Al-Shabaab’s deadly attack last week in Kenya, and threats of more to come, raise new security questions for President Obama’s planned trip to the East African country this summer – though the White House so far is making no changes to the schedule.
The president’s planned visit to his father’s homeland was announced late last month. It would mark Obama’s first as president to Kenya, a country he hasn’t visited in nearly a decade and he skipped over two years ago during an Africa tour despite stopping by neighboring Tanzania.
At the time, the White House cited concerns over Kenya’s elections and the indictment of President Uhuru Kenyatta before the International Criminal Court.
Those charges have since been dropped. And Kenya is now etched onto Obama’s itinerary, with the U.S. president planning to travel there in July for bilateral meetings and the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
But the terror rampage at Garissa University College was a grim reminder of the logistical and security challenge for the president’s team, and of the growing threat posed by al-Shabaab. The attack on the northern Kenya university killed nearly 150 people and was followed by a warning from the Somalia-based terror group that Kenyan cities “will run red with blood,” according to the SITE intelligence group.
“Their objective right now is to get attention,” said Peter Pham, an Africa expert at the Atlantic Council, adding that the terror group is “changing its model” from a “major insurgent threat” to, increasingly, “a transnational terrorist group.”
A presidential visit would, for a brief period, put the international spotlight on Kenya. Pham said al-Shabaab, while good at hitting “soft targets,” so far has avoided government buildings and other fortifications and would likely not attempt to “storm any majorly defended target” like the meetings Obama would be attending.
However, that might not stop them from plotting an attack against Kenyans while the president is in the country, for the kind of attention they’re seeking.
“It doesn’t necessarily need to be associated directly to the presidential visit, other than the timing,” Pham said. “Anything they do … will get them what they want, which is more media and exposure to the big leagues so to speak. The more reporters in the country heightens the risk.”
So far, the White House insists the July trip will not be affected by terror concerns.
“We don't believe that this will impact the president’s travel there later this year,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters on Friday. “We feel very confident in the security precautions that will be in place when the president travels.”
Obama’s father, the late Barack Obama Sr., was born and raised in Kenya, and the president still has family there. The White House has not said whether Obama plans to visit relatives while in the country.
The president on Friday called Kenya’s president to express condolences over the recent attack. According to a White House statement, Obama also affirmed he looked forward to meeting with him in July, in Nairobi.
The trip, according to the White House, is meant to “build on the success of the August 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and continue our efforts to work with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya, to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security.”
Al-Shabaab, which rose from the ashes of civil war in neighboring Somalia, has been linked to Al Qaeda and was also responsible for massacring non-Muslims in June and November 2014 as they were traveling on buses in Kenya near the Somali border.
Before that, the Islamist group was responsible for the attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing 67 people.
Aside from launching attacks on non-Muslims, the group has also vowed revenge against Kenya and other neighboring nations for sending troops to Somalia in 2011 in support of the weakened central government there.
But Thursday’s attack on mostly Christians at the college was the deadliest act of terrorism in Kenya since the Al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, which killed 213 people, including 12 Americans, and injured 4,000. It calls into question whether the Kenyan government can keep its people safe, and whether al-Shabaab might try to stage an attack to take advantage of the world’s attention during Obama’s visit.
Robert McFadden, senior vice president and counterterrorism analyst with the Soufan Group who served as a chief investigator for Naval Criminal Investigative Service after the USS Cole bombing by Al Qaeda in 2000, told FoxNews.com that it “would absolutely be a goal for any violent extremist anywhere” to disrupt an American president’s visit.
“But there is a big delta between what [terrorists] would like to do and its capability and its capacity,” he added.
He believes that Kenyan security forces – though criticized for their response in the Westgate Mall attack – are robust enough to meet the challenge of securing Nairobi ahead of the July conference, which will also host a number of international dignitaries and industry leaders. Those forces already have launched attacks against al-Shabaab positions in Somalia after the college massacre.
“The Kenyan government has a good handle on the security posture, but will also be augmented by the full capabilities of the United States,” McFadden said. Further, “the president is not going to go anywhere that his most trusted advisers and the people at the very top of the [U.S.] security apparatus advise against.”
While Obama has traveled to countries in fragile circumstances before, like Afghanistan and Iraq, those places offered the benefit of an entrenched U.S. military presence. There is a tiny U.S. military footprint in Kenya but no large American bases, and certainly not in Nairobi.
But Kenya is not at war, and its government is working closely with the U.S. amid this ongoing al-Shabaab threat, McFadden said.
“The threat level right now for the country isn’t much beyond what it is for some of the neighboring countries – Somalia notwithstanding,” he said. Plus, “the amount of information, intelligence, care and planning that goes into these trips for the president and vice president is absolutely extraordinary anywhere they go.”
That planning is typically led by U.S. Secret Service, which will marshal its resources months ahead to plot a wide perimeter of security around the president during his time there.
When contacted by FoxNews.com, U.S. Secret Service spokesman Robert Hoback said he could not talk about the “means and methods” of that planning.