After being ousted from major Somali cities by African Union forces and losing leaders to American airstrikes, Al-Shabab has turned its attention to Kenya, where a marginalized Muslim minority and an uncoordinated security strategy have given the jihadist terrorist group an opportunity to thrive once again.
In recent years, Al-Shabab’s attacks on Kenyan soil have increased in severity and frequency. Both the April 2015 attack on Garissa University, which killed 147 people, and the September 2013 attack on Westgate Mall, which killed 67, have loudly signaled Shabab’s arrival into the country.
After facing serious military setbacks in Somalia, the militant group has revised its strategy. Instead of vying for Somali political leadership, a weakened Al-Shabab has become increasingly decentralized and unpredictable, now acting as a “spoiler” that aims to destabilize East African politics. Kenya has become its new target, ostensibly for its 2011 invasion of Somalia and because of the group’s ambition to create a “Greater Somalia.” More practically, however, Kenya’s substantial population of disenfranchised and unemployed Muslims presents a potential pool of new recruits.
The Kenyan government’s response to Al-Shabab’s attacks has been sub-par at best. During the Garissa University massacre, army units stationed in the city arrived on the scene almost immediately, but instead of engaging with the outgunned and outnumbered militants, they waited seven hours for a Nairobi-based counterterrorism unit to do the job. This gave Al-Shabab ample time to systematically massacre Christian students. Following the attack, reports surfaced that the government had credible intelligence regarding a possible terror attack on a university, but chose not to put security forces on alert.
During the Westgate Mall incident, four Al-Shabab members were able to hold the site for three days against disorganized security forces. Upon entering the mall, several soldiers began looting stores under the pretext of battling militants.
Yet disarray and lack of discipline are not the only problems facing Kenya’s security forces. Systemic corruption and a heavy-handed counterterrorism strategy have also been dangerously counterproductive.
Kenya is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and its security services are regarded with disdain by many. An attempt to recruit 10,000 new officers for Kenya’s woefully understaffed police force was abandoned following reports that recruits needed to bribe officials to be considered for the job. Bribery has also made the Kenya-Somalia border easily penetrable to militants.
However, a porous border is not to blame for Kenya’s homegrown radicalism problem. The country’s Muslim population, many of whom are Somali refugees, number over 2 million. They have been subjected to harsh repression, indiscriminate arrest, and discrimination from security forces. In addition, authorities frequently use Somali Muslims as scapegoats, often blaming them for terrorism and other crimes. Extrajudicial killings by police and acts of “collective punishment,” such as mass arrests in Somali neighborhoods and violent mosque raids, have also angered and alienated Kenya’s Muslims.
This feeling of marginalization has played right into the hands of Al-Shabab. The cumulative effect of government policies has prevented Somali Muslims from being integrated into Kenyan society, leaving them susceptible to Shabab’s Somali-nationalist propaganda. Shabab’s messaging also focuses on provoking religious division through a narrative of Christian tyranny and Muslim oppression, which is gaining traction.
Yet instead of attempting to forge alliances within the Muslim community and integrating it into the overwhelmingly Christian security forces, the Kenyan government has doubled down on a hard-line and divisive strategy.
In 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed new counterterrorism legislation that dramatically expanded the power of security forces, which analysts fear will further marginalize Kenyan-Somalis. New anti-terrorism measures also restrict media freedoms, increase the length of time terrorist suspects can be detained, and force those applying for refugee status to remain in camps. The latter prevents refugees from getting jobs, making them susceptible to Shabab recruiters promising employment.
Following the Garissa attack a few months ago, the Kenyan government also threatened to close the Dadaab refugee camp, which houses approximately 350,000 Somali refugees. This move not only heightened feelings of alienation among refugees, but also highlighted Nairobi’s black-and-white analysis of its terrorism problem. Instead of acknowledging and addressing homegrown terror threats, the government has opted to hold Somali immigrants responsible for its various problems.
Kenya, like many countries facing increased radicalism, suffers from high unemployment. The increase in terrorism has hit Kenya’s all-important tourism industry hard. Coastal resort towns have been losing business, which disproportionately affects the Muslim population residing there. As a result, Al-Shabab’s attacks may actually be expanding their recruitment base by rendering more of Kenya’s population unemployed.
For its part, the Kenyan government has not treated the Al-Shabab threat with enough seriousness. On multiple occasions, President Kenyatta has downplayed the dangers posed by the group by either blaming political opponents for attacks claimed by Shabab or criticizing travel advisories to Kenya. Kenyatta’s minimization of the threat likely stems from his desire to prevent further damage to Kenya’s tourism industry, but his actions are endangering the lives of Kenyans and foreigners alike.
To effectively counter Al-Shabab’s rise, Kenya needs to revise its current security policies. Implementing a broader counterterrorism strategy that aims to build trust between Muslim communities and security forces, as well as developing a Christian-Muslim dialogue to mend religious fissures and counter Shabab’s divisive propaganda, could help erode the perceived veracity of Shabab’s “Muslim oppression” message.
In addition, combating corruption, reducing unemployment, and holding security forces accountable for extrajudicial violence would reduce the potency of Al-Shabab’s recruitment campaign. Without implementing a soft power strategy aimed at winning the hearts and minds of marginalized Muslims, Kenya is unlikely to resolve its Shabab struggle.