Al-Shabaab Capitalises on Muslim Grievances in Kenya

Opinion

Al-Shabaab Capitalises on Muslim Grievances in Kenya

Tom Jackson

03 Oct 2014

Kenyan security operations against al-Shabaab members and sympathisers within their borders are perceived by many Kenyan Muslims and Somali refugees as discriminatory against their communities and religious activities. If security measures are too oppressive, they risk inflaming the tensions they seek to destroy finds Tom Jackson.

Muslims on Kenya's coast have long been concerned with what they consider to be unfair land distribution, inequality and limited economic opportunities. This has led to increasing social alienation and disillusionment with the Kenyan authorities, who they believe allow preferential access for outsiders to the wealth and resources of Coast province. A briefing by the International Crisis Group (ICG) said al-Shabaab, the Somali jihadi group, has "deliberately agitated" these historic divides through a spate of attacks in the past few years – most notably in Nairobi, Mombasa and Mpeketoni. The ICG calls on the Kenyan government, opposition politicians and Kenyan Muslim leaders to "work together to address historical grievances of marginalization among Muslim communities in Nairobi, the coast and the northeast, and institutional discrimination at a national level".

The security response to the threat has added to these grievances. A sweep through the Eastleigh area of Nairobi – widely known as "little Somalia" – in April 2014 rounded up more than 4,000 people and transported them to Dadaab (the world's largest refugee camp with more than 300,000 residents). Innocents are inevitably rounded up in such sweeps. Hundreds were held for interrogation at a local football stadium; others were deported to Somalia. The security forces are perceived as regarding all Muslims as potential militants. Some Eastleigh residents report being asked to bribe the police to be spared arrest or freed from detention.

Authorities need to ensure counter-terrorism does not persecute wider faith communities.

The Kenyan government has a mandate to protect its citizens and secure its borders and feels it is exercising this in deporting those it believes to have entered the country illegally and arresting those it believes to be assisting al-Shabaab. However, Kenya's Muslim community views the actions of the security forces as heavy-handed. In its briefing, ICG recommends that in order to prevent extremists from further linking local grievances with global jihad, Kenyan authorities need to ensure that "counter-terrorism operations are better targeted at the perpetrators and do not persecute wider ethnic and faith communities they have purposefully infiltrated".

ICG recommends the Kenyan government shift focus in the struggle against al-Shabaab by focusing on the grievances expressed by the Muslim community to a Special Action Committee convened by then-President Mwai Kibaki prior to the 2007 election. The committee found institutional discrimination, illegal activities by security agents and lack of development of Muslim-inhabited areas of Kenya compared to the rest of the country, and called for more Muslim involvement in policymaking.

The ICG says the recommendations are "yet to be substantively implemented" and argues that if the Kenyan government is successfully to cut grassroots support for al-Shabaab, "entrenched institutional and socio-economic discrimination against Muslims should be addressed through implementation of the committee's sensible recommendations."

The effects of this discrimination have been compounded by a number of recent assassinations of radical leaders in Coast province, in which the security services are suspected of being complicit. Al-Shabaab supporter Sheikh Aboud Rogo was shot and killed by unknown gunmen in Mombasa in August 2012 as he drove his wife to a hospital, sparking two days of rioting in which four people were killed. The assassination of Ibrahim Omar in October 2013 provoked a similar response, as did a February 2014 police raid on one of the city's mosques, Masjid Musa, reportedly having received intelligence of a jihadi recruitment meeting there. The mosque has repeatedly been linked with al-Shabaab and has been known to fly the militant group's flag.

Al-Shabaab has skillfully manipulated pre-existing Muslim dissatisfaction and grievances.

Such incidents are used by al-Shabaab to aid recruitment efforts. ICG claims "local Muslim opinion blames the security services... for a number of unexplained killings, torture and mistreatment of suspected terrorists." Jehanne Henry, senior researcher for the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, agrees: "The tactics of the anti-terrorism police that we documented is certainly counter productive. It would seem quite possible that young Muslim Kenyans are increasingly alienated".

One of the gunmen in the September 2013 Westgate Mall massacre reportedly justified the attack by saying Kenyan security forces are "killing Muslims in Mombasa". Al-Shabaab has skillfully manipulated pre-existing Muslim dissatisfaction and new grievances over heavy-handed security substantially to increase the terror risk in Kenya.

The Kenyan government is fighting hard against this criticism. President Uhuru Kenyatta told a passing-out parade of new police officers in April, "a lot has been said and we will not talk any more. All we are requesting is for Kenyans to back us in whatever we are going to do". Voices in the country's media have also rallied to the government's aid, with Daily Nation managing editor Mutuma Mathiu writing in the newspaper in May 2014 that "every little, two-bit Somali has a big dream to blow us up, knock down our buildings and slaughter our children".

Kenya's methods are not unusual and they face the same challenges as other countries around the world. But the delicate nature of inter-religious relationships in Kenya means the government, as it seeks to deal with its unstable border area and root out the extremists that threaten its domestic security, will have to be careful not to fuel the very fire they are trying to put out. As the International Crisis Group points out, unless politicians of all parties and faiths can work together to develop a common vision on how to respond to al-Shabaab, "Kenya will remain deeply divided, radicals will continue to exploit these divisions and the country continue to suffer insecurity."

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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