More sad news from Kenya. Over sixty people have been killed in two recent attacks by armed gunmen in the coastal town of Mpeketoni. This is the latest in a spate of attacks in the country since Kenya invaded Somalia in late 2011. (The most notorious and widely covered was the attack on the up-scale Westgate Mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013). And, like Westgate, these tragic events have already become the subject of much gossip and speculation.
Different narratives circulate on the streets of Nairobi, in the mainstream media outlets, on the twitter accounts of al-Shabaab (AS), and at the press conferences of Kenya’s leaders. Although Al-Shabaab has taken responsibility for the events at Mpeketoni—which it said was retaliation for Kenya’s ongoing troop presence in the country and the extra-judicial killings of Muslim clerics in Mombasa—President Uhuru Kenyatta recently dismissed the group’s claims. In a public statement, he blamed local political networks within Kenya, whom he argued were working under the cover of terrorism to drive certain ethnic groups off historically contested land.
By making accusations around such a sensitive and politically fraught issue, the president opened up questions about his political motivations. Some leaders had already blamed Kenyatta for capitalizing on the recent terror attacks in order to attain US anti-terrorist funding, curry favor with the West, and fight charges of war crimes leveled against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Now, he is facing new allegations of exploiting the tragedy to shift blame onto opposition leaders.
The President’s statements have also fueled popular rumors. Prior to Mpeketoni, the attacks in Kenya were already the subject of much gossip and speculation. In the streets of Mombasa and Nairobi, citizens were debating whether these terrorist activities might be the work of forces other than al-Shabaab. Some believed that unnamed parties were planning these attacks to advance their own commercial and political interests. The elusive nature of terrorist activities has provided a space for the Kenyan public to give expression to numerous fears and anxieties. These popular narratives suggest that, for many Kenyans, concerns over abuse and corruption in the public and private sectors outstrip fears over terrorism.
The president’s accusations is seem to have given credence to these rumors. The Kenyan government recently arrested several alleged ringleaders, including one who purportedly used falsified social media accounts to credit al-Shabaab. These recent arrests as well as the changing and contested narratives surrounding Mpeketoni should force us to re-think how we label and come to understand certain kinds of violence and the actors who commit them.
International Media Narratives
The spectacle of terrorism allows for a proliferation of different narratives to circulate, which sometimes serve to deeply abstract these events from their regional and transnational causes. Before the attacks could be properly processed and understood, the Western and international media had already branded Mpeketoni the work of international terrorists. While some media outlets picked up on President Kenyatta’s counter-accusations and the uncertainty surrounding Mpeketoni, few recognized the sensitive nature of the event, the stakes involved in its interpretation, or the debates within the Kenyan public sphere. This media coverage is particularly concerning, not only because it may exacerbate tensions within Kenya, but also because the Mpeketoni attack has coincided with larger global events, such as the rise of ISIS in Iraq.
Rather than delve into the complex, ongoing conflict in Somalia or engage with any of the rumors circulating around Kenya, most journalists have taken recourse to explanations derived from the global war on terror. Few have delved into the longer history of al-Shabaab. Few have tried to sort through the complexities of official government narratives, which are often no less tendentious than popular explanations and rumors. Instead of “democratizing” knowledge, “new media”—from twitter accounts to instant-access news—may be further obfuscating current events. Focusing on al-Shabaab, de-contextualized from the events of the Somali civil war, (including the role the US has played in giving rise to the militant group), is also dangerous at this historical juncture, as the U.S. stands poised for another potential re-engagement with Iraq.
Understanding the Rise of Al-Shabaab
Most casual observers of the region are familiar with Black Hawk Down—the failed US military intervention in 1993 now memorialized in a popular Hollywood film. Few, however, realize that the US as well as many neighboring African countries have been intervening overtly and covertly throughout the course of the Somali civil war—tending only to make the conflict more complicated, more protracted, and more violent.
After its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. became increasingly concerned with what it deemed “failed states” (see George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy). Convinced that Somalia would become the new base for Al-Qaida members fleeing the war in Afghanistan, but unwilling to commit troops in the wake of the infamous Black Hawk Down incident, the CIA instead began to authorize covert operations in the region. The equation between terrorism and failed states became the dominant logic within security circles, even if its validity was, at best, dubious. As James Traub has recently argued, few organizations, regardless of their ideology or goals, want to operate in states that are in the midst of major crises.
In 2002, the United States established a Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa. In an effort to root out “Islamists,” American intelligence officials funded Somali faction leaders (popularly known as warlords), many of whom used the inflow of money to pursue their own agenda. Under “the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism,” which enjoyed the backing of the CIA, they began targeted assassinations of leaders in southern Somalia, many of whom were rivals that posed little to no security threat to the US. Ken Menkhaus, a former political adviser to the United Nations in Somalia, has argued that the number of Somali nationals in early 2002 with “significant links” to Al Qaeda was probably no more than ten to twelve people, alongside a few foreign fighters.
Heavy-handed U.S. interventionism became “universally despised in Mogadishu,” which lent popular legitimacy to a new organization that rose to prominence in southern Somalia in the the early 2000s. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) began as a series of decentralized and largely experimental projects, before formally coalescing into a rival administration to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). In an attempt to cope with the insecurity and highly charged politics brought on by the civil war, small groups of poorly armed, autonomous militias began supporting the implementation of Islamic law and providing social services in the regions under their control. The ICU was, to all extents and purposes, a grassroots movement.
There are many reasons why the inhabitants of southern Somalia turned to Islamic forms of authority. Perhaps the most obvious is that the ICU provided civilians with an alternative to the violent and unstable status quo under which they had been living. By bringing peace to Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years, the courts garnered a great deal of popular support. Bronwyn Bruton, who was working with approximately fifty local NGOs in Somalia at the time, noted that: “Groups operating in Mogadishu were consistently telling me they had never had a better operating environment.” Although the establishment of Islamic courts was a worrying sign to U.S. counter-terrorism agents, many Somalis welcomed them.
Western security agents, however, quickly honed in on the more militant elements of the ICU, such as al-Shabaab. The ICU was not without its rifts, in part because it was comprised of a broad coalition of leaders with a diverse range of religious and ideological tendencies, many of whom spoke out against Western and foreign intervention. It included, among its leaders, figures such as Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a neo-Sufi reformist who would later become president of the TFG (and whom the U.S. would later “re-brand” as an ally). Although the ICU was, in reality, both complex and heterogeneous, most media outlets painted a one-dimensional portrait of the group and obscured its efforts to reassert sovereignty over the nation-state.
Although some US intelligence officials called for dialogue and reconciliation and recognized the group’s diversity, they were drowned out by members of the Bush administration who portrayed the ICU as a branch of al-Qaida. In 2006, the U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to bring down the ICU and install the TFG.
It’s ultimately impossible to say what the ICU, which only controlled Mogadishu for approximately six months, would have become. What is clear, however, is that, by involving itself in Somalia, Washington and many of the parties it supported (such as the Ethiopian government) not only escalated the violence, but also helped to give birth to the very extremism and militancy it sought to foreclose. Many scholars argue that by destabilizing the region, the U.S. and Ethiopia enabled al-Shabaab—once a small faction in the diverse ICU coalition—to re-make itself into a major player in southern Somalia:
- Roland Marchal (in the “Journal of East African Studies”): “The Global War on Terror facilitated [al-Shabaab’s] rapid development and their use of brutal tactics that were further sharpened by the exclusiveness of their ideology. Had this specific agenda not been there, al-Shabaab would have ended up like other extremist groups before them such as Takfiir wal Hijra, a cluster of militants isolated in their own society.”
- Abdi Samatar (in Al-Jazeera): “Had the international community and particularly the West productively engaged the ICU, I am confident that al-Shabab would have remained an insignificant element of a bigger nationalist movement.”
- Mark Mazzeti for the NYT: “A covert effort by the Central Intelligence Agency to finance Somali warlords has drawn sharp criticism from American government officials who say the campaign has thwarted counterterrorism efforts inside Somalia and empowered the same Islamic groups it was intended to marginalize.”
- Abdirahman “Aynte” Ali (in Jeremy Scahill’s piece in “The Nation”): The United States “had already misread the events by aiding heinous warlords. And they misread it again. They should have taken this as an opportunity to engage the Union of Islamic Courts. Because out of the thirteen organizations that formed the [ICU], twelve were Islamic courts, clan courts who had no global jihad [agenda] or anything. Most of them never left Somalia. These were local guys. Al Shabab was the only threat, that was it. And they could have been somehow controlled.”
The consequences of foreign military intervention were instantiated yet again when Kenya invaded neighboring Somalia in 2011. Al-Shabaab has since become an even more militant group.
Often lost to this debate is the ongoing plight of civilians within both Kenya and Somalia. Inhabitants of these countries have suffered at the hands of various factions within this complex and protracted war. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by “both al-Shabaab and the forces arrayed against it,” which include “a combination of Somali government security forces, troops with the African Union Mission in Somalia, Ethiopian government forces, and allied militias” (many of which enjoy U.S. support). Many people who have lived through the conflict recognize that there is no single party that is purely “good” or “evil.” Yet the violence conducted by non-Muslim and state actors has received far less media attention.
Kenya’s Implications for Iraq
As we wait to hear what decision the US will take towards the escalating situation in Iraq, there is much that can be learned from the ongoing conflict in Northeast Africa. We can recognize, among other things, that powerful political factions in combination with counter-terrorism agencies can perpetuate myopic ideological viewpoints that can take hold and define reality.
There are also specific lessons that can be derived from the Mpeketoni attacks. Westgate was shocking because it occurred in an upscale mall, seemingly safe and removed from the ongoing conflict in Somalia. It represented a kind of violence that did not follow the conventional rules of nation-states, reminding Kenyan officials and foreign security experts that warfare may no longer be routed so exclusively through state institutions. Mpeketoni, on the other hand, is shocking, in part, because it forces us to rethink the very meaning of “terrorism.” Some journalists have suggested that Kenyatta is merely capitalizing on the event by blaming the violence on opposition leaders. Whether the perpetrators of these attacks were locals who sought to drive what they deemed to be “non-native” groups off historically contested land and/or militant “Islamist” fighters from Somalia remains a hotly contested issue. These events challenge our ability to judge the complexity of conflicts that occur far from our borders and outside our realm of expertise.
All of us (but particularly those of us living in the US) must consider the power that “terrorism” holds over our imagination and the ways in which the post-9/11 political climate has shaped our understanding of dispersed, loosely related events across the world. Constructing the “terrorist” as some kind of spectacular, yet elusive criminal serves, more often than not, to confirm our prejudices, rather than invite a nuanced reading of events. The seductively easy abstractions and narratives provided by the global war on terror may serve as a substitute for an analysis of complex and confusing conflicts, but they can also prevent us from gaining a better understanding of the sources and causes of violence (as well as the complicity of Western powers and neighboring states). In addition, they inhibit us from recognizing that, in many cases, assigning blame and agency is a fraught, difficult, and highly political act.
Keren Weitzberg is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. She is working on a book manuscript that focuses on questions of transnationalism amongst Somalis in Kenya.