Two deadly attacks rocked Syria and Kenya, showing that extremist groups such as Islamic State and al-Shabaab have not been dented in their ability to strike the most sensitive and important targets. On Wednesday, an attack claimed by ISIS struck at Americans meeting with locals in the sensitive town of Manbij in northern Syria. Four Americans were reported killed. One day earlier, al-Shabaab attacked a luxury hotel in Nairobi and murdered more than 20 people.
Tuesday's attack in Nairobi conjured up memories of 2013, when four al-Shabaab members massacred more than 60 people in the Westgate Mall. The attack this week on the DusitD2 Hotel took place in the same Westlands suburb, barely a kilometer away from the site of the former attack. Al-Shabaab, based in Somalia, has in the past been in contact with al-Qaeda, and has also learned from the tactics used by ISIS. The attack on the luxury hotel comes in the context of al-Shabaab's decade-long battle against the government in Somalia and its attempt to spread terror across East Africa. It has targeted Christian university students in Kenya, and struck at a World Cup match in Uganda in 2010.
The attack by al-Shabaab will encourage Kenyan security forces to once again look at how gunmen penetrated what should have been one of the most secure locations in Nairobi, a hotel that is frequented by celebrities, athletes and businessmen. Footballer James "Odu" Oduor, for instance, tweeted his last moments from the site of the massacre. The daughter of a former Kenyan senator was also reportedly trapped in the hotel compound during the gun battle.
Security forces took most of the day to root out the terrorists. The same problem has plagued previous attacks, such as in Mumbai, India, in 2008, and at the Radisson Blu in Bomako, Mali, in 2015. It also recalls the deadly series of ISIS attacks in Paris and Belgium. Groups like al-Shabaab don't operate in a vacuum. They are part of a patchwork of groups operating across the Sahel and Sahara in Africa, with contacts in the Middle East, Central Asia, down into India and all the way to the Philippines. Each group exploits religious extremism and weak states, often allying with either ISIS or al-Qaeda or learning from them.
An ISIS attack on US forces in Manbij may have larger ramifications than the Nairobi attack. It comes amidst the US decision to withdraw from Syria. Manbij is the center of controversy in northern Syria, a city liberated in 2016 from ISIS by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF is a partner of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. But Turkey views the SDF as linked to the Kurdish People's Protection Units, which it calls a terrorist organization. This has been one reason for the US-Turkey crisis in relations and one reason why US President Donald Trump chose to withdraw from Syria, a decision he announced in December. However, the US has been conducting joint patrols with Turkey near Manbij, trying to warn Turkey about launching an operation against the Kurdish and Arab members of the SDF in Manbij.
Manbij has been a safe city since its liberation. US forces patrol peacefully there, and commands and US politicians who visited have often been photographed walking around calmly. The ISIS-claimed attack on Wednesday was designed to end that appearance of peace. It is not a coincidence that the attack came during this complex time, as the US is seeking to withdraw. ISIS wants to exploit the friction and vacuum of power that is opening up to show it can strike at the heart of what is supposed to be a peaceful city. The ISIS attack could cause the delicate balance to shift in Manbij and Washington. Trump wants to withdraw, but he has vowed to hit ISIS hard if they harm Americans. The attack will fuel calls by Turkey to argue that the city is not safe and that Turkey should intervene. It will also encourage the SDF to say that this is an example of how the US decision to withdraw could fuel an ISIS resurgence.
This puts the US in a difficult spot. Withdrawing more quickly will hand ISIS a victory. But the deaths of four Americans will also be seen as evidence that the US is paying a price for staying. From Manbij to Nairobi, these two attacks will have major repercussions. They show that extremist groups have not been defeated and the road to a world after ISIS in which terror has been reduced is still long and difficult.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.