Al-Shabab and the origins of East Africa’s recent violence

The militant group appears resilient and on the rise, but are we overlooking local drivers of conflict?

July 19, 2014 6:00AM ET

On June 16, a group of unidentified gunmen attacked a World Cup screening in Kenya's coastal city of Mpeketoni. A few weeks later, in Arusha, Tanzania’s tourism hub, in separate strikes over four days, attackers threw hand grenades at a popular restaurant and targeted a local community leader. Authorities arrested two Tanzanian nationals in connection with the incident, but some suspect the attackers are linked to the Somali militant group Al-Shabab. Last week Al-Shabab attacked Somalia’s presidential palace in Mogadishu, proving its resilience against an ongoing regional offensive. These and other attacks across East Africa have killed hundreds during the past month.

The new wave of violence against multinational forces in Somalia suggests the group’s apparent resurgence. But the increasingly regional pattern of the violence has much to do with local corruption and the regional stakeholders’ lack of response to local grievances.

The renewal of violence was unsurprising. Following Kenya’s swift invasion of Somalia in 2011, Al-Shabab warned, “We shall come into Kenya if you do not go back.” Two years later, after the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall shocked Kenya’s political consciousness, the group threatened to “strike Kenyans where it hurts the most.” Nearly three years after Kenya’s first airstrikes in southern Somalia, Al-Shabab appears to have made good on those threats.

The regional response to Al-Shabab has also escalated in kind. In July 2012, Kenya joined an existing African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) contingent of troops from Burundi, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Djibouti. In January, following years of independent operations against Al-Shabab, Ethiopian units formally joined the expanded African force, swelling its troop count to 22,000. Other regional partners such as Tanzania have also joined AMISOM in an auxiliary role while avoiding direct combat responsibilities.

In March, after a 14-month lull in operations in southern Somalia, AMISOM launched a new offensive in several Al-Shabab-occupied cities. Al-Shabab has so far proved resilient; as AMISOM’s operation deepens, accounts of mass violence attributed to the insurgent group have also increased in number.

Reports of covert local networks linked to Al-Shabab have emerged throughout the region. For example, an affiliate known as Al-Hijra has established cells in major urban centers in Kenya. Meanwhile, regional security officials have done very little to illuminate the implicit link between the spike in violence and Al-Shabab’s ever-expanding capabilities. After the massacre at Mpeketoni, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta blamed “local political networks,” downplaying Al-Shabab’s alleged role in the attack. 

East African leaders must acknowledge the role of local grievances in engendering violent response, and seek more robust opportunities for redress.

Kenyatta’s motivations might be disingenuous, but local politics and corruption provide a significant basis for the surge in violence in Kenya and across East Africa. For example, the circumstances that preceded Al-Shabab’s raid on the Westgate Mall have as much to do with the institutional rot of Kenya’s security forces as with the nature of the group itself. Dispatches from Westgate’s aftermath suggest that for every instance of tactical planning by Al-Shabab forces, there were willing counterparts in Kenya’s corrupt security officials. Allegedly, Kenyan police officers even leased assault rifles to the insurgents. Similarly, smuggling routes from southern Somalia across the porous border with Kenya were intentionally left undersupervised. Despite evidences of corrosive corruption, international counterterrorism partners such as the United States look on as police abuses proliferate. It is against the backdrop of these permissive security institutions that Al-Shabab’s operations are expanding across East Africa.

Unable to stem new mass violence, these institutions are adopting a different violence of their own. In March, a spate of attacks in Mombasa and Nairobi gave way to Operation Usalama Watch — Swahili for “peace watch” — a mass roundup and subsequent deportation of ethnic Somali and other civilians by security forces. Few, if any, of those targeted boast affiliations with, much less memberships in, Al-Shabab or other groups that may have been responsible for the spike in violence across Kenya. According to Human Rights Watch, the raids are often more a commercial enterprise than a law enforcement operation. A recent Kenyan police report accused corrupt officials of demanding bribes and arresting those who could not afford the fix.

It is difficult to untangle the chain of political discontent that precedes recent violence across the region. Local grievances, such as land tenure disputes, often accompany the decay of political and economic institutions. For example, Kenya’s Lamu County, one of the sites of recent attacks, has been the locus of large protests against alleged land grabbing by Kenyan port developers. These issues alone may not prompt new violence by local groups. But if mass abuses continue unmitigated, East African governments could soon find unexpected pockets of their society a fertile recruiting ground for Al-Shabab’s terror network.

As violence spirals out of control across the region, governments will likely adopt an increasingly heavy-handed strategy against Al-Shabab and its alleged affiliates. However, selective targeting of minority civilians, as witnessed in Kenya, will not root out the threat. In fact, it will likely make matters worse. Regional leaders must acknowledge the role of local grievances in engendering violent response, and seek more robust opportunities for redress. Land ownership issues, in particular, have proved a powerful trigger for violence, particularly in Kenya and Ethiopia. As the multinational campaign against Al-Shabab falters, the resolution of these local grievances may prove to be a more fruitful path to peace.

Daniel Solomon is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Securing Rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Africa, Kenya, Somalia

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