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The current political upheaval and conflict in Kenya could not have been better scripted for the Islamist militant group al Shabaab. Its continued attacks have successfully pitted the country’s two top politicians, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his main rival, Raila Odinga, against each other in a high-stakes game of political brinkmanship that could plunge Kenya into another toxic ethnic conflict -- exactly the kind of environment in which a group like al Shabaab can thrive.
On June 15, al Shabaab gunmen attacked the coastal Kenyan town of Mpeketoni, going door to door executing dozens of non-Muslim males. Although this was just the latest in a long string of al Shabaab attacks in Kenya in recent years, the Kenyan government once again appeared caught off guard. The next night, even though the government made vows to protect residents, al Shabaab returned to the area, brazenly killing scores more without suffering a single casualty.
Seeming helpless and inept, Kenyatta and his ministers decided that their best defense would be to blame the president’s political adversaries. And so, in a June 17 speech to the nation, Kenyatta denied that al Shabaab was involved in the bloodshed, and instead pointed the finger at “local political networks,” an unmistakable reference to Odinga and his coalition. Kenyatta’s deflection was at odds with nearly every other assessment of the attacks, including al Shabaab’s own repeated claims of responsibility.
The reasons for Kenyatta’s blame game are clear. Political buzzards have been circling his administration for months. Since al Shabaab’s attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall last September, Kenya has been rocked by numerous high-profile militant attacks. In some cases, like in Mpeketoni, the government has failed to do much of anything, leaving many Kenyans increasingly doubtful of its ability to protect them. In others, security forces have brutally overreacted, multiplying the government’s enemies and creating deep resentment among many Kenyans. Perhaps even worse, the country’s economy has taken a huge hit due to the violence, as the all-important tourism industry has been dealt a deadly blow.
Odinga, still stinging from the narrow defeat he suffered at Kenyatta’s hands in the 2013 presidential election, has been poised to take his revenge. His Coalition for Reforms and Democracy holds nearly half the seats in parliament and represents a wide spectrum of Kenyans, but his core supporters are Luo, a rival ethnic group to Kenyatta's Kikuyu. Odinga has demanded accountability for the government’s numerous security failures, and has called for the sacking of Kenyatta’s security team, including the ministers of interior and defense, the national intelligence service chief, and the inspector general of police. Meanwhile, Odinga has latched onto the issue of the continued deployment of Kenyan troops to fight al Shabaab in Somalia -- a nearly three-year engagement that the public has grown tired of and that Kenyatta has pledged not to reverse -- to drive a political wedge between his faction and Kenyatta’s.
Since the Mpeketoni massacre, political and ethnic tensions across the country have soared. On June 24, unknown assailants hacked a number of residents to death in the nearby town of Witu, sparking concerns that locals may be capitalizing on the growing chaos to settle simmering land disputes with rival ethnic groups. On July 6, just one day before a massive anti-Kenyatta rally in Nairobi, al Shabaab struck again, claiming responsibility for killing nearly 30 non-Muslim men in two separate towns near Mpeketoni. Consistent with its apparent new strategy, the government brushed aside that claim, and instead blamed the attack on a separatist political group based in Mombasa. However, it provided no evidence to back its assertions.
The July 7 rally, which was a culmination of the demonstrations that Odinga has been coordinating for weeks across the country, brought together thousands of disgruntled Kenyans to the capital. Sporadic clashes between the police and protesters marked the occasion, as did anti-government chants calling for Kenyatta’s resignation. At the end the event, Odinga issued a 13-point resolution, which demanded major concessions from the Kenyatta administration, exacerbating the ongoing standoff between the two camps. The escalating tensions could set the stage for a possible repeat of the violence that followed the 2007 election, which left over 1,200 dead and displaced 200,000 -- the very violence that Kenyatta is accused of orchestrating in his ongoing crime against humanity case at The Hague.
Al Shabaab is relishing every moment. A divided Kenya is ideal for the militant group. With the Kenyan political elite consumed by infighting, and with security forces busy keeping the peace (or picking sides), the already porous Kenya–Somalia border would all but dissolve, giving al Shabaab fighters free reign as they strengthen their bases and increase recruitment efforts in Kenya.
Months of propaganda efforts, in which al Shabaab threatened Kenya with increasing attacks unless it withdraws from Somalia and urged Muslims in Kenya to rise up against the government, have also paid dividends. The possibility of a Kenyan withdrawal, considered highly improbable not long ago, has crept into mainstream Kenyan politics and consciousness. Al Shabaab has effectively equated a withdrawal with a halt in its attacks within Kenya, and an increasing number of Kenyans seem to be buying the alleged bargain.
A Kenyan withdrawal from Somalia would deal a huge blow to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Not only would such a move entail the departure of nearly 20 percent of coalition troops from Somalia, it would also set a dangerous precedent for other member countries, such as Djibouti and Uganda, that are facing similar al Shabaab reprisals. After all, if Kenya withdraws from Somalia and al Shabaab honors its promise to stop attacks on Kenyan soil, the group would surely just step up operations elsewhere.
Since al Shabaab has been working for years to create a permanent foothold in Kenya, Kenya’s withdrawal from Somalia would only address the escalating attacks, not the country's growing homegrown radicalization problem. And considering the nature of the group, no one should expect al Shabaab to honor the tradeoff anyway. A weakened coalition would also spell doom for Somalia’s fledgling government, which continues to face a committed al Shabaab enemy and an increase in tribal conflict reminiscent of its two-decade-long civil war.
Kenya took a courageous step in 2011 by deploying troops in Somalia in an effort to rid the Horn of Africa of the al Shabaab menace, and for several years, the militant group was on its heels. But the recent turn of events inside Kenya is quickly threatening to unravel those gains. If Kenyatta and Odinga are unable to resolve their differences without confrontation and violence, they will drag the country into renewed ethnic conflict and political turmoil, making al Shabaab the sole winner, and laying the groundwork for its victories across the region.