 American troops from Somalia by January 15, 2021, with the Pentagon saying they would be repositioned to other parts of East Africa — likely Kenya and Djibouti — and continue to carry out raids against the al-Shabaab and a smaller cluster of Islamic State fighters from bases in neighbouring countries.
The US Defence ministry said drone strikes — which have killed numerous senior and midlevel al-Shabaab commanders as well as dozens of civilians — would continue.