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 around ten percent of Kenya’s population, 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.

The Kenyan police have earned a reputation for corruption, incompetence, and brutality, in particular against Muslims. This has created fertile ground for further appeals from radical Islamists to ethnic Kenyans. In the coastal city of Mombasa, for instance, which has become the epicenter of Kenya’s home-grown radicalization problem, the police have a reputation for throwing due process out when it suits them. Over the last year and a half, a number of firebrand Islamic clerics have been gunned down in high-profile drive-by shootings, but the police have never conducted serious investigations into the incidents. That has led many Muslims to assume that the police either tacitly approved or covertly supported the killings. Ever since, violent protests against security forces have shaken Mombasa. Things got much worse this February when officers stormed the city’s restive Mussa mosque, citing evidence that a “jihad convention” was underway. Hundreds of worshippers, several of whom were under the age of 12, were dragged into the streets, beaten with batons in full view of the public, and hauled away to prison. Not surprisingly, protests erupted once again. This dynamic has played right into the hands of al Shabaab.

Militants have also taken advantage of the central government’s inability to control its border with Somalia. A Kenyan parliamentary report released in January went so far as to say that al Shabaab had overtaken the northeastern border town of Mandera, with security forces essentially ceding control of the area to the militant group. According to a National Intelligence Service report leaked last October, al Shabaab also controls two-thirds of Garissa County, which the group’s top operatives have declared as their preferred base of operations. This has proved to be a strategic location; it has allowed al Shabaab to target the half million Somali refugees sandwiched between Garissa and the Somalia border as potential recruits. These refugees, who fled Somalia’s civil war, have been languishing in a state of perpetual uncertainty in dismal refugee campus for years or even decades.

The Kenyan government’s hard-line response to these recruitment efforts has proved self-defeating. The refugees had previously been permitted to work in neighboring towns, but on March 25, following a series of sectarian attacks attributed to al Shabaab sympathizers, Kenya’s interior ministry demanded that all refugees stay permanently in the camps and threatened to force the Somalis back to their homeland. It is common knowledge that some Somali refugees do sympathize with al Shabaab, but the experience of being scapegoated by the Kenyan government has won even more converts to the cause. Al Shabaab has been able to depict the government as eager to inflict more suffering on the already disadvantaged. 

Al Shabaab is slowly creating a lawless border region in Kenya, akin to the Taliban-held land in Pakistan. Regional and international officials are clearly worried. On March 24, UN envoy to Somalia Nicholas Kay warned that al Shabaab may be looking to move to Kenya as a result of the AMISOM offensive. One day later, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta formally asked Washington for help in monitoring and securing its border with Somalia, and U.S. ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec confirmed the indefinite deployment of FBI agents to Kenya to assist in terrorism-related matters.

The Kenyan government, unlike its Pakistani counterpart, does not support the militants, nor does it have any interest in their survival. In this case, the creation of an extremist safe haven will depend largely on the degree of support from local populations. And since Nairobi seems bent on pursuing short-sighted policies that push its Muslim citizenry into the arms of the extremists, that possibility is turning into a reality. 

Although it might be necessary for Kenya to use force against the most extreme elements of these groups, recent history testifies that force alone does not convince or compel radicalized individuals to abandon violence. Absent a fair and conciliatory political environment, the disadvantaged will remain susceptible to extremist ideologies, and radicals will remain a permanent fixture in the region, growing ever more separated from the idea of borders and national identity.

PAUL HIDALGO is an analyst of politics and extremism in the Horn of Africa.

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