East Africa / Land and Inequality / Military Interventions / Terrorism

Kenya at the Precipice: Al-Shabaab and the Coast Crisis

Since mid-June, militias have terrorised Lamu and Tana River counties, killing more than 80 people and leaving a trail of destruction.  Local opportunists may be behind less grave incidents, but the evidence from Mpeketoni, Hindi, and elsewhere points to Al-Shabaab armed and trained militants.

A close examination of the events reveals two other critical points. First, militants operate with increased capacity and sophistication inside Kenya. Second, Al-Shabaab—which has absorbed Kenyan nationals of various backgrounds—is attempting to manipulate longstanding grievances to win recruits and polarise Kenya. Al-Shabaab’s appalling attacks on civilians have been widely condemned, but state and civil society actors should take immediate steps to alleviate internal tensions and so inhibit efforts to further destabilise Kenya.

A message left by the attackers on July 4 suggests that they wish to portray their campaign as a means to address coastal grievances. The hastily composed statement, written in Swahili and English, appealed to local Muslims by declaring, ‘this is your land’. Muslims, it argued, can no longer look to the Opposition or the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) to champion their cause. Rather, the attackers concluded, Muslims should ‘wake up and fight’ to ‘kick Christians out [of the] coast’.

Armed Conflict and Event Data Project BBC from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27882084

Armed Conflict and Event Data Project BBC from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27882084

This message and similar proclamations made by Al-Shabaab media outlets attest that the militants and its Kenyan allies now seek to polarise Kenya.  They seem determined to do so by employing a strategy often used by desperate insurgent groups: engage in extreme forms of violence both to sow terror and provoke severe reprisals against particular communities, usually suspected sympathisers. Such heavy-handed security actions can draw the ire of prospective supporters, which may win recruits and incite greater communal strife.

Long before the assault on Mpeketoni, Al-Shabaab and its domestic allies ruthlessly targeted civilians, from travellers to church-goers and shoppers at Westgate Mall. Though draconian state responses have, to date, only brought a small number of Kenyans to the Al-Shabaab’s cause, the attack at Mpeketoni appears a more determined application of its strategy. Al-Shabaab wagers that by parroting regional grievances, exploiting historically rooted socio-economic divisions, and encouraging excessive reprisals it can pit Muslims against Christians and perhaps coastal ethnic groups against others.

If indeed Al-Shabaab seeks to polarise Kenya, we should consider why it has targeted the Coast, and the Lamu region specifically. A partial answer lies in the northern Coast’s proximity to Somalia as well as security forces’ light footprint in the region. Both factors have long contributed to regional insecurity. Equally important to Al-Shabaab’s campaign is the fact that the Coast region faces a multifaceted crisis of economic inequity, social alienation, and political disillusionment. This crisis has engendered increasing resentment and frustration, which Al-Shabaab and its Kenyan sympathisers believe they can exploit.

Many of the frustrations of coastal residents reflect wider concerns, such as the inequitable land allocation and limited economic opportunity. Much as elsewhere in Kenya, since the late colonial era, coastal residents have maintained that outsiders gain significant wealth and access to regional resources at the expense of locals.  Popular frustrations have engendered a great many movements demanding redress, from majimboism in the 1960s to the Islamic Party of Kenya in the early 1990s and the Kaya Bombo raiders in 1997. Moreover, in each instance political thinkers encouraged others to see the Coast in binary terms as defined by local victims and rapacious, usually upcountry outsiders.

The demise of Kanu neither led to redress for historical grievances nor a tempering of this dichotomous understanding of coastal history. Nevertheless, the 2007 elections channelled hopes for rectification. When these hopes were dashed, coastal secession, a seemingly politically moribund idea after independence, gained purchase once again. For instance, the popularity of the multiethnic, interfaith, and avowedly non-violent MRC grew substantially. Though few at the Coast offered the group unconditional support, many residents, including powerful political figures, seconded a number of their demands.

Official responses to the MRC vacillated from blanket condemnation to tepid engagement and naked attempts to decapitate the organisation. Since none of these tacks addressed the underlying circumstances that gave rise to the group, they did little to dampen the secessionists’ aspirations. Rather, state attempts to neutralise the MRC encouraged greater militancy among separatists in Kilifi County and elsewhere.

In addition to grievances common across Kenya, coastal residents face numerous official and unofficial discriminatory practices that have intensified in recent years. Practices such as job discrimination and the denial of ID cards can be traced back decades, but others have developed recently. The most troubling of such practices is systematic ethnic and religious profiling by security forces.

In the wake of the 2002 Kikambala hotel bombing, Kenya developed an expansive counterterrorism programme that was both supported and influenced by allies, including the United States. This campaign claimed some successes, but haphazard and reactive practices of intimidation and arbitrary arrest, often aimed at Somali, Swahili, or Arab men, proved counterproductive.

Human rights organisations questioned the efficacy as well as the legality of these counterterrorism measures, but as the decade wore on they also began to expose more severe abuses.  Mounting evidence of the use of excessive force, extraordinary rendition, torture, and even extrajudicial executions revealed chronic police overreach. Such excesses, moreover, compounded a general sense of humiliation, insecurity, and alienation on the part of many Muslims.

Recent assassinations of radical leaders at the Coast, and related killings widely believed to be the work of security forces, have deepened these sentiments. For example, the murder of Sheikh Aboud Rogo, a vocal supporter of Al-Shabaab, sparked rioting in Mombasa and drew condemnation from human rights groups and political leaders alike. Outrage stirred by such killings was not lost on Al-Shabaab. One gunman at Westgate Mall reportedly justified his actions by contending that Kenyan authorities were ‘killing Muslims in Mombasa’.

Disillusionment and indignation has exacerbated a divide within coastal Muslim communities as well. Indeed, one of the most vexing dimensions of the current crisis is the increasingly hostile relationship between mainstream Muslim leaders and their radical critics.  Most radicals belong to a generation that has seen joblessness and repression, both of which they understand as indivisible from their religious identity. Goaded towards radicalism by international currents of militancy and outspoken figures linked to Al-Shabaab’s Kenyan confederate Al Hijra, growing numbers see few prospects for change in conventional politics and put little stock in pacifism.

In Mombasa and elsewhere, radicals have embraced a muscular union of religion and politics, one that aspires to a larger platform. As a result, some radicals have begun to vie for the control of symbolically important mosques. This has magnified the political cleavages within the Muslim community and led to clashes with security forces. The police raid of Mombasa’s Masjid Musa in February brought these tensions to the fore. Yet, in this as in many other cases, the use of excessive force by the authorities only fortified radical voices.

Al-Shabaab and its Kenyan allies are attuned to these tensions and have articulated a message that both repeats the grievances of Kenyan Muslims and plays on regional cleavages. The magazine Gaidi Mtaani as well as many recruitment videos target a non-elite, Swahili-speaking audience. Videos such as ‘Mujahideen Moments’ feature Swahili-speaking Kenyan insurgents who emphasise themes such as the humiliation suffered by Muslims in Kenya, Christian ‘occupation’ of coastal land, revenge for the killing of prominent preachers, and the liberating potential of violence. Such media offers Kenyan voices and, like the message left on July 4, portrays violence as the only solution to the socioeconomic plight of Coast Muslims.

Given these developments and the possibility that Al-Shabaab will reach out to other alienated groups, Kenya must take a sober look at the internal consequences of its war in Somalia. As long as Kenyan troops remain in Somalia, Al-Shabaab will attempt to destabilise its neighbour through attacks on soft targets and the cooptation of disgruntled Kenyans. Kenyans must, therefore, ask themselves how, as a nation, they can pursue a security agenda that not only protects its citizens but also diminishes the appeal of extremism.

Like other nations facing similar crises, Kenya would do well to pursue a multidimensional programme. Increased protection of vulnerable communities in Lamu and Tana River counties is a first step, but an overwhelming military response in the northern Coast region would risk aggravating an already volatile situation. Instead, efforts to stem violence must leaven security actions with recognition of the basic rights of all citizens, the empowerment of coastal residents to counter radical messages, and good faith efforts to address historical inequities.

Policy makers should appreciate that only a small number of people in and beyond the Coast region have embraced militancy. Therefore, current counterterrorism policies based on the blanket suspicion of Muslims are counterproductive. In place of identity-oriented profiling, a more sophisticated investigatory apparatus rooted in community engagement, local intelligence, and a respect for human rights is imperative.

Moreover, the Kenyan public, policy makers, and international donors must recognise that, as in the past, longstanding socioeconomic grievances, aggravated by contemporary circumstances, are the engines of militancy. No lasting solution to the problem of radicalisation is likely without sincere efforts to create opportunities for the economically marginalised, curtail discrimination, and develop a process to address grievances over land distribution.

The Coast region is fortunate to have robust, non-governmental organisations with which the authorities can partner with in the difficult task of addressing the underlying causes of disillusionment and anger. Human rights advocates and religion-oriented community organisations are ideally positioned to facilitate substantive dialogue. Additionally, a human rights perspective can help to push the terms of discussion beyond the antagonistic social binaries of Christian and Muslim or coastal and upcountry that militants wish to exploit.

Kenya is rapidly approaching a historical precipice. The war in Somalia has opened a Pandora’s box of spiraling violence and recrimination. Put simply, the blowback from Kenya’s intervention is complex and unpredictable. Yet, Kenyans should also recognise that the way in which state and civil society actors address contemporary terrorism, radicalism, and religious polarisation will determine whether the calls of Al-Shabaab and other militants fall on deaf ears or seed greater internal conflict.

A clear-eyed review of current circumstances suggests that any plan of action to address the multifaceted crisis at the Coast—a crisis that is neither entirely of the region’s own making nor can be resolved locally—must heed popular demands for protection, dignity, equity, and redress. In short, meaningful dialogue and the reform of security praxis offer viable alternatives to Al-Shabaab’s dreams of crippling internal strife and Kenya’s current course of increasing Muslim alienation and communal division.

Jeremy Prestholdt is an Associate Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego jprestholdt@ucsd.edu.

(This post originally appeared in the Daily Nation, July 18, 2014)

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