Kenya: time for a new approach after al Shabab Garissa attack


History repeats.

Kenya: 142 civilians dead.

Even writing about it is painful. As parents of the students at Garissa and the public in Kenya are mourning the dead in Easter vigils, they are likely to be feeling a mix of emotions.  One of them is anger.

A growing number of attacks have been perpetrated by al Shabab since 2011 on military targets, security forces, political figures and civilians in Kenya . And despite proclamations to the contrary by top Kenyan politicians, the media is saying that little has changed in the Kenyan government’s response.

But even more worrying than the public anger towards the slow response by the Kenyan security forces to the intelligence and the latest attack, is the growing communal tensions that al Shabab attacks are fueling. Unless the Kenyan government is visible in employing a different approach, the massacre at the university in Garissa and the government response  is likely to stoke the divides even further and contribute to the increasing marginalization of Muslim communities in the country.


Kinetic activities by the Kenyan security forces such as Operation Usalama Watch of 2014, and those of the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) may have been successful in their military objectives, but they have been perceived to target and take revenge actions against whole communities, exceeding rule of law and violating constitutionally enshrined rights in the process.

The military intervention in southern Somalia by the Kenyan Security Forces in 2011 and again in 2014 was met with an expansion of al-Shabab’s campaign within Kenya, despite targeted killing of al Shabab key strategist Emir Ahmed Abdi Godane. In May 2014, leading al-Shabaab figure Sheikh Fuaad Mohamed Khalaf announced that group had shifted to wage war primarily inside Kenya.

In 2013 security forces allegedly set alight the main market in Garissa. An Israeli style separation barrier along parts of the border between Kenya and Somalia has been started according to the Ministry of the Interior, and will be finished later this year. The intent is to keep out illegal immigrants from Somalia as well as al-Shabab operatives. Despite these counter-terrorism actions, never lacking in temerity, al Shabab has shown that it is gaining strength and support.

Radicalization and recruitment within Kenya is strong, and a visibly different approach, one which counters radicalization and the spread of violent extremism, is needed to prevent further alienation of Muslim communities, stem the tide of supporters and to help galvanize key allies within Muslim and Somali communities.

Kenya has a population of approximately 4.3 million Muslims (or 11 per cent of the total population) located largely in Nairobi, the North East of the country and in coastal towns. They have been historically marginalized- a reality that al Shabab is has been quick to incorporate into its narrative and use to gain recruits.

As far back as 2007, under former president Kibaki, a special presidential committee found that the areas inhabited by Muslim communities suffered from a lack of public investment in development, with poor delivery across the range of essential public services. It also found institutional discrimination against Muslims, in particular in the issuing of national identity cards and passports, and that they were largely absent from policy and decision –making at national and county level. Muslim communities, the committee report also pointed out, were subject to extra-legal operations by the ATPU.

While marginalization and the counter-terrorism strategy itself is not the entire picture of the dynamics that are at the root of the growth of al Shabab- there is a complex and increasingly strong division within Muslim communities related to the spread of a Wahabi /Salafi strand of Islam through charities, mosques and madrassas- it is certainly a large part of the problem.

To prevent local grievances being harnessed and articulated by the Salafi-jihadist movement, Kenyan CT operations in response to the massacre at Garissa cannot target and persecute the Somali and Muslim communities for the actions of a few individuals. The Kenyan government and Kenyan Muslim leaders must work together to address historical marginalization of Muslim communities and the mobilization of grievances by the Kenyan Salafi movement and al Shabab.

2 thoughts on “Kenya: time for a new approach after al Shabab Garissa attack”

  1. Safi- I agree with you in full that the operations need to be done sensitively and within the limits of the law. What about today’s bombing of the Al-Shabab training camps in Somalia? Is this a viable part of a counter terror strategy? If not,- then what is? We can’t seem to win this fight for losing.

    1. CJCrooke, the airstrikes in southern Somalia were in Bardera and Gondon Dhawe, not too far from the Kenyan border, and a part of ongoing military operations to counter al Shabab African Union and Kenyan military targeted operations in Somalia. Certainly the kinetic activities in Somalia to target strategic militia cells may be important.
      At the same time, a network of sympathizer and recruitees has developed within Kenya, and this requires a well-thought out approach that is centered around non-kinetic interventions within Kenya. As you’ve probably read elsewhere, one of the attackers was the son of a government official in Mandera. Another allegedly had expressed some kind of loyalty to ISIS. While military operations continue, we need to cut out the push-factors that propel individuals to support al Shabab.

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