Sermonizing With Al Shabab

The Terrorist Group’s New Tactic

A police officer holds a flag hanged by Muslim youths at Masjid Mussa Mosque in the coastal town of Mombasa February 2, 2014. Gunfire erupted in and around a mosque in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa on Sunday following a raid by armed police who had received a tip-off that Muslim youths were being radicalised and trained for militant attacks.  Joseph Okanga / Reuters

On May 19, members of the Somali terrorist group al Shabab entered Hulugho village in eastern Kenya and herded all the villagers they could find into a mosque. Al Shabab has entered Kenyan towns before, usually in a frenzy of murder and arson, before withdrawing into the bush. Hulugho seemed set to suffer a similar fate.

This time, however, the gunmen merely delivered a two-hour sermon to their captive audience and then left. Three days later, al Shabab fighters occupied the village of Yumbis for eight hours, the group’s spokesman claims. About a month ago, fighters repeated the process in Mangai village, forcing villagers into a mosque for a haranguing before leaving without harming anyone. In Mandera County, the group appears to be routinely occupying and patrolling Warankara village, and then slipping away peacefully.

A Kenyan policeman holds his rifle at Kenya-Somalia border near the town of Mandera December 5, 2014.
A Kenyan policeman holds his rifle at Kenya-Somalia border near the town of Mandera December 5, 2014.  Goran Tomasevic / Reuters
Since Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011 to root out al Shabab, the group has sought every opportunity to exact revenge, launching about 150 attacks inside the country and vowing not to stop until Kenya withdraws. Entering villages to preach and plant flags is a dramatic departure from this retributive approach, and suggests a strategic shift for the group. It appears al Shabab is now trying to conquer parts of Kenya.

Al Shabab has always believed, along with most Somali nationalists, that northeastern Kenya and other Somali-dominated regions outside of Somalia’s borders are rightfully part of greater Somalia. It also views any Muslim-majority areas in Kenya as being under occupation by the Christian-majority government, making it all Muslims’ duty to reclaim those lands by expelling the infidels. It has not, however, ever before bothered with a hearts-and-minds campaign to bolster the support it has in Kenya and lay the foundation for a longer stay.

The village occupations appear part of just such a campaign, however. All of them occurred in Somali- or Muslim-dominated areas. Most Kenyans of Somali heritage, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, take a dim view of al Shabab’s usual brutality against Somalis. By refraining from hurting

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