Another month, another devastating attack in Kenya: can al-Shabaab be stopped?
In Kenya, the scenes of devastation are beginning to repeat themselves. There is the charred skeleton of another burnt-out car. There are the bullet holes in the wall, the shattered glass on the floor, the collapsed sheets of corrugated iron. There are the dead bodies – this time 48 of them, all men, mostly civilians, left in the wake of a five-hour rampage from by gunmen who shot up bars and homes and set several buildings alight.
Sunday night’s raid in Mpeketoni, the coastal town nearest to Lamu Island’s swish tropical resorts, was a big one, the biggest since the Westgate Mall siege in September 2013. But those two attacks are just the highest-profile of an unrelenting onslaught of violence committed in the name of Islam by radical, extremist militants – an onslaught which is only growing in intensity. In the first four months of this year, more than 80 terrorist attacks were documented by Kenyan human rights lawyers, ranging from shootings to car bombs to grenade attacks. This is double the frequency recorded in the corresponding period in the two preceding years.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2011, when Somalia’s al-Shabaab first began to flex its muscles across the Somali border and into Kenyan territory, Kenya vowed to halt the group once and for all. They sent thousands of Kenyan Defence Force troops into Somalia to chase down the militants in their own back yard.
For a while, the unauthorised (but extremely popular, in Kenya at least) invasion looked like it was working. Al-Shabaab got a bad fright. They were pushed out of their strongholds, cut off from their main income sources. The Kenyan army was joined by Ethiopian units, and all were incorporated into the existing African Union mission which propped up the feeble, corrupt government in Mogadishu.
However, like all invading armies, Kenya’s grand plans ran aground in muddy, hostile territory where al-Shabaab have local knowledge, local support and infinite patience. Even today, al-Shabaab controls vast swathes of Somalia, probably more than the central government itself; and it has repeatedly shown that nowhere in Somalia is safe (witness the recent attack on the Somali parliament; how can a nation that cannot even protect its lawmakers protect its citizens?).
Not that Kenya’s generals and political leaders seemed to mind the chaos in Somalia. No, fixing Somalia was never the main objective, coming a distant second to the goal of making Kenya a safer place, and protecting its vital tourism industry. The evidence suggests – and there is more of it with every passing month – that this too has been a failure. Kenya is more dangerous than ever before, and tourists are being warned by their governments to stay away.
Plan B is failing too. In April, Kenyan authorities tried a new tactic to protect Kenyan citizens – but only some of them. Operation Usalama [peace] Watch was a major police operation to detain and intimidate thousands of Somalis living and working in Kenya, including recognised refugees and Kenyan citizens of Somali descent. By the end of April, interior minister Joseph Ole Lenku was boasting that over 4,000 people had been detained, in what many observers described as horrendous conditions. It was a textbook example of both ethnic profiling and collective punishment, and may also have served the government’s short-term political ends: it just so happens that Kenya’s Somali population tend to support President Uhuru Kenyatta’s main rival.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that President Kenyatta is unable adequately to deal with the threat. He is, after all, no stranger to violence himself. Back in 2007, Kenya exploded into ethnically and politically motivated violence in the wake of a disputed election – and Kenyatta, then finance minister, is accused of playing a major role in inciting it. A thousand people died, and Kenya’s enviable reputation as a beacon of peace and stability in Africa was shattered. President Kenyatta, along with Vice-President Ruto and two others, are being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court on charges of committing crimes against humanity.
Their shady past shouldn’t, however, take attention or responsibility away from the perpetrators of the wave of attacks. Fingers are always pointed at al-Shabaab, with good reason, and respected journalists have claimed on Twitter that the group has claimed responsibility for the latest incident in Mpeketoni. The group has indeed been the instigator of much of the recent violence, but it’s important to remember that it does not work alone.
Al-Shabaab’s ideology resonates with other extremist groups within Kenya, some of whom act in its name. For example, the Westgate attack is often described as a prime example of al-Shabaab’s brutality. Closer examination reveals, however, that al-Shabaab probably had help from a Kenyan extremist group known as al-Hijra. This distinction is crucial, particularly in light of the Kenyan government’s crackdown on Somalis. Kenya is facing an extremism problem, not a Somali problem, and the two cannot be conflated.
There are no easy solutions to problems like al-Shabaab, or terrorism, or violent Islamist extremism. If there were, we would no longer be trying (and failing, mostly) to deal with the likes of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Boko Haram. But the least we can do is learn from what has not worked. For Kenya, invading its next door neighbor has failed, as has its indiscriminate (bit highly discriminatory) crackdown on its Somali population. It’s time for Plan C, if there is one. DM
Analysis: Kenyan blasts prove that collective punishment is still not counter-terrorism on Daily Maverick
Al-Shabaab: How much of a threat to South Africa? on Daily Maverick
Photo: Kenyan residents pass by a local bank one of the houses which were torched by alleged Islamist militants in the small coastal town of Mpeketoni near Lamu, Kenya, 16 June 2014. At least 48 people were killed in an attack by about 50 gunmen, a news report said. Witnesses said many people were held hostage in the attack that ran for about four hours. A Kenyan Army spokesman said Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab was suspected. EPA/STR