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Kenya’s al-Shabaab paradox

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Kenya’s al-Shabaab paradox

The al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organisation al-Shabaab, based in Somalia, has carried out a series of horrific attacks in parts of Kenya, including the massacre of 142 students in the northern town of Garissa. The terrorists claim this spate of attacks is in retaliation to an invasion by the Kenya Defence Forces in 2011. But will this heavy-handed approach demolish al-Shabaab or make them even more destructive? Bevertone Kipchumba Some, who has carried out extensive on-the-ground investigations, presents his startling report.

Rachel Munjiru, 22, and her circle of Christian Union friends were about to conclude their morning prayers on 2 April 2015, at Kenya’s Garissa University College, when they were rudely interrupted.

It was about 5:30 a.m. and they had just joined hands to say the Lord’s Prayer when two men wielding AK-47 assault rifles stormed the classroom in which they were gathered. 

Munjiru’s instincts, sharpened by weeks of rumours of an impending attack, told her that the strangers were members of the Somalia-based al-Shabaab militant group. “I had prayed so much against this day,” she told me when we met two years later. For the past four years, Garissa, a sunbaked frontier town located 230 miles northeast of Nairobi, had been the setting of previous raids, most of which the security forces blamed on the al-Qaeda-linked jihadists. 

 Somali-speaking Kenyans dominate Garissa county – where the town is located – and two neighbouring districts, Mandera and Wajir, which were part of an expansive province known during the colonial era as the Northern Frontier District. 

Days after Kenya won independence from Britain in December 1964; the province erupted in a brief secessionist war to join Greater Somalia that lasted until 1967, when the two neighbours signed a peace deal. 

It is in this restive arid province – long neglected by the government in Nairobi for the attempted secession and ignored due to the fact that the area is seen as marginal to the national economy – where al-Shabaab has chosen to wage its war of attrition in retaliation against Kenya’s launch of military operations in Somalia five years ago. 

At the end of the 10-hour ordeal, 142 students lay dead, most of them shot in the back as they tried to flee. Six security officials were killed too, as well as the four attackers, who were led by a young law graduate from the University of Nairobi.  One hundred and four people sustained injuries. 

 From the group of 30 Christian Union students who had gathered that morning to pray, eight survived. Munjiru absorbed 11 bullets in her small body, sustaining injuries that have left her unable to walk. 

Folly of heavy-handed intervention

Today, Kenya has more than 3,000 troops fighting the militants under the UN-sponsored African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Yet al-Shabaab is as strong as ever. It has overrun AMISOM camps with relative ease over the past one and a half years. It has hit Kenyan military camps twice over this period, although the government tries to hide the troop casualties.   

So worrying is the group’s resurgence to the US that soon after taking power, the Trump administration drew up plans to send more Special Forces to aid the AMISOM troops and the Somali National Army as they battle the militants.

Kenya and other African countries involved in the fight against the Islamists have lauded these measures as timely. But some security experts caution that a greater US involvement could drag the conflict on for much longer as more jihadists join the fight, lured by the prospect of humiliating the superpower on Somali soil.  

This article looks at the folly of the invasion by Kenyan troops and a related crackdown on Muslims in Kenya. More than 300 young Muslim men and radical clerics have been executed or forcefully disappeared by the Kenyan police on suspicion of being members of al-Shabaab, according to human rights organisations.

In many ways, Kenya’s experience in Somalia is a cautionary tale to other nations about heavy-handed counter-insurgency measures. At a time when President Trump is trying to close American borders to Somali refugees and Britain, Germany and France are struggling with attacks by both the Islamic State and lone wolves, it makes sense to evaluate what, if anything, came out of this policy by Kenya. 

By launching an offensive, Kenya broke from its long-established role as a respected mediator in conflicts consuming its neighbours. From 2002 to 2004, Nairobi hosted talks that led to the formation of the Transitional Federal Government, which was made up of major political factions that had been vying for power in Somalia since the fall of the military ruler, Siad Barre in 1991.  

However, Kenya was forced to abandon its pacifist policy when the Islamists captured Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in mid-2006. Nairobi feared that its neighbour would become a training ground for international jihadists intent on targeting Western interests within its borders. 

In January this year, the insurgents claimed to have killed 57 soldiers during an attack at a Kenyan army camp in Kolbiyow in Gedo region, not far from the border with Somalia.

Al-Shabaab is thought to have carried out the Kolbiyow attack to mark the first anniversary of its raid on Kenyan Army Company at El Adde, in the same region, where it killed an unknown number of soldiers after a day-long battle. A company usually has between 150 to 200 soldiers. 

The El Adde attack is the worst defeat ever for the Kenyan military, which had managed to push the militants out of their strongholds in Southern Somalia while keeping casualties at a minimum. 

Media blackout

During the early stages of the campaign, the Department of Defence (DoD) embedded Kenyan journalists with troops for weeks. John Ngirachu, a reporter with the Daily Nation in Nairobi who was placed with the troops for more than a month in 2011 and 2012, said that the commanding officers would look at his stories before he sent them to his editors. 

As the war wore on, the DoD only allowed occasional guided tours of the frontline, lasting just a few hours. Soon, these trips stopped, along with weekly media briefings. 

Professor Branch of the University of Warwick said that the media blackout has enabled the government to manage the potential political fallout arising from the security operation.  

The long-standing practice in established militaries around the world, such as the US, is to name and honour fallen soldiers, but Kenya has refused to do so, allegedly to deny al-Shabaab a propaganda tool.

The Muslim and Somali crackdown

The group that has suffered the most is Kenya’s Muslim minority community, which has become a target of state counterterrorism operations. Human rights groups say that Muslims – particularly Somalis – have been subjected to arbitrary arrests, extortion, illegal detention, torture, killings, and disappearances.

Last December, HAKI Africa, a human rights organisation based in Mombasa, released a report  detailing how the police on the Coast of Kenya between 2012 and November 2016 allegedly killed 81 terror suspects.

In 2015, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, a state-funded agency, accused the police of committing “widespread, systematic and well-coordinated” abuses in its fight against terrorism across the country.

Entitled “The Error of Fighting Terror with Terror,” the report documented more than 220 cases of egregious human rights abuses, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings of Muslim youths. 

Equally in early 2014, Nairobi became the focus of the anti-terrorism crackdown as the police rounded up more than 3,000 Somalis from the area following a series of attacks that claimed two dozen lives.   

The government said the sweep, dubbed “Operation Okoa Maisha” in Kiswashili (“Operation Save Lives”), was aimed at weeding out Somalis who were in the country illegally and whom it blamed for harbouring and financing al-Shabaab attackers. 

In 2015, following the attacks at Garissa University College, the government blacklisted more than 85 businesses and individuals for allegedly financing the terror activities in the country. 

After the attack, the government began deporting some 3,000 Somali refugees from the Dadaab refugee camp in Garissa, claiming that al-Shabaab was using the camp to smuggle weapons and plan attacks.  

We will finish the mission

Conflicting views about Kenya’s military adventure in Somalia largely mirror the ambivalence on the part of the Kenyan public about the security operation and its future. Following the increased attacks inside Kenya and troop losses in Somalia in recent times, opposition politicians have called for an end to the campaign. 

In August, Kenya has general elections, yet the fate of Kenya’s mission has not featured even as a marginal campaign issue, underscoring how politically sensitive the subject is in the country. 

Raila Odinga, who led the international lobbying for the intervention while he was prime minister from 2008 to 2013, has repeatedly said that the military campaign
was achieved long ago and hence the Kenyan troops should withdraw. 

Odinga, who leads the opposition National Super Alliance, is President Kenyatta’s main challenger for the presidency in the polls scheduled for this August. 

The government has branded him, and anyone else who calls for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops, sympathisers of al-Shabaab. This accusation, which carries connotations of treason, has stifled the emergence of any meaningful national debate over the military mission.  

President Kenyatta, however, has made it clear that he would not pull out. “We will continue in Somalia to fulfill our mission,” he vowed defiantly last June at a memorial service for the soldiers killed in El Adde.  

Professor Branch of the University of Warwick said the operation helped to stabilise Kenya’s relations with the West, which were strained following the 2007-2008 post- election violence that led to the indictment of President Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity. 

Flogging a dead horse 

Despite President Kenyatta’s vow to stay the course in Somalia, Kenya’s fight against the militants has had dire ramifications for its economy. 

Apart from crippling the tourism sector, the high insecurity levels spooked foreign investors. It has already affected a project to build a pipeline to transport its newly discovered crude oil. 

The $4 billion, 930-mile pipeline would have linked Uganda’s, South Sudan’s, and Kenya’s oilfields to a refinery at a new deep-water port that Kenya is building in Lamu, not far from the border with Somalia. 

 However, between June and August 2014, al-Shabaab carried out a series of attacks in Lamu and neighbouring districts, killing 92 people.  Parts of the district through which the pipeline would have passed are listed by the government as security operation zones. 

This insecurity situation is believed to have played a role in Uganda’s decision last year to withdraw from the pipeline project in favour of one that goes to the Port of Tanga in Tanzania.

“The operation has brought very little tangible security and zero economic benefits to Kenya,” said Murithi Mutiga, a senior Horn of Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. 

By intervening in Somalia, he said, Kenya made the same mistake that the US committed when it invaded Afghanistan to pursue al-
Qaeda leaders whom it blamed for the 11 September, 2001 attacks. 

Hands dirty 

Some KDF commanders might not be in a hurry to leave Somalia because of personal gains. Several reports have accused Kenyan soldiers of engaging in smuggling activities at the port of Kismayu.

The port was once al-Shabaab’s main source of revenue. That is where they taxed businessmen, exported charcoal to the Middle East, and smuggled sugar into East Africa. Kenyan forces dislodged them from the port in 2012. 

However, last November, a report by a UN monitoring group on Somalia accused Kenyan military officers stationed near the port of contravening a 2012 UN Security Council ban on charcoal trade, which was meant to starve al-Shabaab of funding. The report said that the Kenyan soldiers were taking $2 for every bag of charcoal shipped out of the port. 

The government described the report as “absolute garbage”, but Mutiga said it offered clues on the KDF’s reluctance to withdraw. “Money is a powerful motivator,” he said. 

Staying power 

Al-Shabaab has proven a tenacious force that has survived many predictions over its death.  Despite being afflicted from all sides by the AMISOM forces, it still controls swathes of territory in Southern Somalia. 

Its leadership has been decimated by US missile airstrikes, but it has still managed to carry out more attacks. In a span of seven months, beginning in mid-2016, it overran three AU camps of Ugandan,
Burundian and Kenyan troops, killing soldiers and capturing sophisticated weaponry which has enabled it to stage more spectacular ambushes on the peacekeepers.  

What has further complicated Kenya’s fight against the Islamists is the fact that, at the onset of the invasion, it allied itself with certain powerful clans to defeat the militants and set up a friendly administration in Southern Somalia. 

However, this attracted resentment and backlash from rival clans. “The exclusion of some groups has rendered the benefits of the military success by Kenyan forces irrelevant,” said retired Kenyan Army captain, Collins Wanderi. 

Capt. Wanderi, who is also a lawyer and the chairman of the Kenya Institute of Forensic Auditors, does security consultancies for professional bodies and private sector organisations that work for the Kenyan government. 

  “Al-Shabaab is quick to take advantage of the political divisions to recapture grounds of tactical importance it had lost,” he told me. 

Stig Jarle Hansen, the author of Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The history and ideology of a militant Islamist group, which is one of the most authoritative books on the insurgents, said that al-Shabaab is far from being vanquished.  

Professor Hansen, who teaches international relations at the University of Life Sciences in Norway, points to the group’s ability to overcome its internal divisions each time it is on the back foot. 

“The future of al-Shabaab will be that of a small guerilla organisation, with a larger terror network encompassing the Horn,” he writes in his book, which was released last year in its second edition.   

As the fight looks set to continue and neither side shows signs of backing down, a Kiswahili saying comes to mind: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers the most.” The grass is represented in this case by innocent Kenyans, who have withstood the worst of the fight between the
Kenyan military and al-Shabaab.



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Written by New African Magazine

For over 45 years New African provides unparalleled insights and analysis on African politics and economics, via an African perspective, always. With in-depth monthly reports, New African brings Africa closer to the world and is ideal for those looking to gain a better understanding of the most important issues affecting Africa.

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