Kenyan efforts to counter Al-Shabab need to be reformed

One year after Westgate attack, the cycle of violence continues

September 24, 2014 6:00AM ET

On Sept. 6, a day after the White House announced the killing of Ahmed Godane, the leader of Somali Islamist group Al-Shabab, in a nighttime airstrike five days earlier, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said that Godane’s death was “a small measure of closure to Westgate attack victims.” The Al-Qaeda-affiliated group was behind the Sept. 21, 2013, mass shooting at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which left 67 people dead and more than 175 wounded. It was billed as a revenge attack for Kenya’s 2011 military incursion into Somalia after strings of cross-border attacks by Al-Shabab targeting aid workers and tourists.

As Kenya marks the first anniversary of the Westgate attack this week, the cycle of violence that ties Kenya, Somalia and the United States together continues. In the aftermath of the Westgate tragedy, violence from Al-Shabab, the Kenyan state and U.S.-supported African forces in Somalia have continued to terrorize ordinary Somalis and cost them their lives.

It is time to consider whether regional and international counterterrorism efforts against Al-Shabab, which created the conditions for the group’s emergence, are counterproductive and need to be reformed.

Al-Shabab’s rise

In 2006, after more than a decade of lawlessness, the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU), a disparate group of Islamist organizations, consolidated power, bringing a semblance of stability to Somalia, a country long ravaged by internecine conflict. Seeing the group’s rise as a threat, the U.S. backed Ethiopia’s subsequent invasion of Somalia. The Ethiopian incursion gave Al-Shabab, then only a marginal component of the ICU, its raison d’être. By deftly appropriating the longstanding enmity between Somalia and Ethiopia, the group began casting itself as the vanguard of the Somali resistance against external forces.

To be sure, from the start Al-Shabab had acute internal contradictions and conflicts, which were far more existential than any external intervention. For example, the ideological contests between the pan-Somali nationalism espoused by Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former head of ICU’s shura council, and Godane’s transnational jihadist ambitions were difficult to reconcile. This saw the departure of Aweys, who is currently under house arrest in Mogadishu; the purging of prominent figures from Al-Shabab, including Godane’s rival Ibrahim al-Afghani and a number of other influential leaders; and the fleeing of the group’s spokesman Mukhtar Robbow.

Godane’s demise was hailed as a major blow to the group’s transnational jihad. But in an audio message released on Sept. 6, Al-Shabab renewed its allegiance to Al-Qaeda and appointed Ahmed Omar Abu Ubaidah as its new leader, “warning its enemies to ‘expect only that which will cause you great distress,’” according to Reuters

Kenya after Westgate

The Westgate attack brought Kenya’s lingering domestic vulnerability and the potential blowback from its mission in Somalia to the fore. Al-Shabab’s efforts to recruit and radicalize ethnic Somali and Muslim youth in Nairobi, the port city of Mombasa and Northern Kenya, make the group a security nightmare. These threats place ordinary Somalis in a particularly precarious position, making them potential targets of both state and non-state violence.

Kenya faces genuine security threats from Al-Shabab and Somalia’s continued instability, but government crackdowns have only worsened the climate of fear. In response to the Westgate attack, Kenya instituted a series of measures to shore up its domestic security. This includes the know-thy-neighbor initiative, which divided the households into groups of 10 and requires people in those households to hold one another accountable and share information on any suspicious activities. This singled out Kenyan Somalis and anyone who looked like Somali for surveillance, escalating the mistrust that characterizes Kenyan-Somali interactions. 

A year after the Westgate tragedy, the Kenyan government has no real exit strategy from Somalia or sufficient explanations for Kenya’s continued presence there.

In early April the government launched Operation Usalama Watch to detect illegal immigrants, arrest and prosecute people suspected of engaging in terrorist activities, identify places harboring criminals and prevent lawlessness in general. Thousands of Somalis were rounded up and held at a football stadium in dehumanizing conditions. More than 300 people were deported to Somalia in the first two weeks of the operation alone, despite concerns by a number of rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, about the security situation in Somalia for the deportees. The campaign ultimately yielded little in terms of bolstering Kenya’s security, but it touched off a raw nerve in already fraught relations between the Somali community and Kenya. For Al-Shabab, the ethnic profiling of Kenyan Somalis served as yet another opportunity for recruitment. 

A shift in tactics

Since Westgate tragedy, Al-Shabab has carried out two sophisticated attacks in Kenya. In April militants detonated a car bomb at the Pangani police station in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood, killing two police officers. In March, Kenya’s anti-terrorism police thwarted a planned attack on another police station. Authorities found six pipe bombs attached to a mobile phone detonator and plastic explosives. The incidents demonstrated Al-Shabab’s ability to carry out attacks by exploiting Kenya’s domestic vulnerability.

Al-Shabab is testing its ability to carry out attacks in far-flung vulnerable areas. For example, in two attacks in June, a number of gunmen attacked the mostly Christian village of Mpeketoni on the Kenyan coast near the Somali border, killing at least 60 people. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for one of the attacks, saying they were revenge for Kenya’s continued presence in Somalia.

The expansion into Kenya, however, occurs at a time when the group is at its weakest in Somalia. Over the last three years, Al-Shabab has lost control of almost all urban areas and the lucrative revenues from seaports such as Kismayo. Moreover, the group’s resorting to gratuitous violence has seen its legitimacy with most Somalis eroded. The Somalia National Army and the African Union Mission in Somalia recently launched Operation Indian Ocean, aimed at pushing Al-Shabab from its remaining stronghold of Barawe, a significant import hub where the group gets its supplies. Washington continues to provide intelligence, drones and other forms of remote military warfare. Compared with attacks in Somalia, ambush attacks in a neighboring country are relatively low-cost affairs.

Beyond the question of Al-Shabab’s capacity or weakness, however, a year after the Westgate tragedy, Kenyatta’s government has no real exit strategy from Somalia or sufficient explanations for Kenya’s continued presence there. Far from creating security, the violence against ordinary Somalis has deepened the mistrust and enmity between the Kenyan state and Somalis. Kenya’s engagement with Somalia now seems only through the use of violence. Until that changes, ordinary and extraordinary violence will become the norm and not the exception.

Jatin Dua is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

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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