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.
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 anyone, the group is trying to refurbish its reputation on this score. Proselytizing locals through sermons would likewise build the group’s support base, and brazenly holding a village for hours is a compelling demonstration of the Kenyan government’s inability to protect its territory and a warning to anyone who would think of resisting.
The short occupations are the most recent signal of al Shabab’s intentions, but there have been other clues that the group is acting on its long-held desire to control northeast Kenya. It has increasingly made a show of sparing Muslims during attacks inside Kenya. Several of its recent propaganda videos have featured frightened but unharmed Muslims, along with footage of its fighters murdering non-Muslims. A recent atrocity on June 6 consisted of targeting a building in Mandera, a town in the extreme northeast of Kenya, which housed non-locals, and killing 14 of them. Al Shabab is hoping to provoke a sectarian conflict, thereby buttressing its claims that Muslims are under assault by Christians, but is also trying to build support among the spared Muslims. It has also frightened many Christians into fleeing northeast Kenya, draining the area of those who do not share al Shabab’s faith and who are less likely to support the group.
Al Shabab has also worked to undercut the Kenyan government’s credibility. In March this year, it released a video of its fighters carrying out one of its worst atrocities inside Kenya, an attack on the village of Mpeketoni. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had previously blamed the attack on “local political networks” and said it was not al Shabab’s doing, and the video taunts the president with proof of the group’s responsibility for the massacre.
Al Shabab likely feels that the time is right to act on irredentist ambitions given the territorial losses it has suffered inside Somalia and its unfortunate record of success in Kenya. Its April attack on Garissa University College that killed nearly 150 students garnered the group the sustained international coverage it craves as it competes with the likes of the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and Boko Haram for recruits and funding. It continues to successfully recruit Kenyans who now comprise the largest contingent of foreign fighters inside Somalia. Al Shabab’s barbarities have also badly damaged Kenya’s important tourism sector.
A plan to control a chunk of Kenya seems silly, since the country has one of the strongest armies in Africa and a functioning government, unlike Somalia during al Shabab’s rise. Yet Kenya’s security services are hamstrung by corruption. Their sometimes-draconian response to terror attacks has often been counterproductive as well, and the country needs to nearly double the size of its police force to meet the United Nations’ recommended levels.
The northeast region also has a rancorous history with the Kenyan government that began immediately after Kenya’s independence in 1963 when it voted to secede and join Somalia, sparking the brutal Shifta War. The emergency order enacted during the war effectively gave the Kenyan military free rein in the area and was not lifted until 1992; in the interim, security services carried out several massacres of ethnic Somalis and a variety of other repressive activities, all of which al Shabab frequently invokes in its propaganda.
Those painful memories are unique to northeasterners, but many of them also share the sense of marginalization that most other Muslims in the country feel. Kenyan Muslims, and in particular those of Somali heritage, sometimes face collective punishment from the security services after al Shabab terror attacks, or otherwise are at times abused by corrupt policemen or neglected by the government. Many who believe the Kenyan government is neglecting or outright persecuting them may calculate that al Shabab is at least worth tolerating.
The first step for Kenya must be a recognition of the crisis it faces and a commitment to moving beyond politically expedient counterterror responses. Doing so will require strategic planning and a long-term effort that should involve its own hearts and minds operation; the government should treat its Muslim and Somali communities not as adversaries but as partners, since their help is critical for exposing al Shabab’s networks and pushing back against the radical Islamist propaganda the group wields so effectively. It must control its border with Somalia as well, although doing so will require reforming the security services, who for a price are often willing to let people slip across.
The Muslim community too has responsibilities, and it must redouble its efforts to counter al Shabab’s radical ideology while cooperating with the police, no matter how difficult that relationship is. The United States should take every opportunity to ensure that its long-time ally understands the depth of the problem, and encourage it to do the hard, sustained work necessary to reverse dangerous trends. In his visit to Kenya, the first of his presidency, U.S. President Barack Obama did just that. Washington should focus as well on bolstering civil society, particularly in Muslim regions of Kenya and those organizations that are courageously working to promote inter-religious understanding.
Al Shabab is a resilient organization that has reinvented itself in the past, and in its latest act is trying to realize its long-held ambition to be master of swathes of Kenya. If the government and its allies do not act now to forestall it, there is the real possibility that the village occupations that have thus far been mercifully brief will become protracted, representing the greatest crisis Kenya has yet faced in its war with the militant group.
- Joshua Meservey is a policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in Foreign Affairs