Courtesy Reuters A Muslim man waves a flag along the Indian Ocean waters of Kenya on February 8, 2013.

Kenya's Worst Enemy

Nairobi's Losing Battle Against Militant Islam

Over the past several months, the Somali military, in cooperation with local, regional, and international forces, has managed to put the Islamist militant group al Shabaab on the run. Nearly every week, there is a new report of another Somali town winning its liberation. Officials in Mogadishu have aimed to completely annihilate the group, and they predict that soon the al Qaeda­–affiliated organization will no longer have any significant presence in their country.

But if al Shabaab is losing its foothold in Somalia, it is working assiduously to gain another one next door. Kenya is on its way to becoming the world’s next hotbed of extremism as a result of al Shabaab’s active and growing presence there. And so far, the Kenyan government has been its own worst enemy in attempting to reverse this trend. 

Al Shabaab’s membership is still primarily Somali, but the group has long wanted to export its ideology to Kenya and establish a physical presence there because of the country's geographic proximity and growing susceptibility of its Muslim population to radical thought. Since 2012, al Shabaab militants have been aggressively producing propaganda videos, social media campaigns, and slick e-magazines in English and Swahili, Kenya’s primary languages. Al Shabaab is also using its social media expertise to win new sympathizers; militants present their own hardships in Somalia as analogous to the plight of marginalized Muslims in Kenya.

The strategy seems to be working. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Kenyans have been recruited by al Shabaab over the years. The group's efforts have taken on a greater sense of urgency since its operational space in Somalia has been shrinking. Sectarian and terrorist incidents in Kenya are now on the rise. Attacks on Christians are commonplace, and disquieting incidents, such as a thwarted car bomb plot in Mombasa in March, are likely precursors of far worse things to come.

Kenyan government's policies and actions have clearly aided al Shabaab’s recruitment efforts. Muslims make up only , and the group has a legitimate reason to feel disenfranchised. For years, Kenyan authorities have used ethnic Somalis as a scapegoat, blaming them for virtually any terrorism-related incident or unsolved crime. Earlier this month, for instance, in response to a spate of terrorism incidents in Nairobi, Kenyan forces indiscriminately arrested an estimated 4,000 Muslims, mostly ethnic Somalis. This type of finger-pointing has seeped into Kenya’s public consciousness; it has been a core reason for the country’s endemic ethnic profiling, and fuel for many violent riots against the embattled group.

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