Northeastern Kenya is quickly becoming a frontline in the fight against al-Shabaab. On May 25, Kenyan police were ambushed by al-Shabaab in Yumbis, a town forty miles north of Garissa University where the horrific April 2015 massacre took place. Just a week before, Kenya’s interior ministry reported that police and militants clashed in the same area. With evidence that al-Shabaab is recruiting Kenyans to carry out these attacks, it is clear that Kenya’s internal security challenges are increasing.
Al-Shabaab’s growing reach in northern Kenya is intersecting with Kenya’s failure to protect and integrate its minority populations. This confluence is destabilizing relations between Kenya’s government and its border communities. Left unchecked, this trend will undermine stability across Kenya, while providing al-Shabaab a permanent foothold in the country.
One would think that al-Shabaab would be on the decline given its setbacks in recent years. In the past two years it lost significant territory to the African Union Mission in Somalia, while a fratricidal power struggle orchestrated by the group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, left few candidates to fill his place when he was killed in a September 2014 US drone strike. In the past year, the organization has also struggled to maintain its international image, losing both attention and Western recruits to ISIS. Despite these weaknesses, al-Shabaab has been resilient. It has responded to setbacks with a new strategy of regional growth that is effectively applying pressure to decades-old political and ethno-religious fault lines.
The potential to enflame ethnic and religious grievances in Kenya is troubling because of the country’s long history of discrimination against minority ethnic groups, including the Muslim populations clustered along its borders and coast. While this discrimination has historically been based on political, rather than religious grievances, al-Shabaab’s presence threatens to blur the two. The aftermath of al-Shabaab’s incursions into Garissa County show this dynamic at work.
Until re-districting in 2010, Garissa was part of the North Eastern Province, a region running along the Kenyan-Somali border. This territory, largely populated by ethnic Somalis, has never been fully seen as part of Kenya. In the colonial era, the British administered the territory separately from the rest of Kenya, requiring a pass to traverse the border. As Kenya gained independence, northeastern politicians, arguing that the territory was more properly part of Somalia, submitted a formal request for secession. This proposal was rejected by the new government, setting off the Shifta War, a brutal conflict between the state and local militias that continued for four years.
After the close of hostilities, northeastern Kenyans were not drawn closer to the Kenyan state. Rather than receiving new roads or schools, the region saw continuing repression as the central government reacted harshly to political unrest. In 1980 and 1984, Kenyan security forces killed thousands of civilians in the Bulla Karatasi Massacre and Wagalla Airstrip Massacre. A generation later, police and military were accused of torturing civilians during stabilization operations in the Mandera triangle near the Somali border. Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, tasked with investigating human rights violations in Kenya, found evidence that the Kenyan state had been responsible for both unlawful killings and systematic economic neglect in the region.
Al-Shabaab’s incursions into northeastern Kenya have only made relations between the state and the local population tenser. The Kenyan government, under increasing pressure to respond to terrorism, views the growing number of attacks as evidence of the need for tighter controls on border crossings and within refugee camps. Kenyan Somalis argue that the government’s counterterrorism efforts are racist, punishing all ethnic Somalis rather than targeting militants. They point to 2014’s Operation Usalama Watch, during which police arrested and took identity papers from hundreds of ethnic Somalis across Nairobi, as evidence that the government views all Somalis, as a threat, whether or not they are Kenyan nationals.
It is doubtful that more recent counterterrorism efforts will do anything to bridge this argument. In the wake of the Garissa University attack, northeastern Kenyans have claimed that they are being punished by state policies. A dawn-to-dusk curfew across four counties has been extended for over a month despite local complaints about the impact on business. Kenya’s latest initiative, the construction of a wall along the Somali-Kenyan border, has also drawn criticism from northeastern Kenyans who argue that the wall will be ineffective in stopping militants, but will pose a significant barrier to the cross-border trade critical to local livelihoods.
In late May, these frustrations became violent. A photo posted by a Kenyan policeman to his Facebook page showing police officers flogging Somali men in Garissa went viral across the country. While the Inspector General of Police promised there would be an investigation, human rights advocates and northeastern Kenyans using the Twitter hashtag #stoppolicebrutalityinNEP (North Eastern Province) argued that not enough was being done.
The continued divide between northeastern Kenyans and the central government is advantageous to al-Shabaab. Discontented locals are less likely to provide information to the police and may even serve as a pool of recruits. Therefore, al-Shabaab actively tries to deepen a sense of conflict through propaganda casting the Kenyan government as anti-Muslim. On May 21, fighters stormed two mosques in Garissa County to deliver lectures claiming al-Shabaab was on the side of northeastern Muslims and warning locals not to collaborate with the government.
The danger is that these propaganda messages will encourage northeastern Kenyans to view political and economic grievances in terms of religious and ethnic identity, making disputes more personal and difficult to resolve. A 2014 survey of Kenyan Muslims carried out by the Institute for Security Studies found that this is already happening. Somali-Kenyan and Somali respondents reported experiencing discrimination daily, while Kenyan members of al-Shabaab (who came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds) reported that a sense of religious persecution was important in their choice to join the group.
The ongoing instability in northeastern Kenya puts further pressure on the Kenyan government to prove that it can respond to al-Shabaab, but it is also an opportunity. Rather than alienating the northeast, the central government should engage with its citizens. Community trust is a critical missing piece in Kenya’s counterterrorism strategy.