NAIROBI — When, in September 2013, Al Shabaab terrorists occupied the Westgate Mall, an upmarket shopping center in Nairobi, taking captives, the Kenyan government did not follow up on witness claims that the terrorists had gone out of their way to identify Muslims captives, who were given safe passage out of the mall, while the rest were subjected to savage attacks including torture, resulting in the death of more than 70 people.
The government may have been worried that admitting that the terrorist attack had targeted non-Muslims would create inter-religious tensions in the country.
Since the Westgate attack, all the major acts of terrorism in Kenya have seen the targeting of non-Muslims, while sparing any Muslims caught in harm’s way. The Westgate Mall attack was followed by killings in Mpeketoni, a village near the tourist resort of Lamu Island, near Kenya’s border with Somalia, where, again, the terrorists targeted only non-Muslims.
Again, the government was initially reluctant to acknowledge that the Lamu attacks targeted non-Muslims. Instead, President Uhuru Kenyatta depicted the Lamu violence as ethnically, rather than religiously, targeted, explaining that “local networks” in the mainly indigenous Muslim population were responsible for attacks on the members of the Kikuyu community, a mainly Christian minority settled in Lamu.
It turned out eventually that the attacks had targeted all non-Muslims in the area, and not just the Kikuyu. By characterizing the attacks as ethnic rather than religious, the president appropriated victimhood to the Kikuyu community, from which he hails, which even though the largest minority, is not the only group of outsiders in the area. Since Al Shabaab had already claimed responsibility for the attack, the president thus absolved it from blame.
The two latest attacks in Mandera, Kenya’s northern-most town near the border with Somalia, also saw the separation of Muslims from non-Muslims. In the first of the Mandera killings, terrorists staged a nighttime ambush on a long distance passenger bus that was departing from Mandera, identified Muslim passengers whom they spared as they shot dead 28 non-Muslim passengers, a spectacle the Muslims were compelled to witness. In the second attack, terrorists ambushed poor non-Muslim migrant laborers, asleep in tents at night, killing 36 people.
Following the Mandera attacks, the government, for the first time, openly acknowledged that Al Shabaab were carrying out religiously targeted killings. By then, however, this had become common knowledge and was openly discussed in the media. While Kenyatta had initially described the Lamu attacks as ethnic-targeting on members of the Kikuyu community, he changed his mind after the Mandera attacks and now referred to “attacks on Christians in Lamu.”
In a country facing deep ethnic differences, over which there has been recent conflict, Kenyatta’s initial characterization of the Lamu killings was heavily criticized, as irresponsible, divisive and pre-judging what had happened in Lamu, thus preempting an independent investigation. It is widely thought that by deliberately mischaracterizing the attacks in Lamu, the president intended to create a siege mentality among the Kikuyu, the largest and most economically successful ethnic group in Kenya, as a way of consolidating his support in the group, towards whom he portrays himself as protector against genocidal possibilities from other communities.
Assessing the recent terrorist acts in Kenya, the president explained that “the obvious intent is to create hostility and suspicion across ethnic and religious lines and to drive non-Muslims from certain parts of this country.”
In his view, “the ultimate aim of this atrocious campaign is to establish an extremist caliphate in our region.”
The resurgence of Al Shabaab raises questions about the assumptions that led to Kenya’s incursion into Somalia in October 2011. According to Raila Odinga, now the leader of the official opposition and at the time Kenya’s prime minister, the government went into Somalia in pursuit of the Al Shabaab, whose activities, previously contained in Somalia, had spilled into Kenya, from where they abducted aid workers and foreign tourists. Kenya then went into Somalia in hot pursuit of the abductors and initially intended to limit the capacity of Al Shabaab to cross into Kenya by pushing them out of two bases they had established in southern Somalia, near the Kenyan border. According to Odinga, the decision to extend the operation to the capture of Kismayo, the Somalian coastal town then under the control of Al Shabaab, was not part of the initial plans. Neither was the decision to incorporate the Kenyan military into the Africa Union Mission in Somalia.
Contrary to the expectation that the incursion into Somalia would limit Al Shabaab activity on Kenyan soil, there was an immediate increase in the number of attacks in Kenya, coinciding with Kenya’s entry into Somalia. Before the Kenyan military invaded Somalia, Al Shabaab had staged only a handful of attacks in Kenya. After Kenya went into Somalia, and excluding the attacks at Westgate, Lamu and Mandera, there have been no less than 50 attacks around the country, between them accounting for more than 70 deaths.
It seems that the objectives of Al Shabaab activity on Kenyan soil have changed over time. Before Kenya entered Somalia, Al Shabaab did not have a specific justification for its aggression on Kenya. Kenya’s invasion gave it a grievance, and Al Shabaab has since explained its attacks as acts of protest against Kenya’s occupation of its country, or revenge for the death of Somalis killed by the Kenyan military.
The form of attacks has also evolved over time. Before the Westgate attack, Al Shabaab violence was a series of rudimentary assaults using improvised explosive devices or light weapons, and was hardly distinguishable from ordinary violent crime. While these types of attacks have not disappeared completely, they have been contained and are now few and far between.
In their place has come a form of terrorism such as what happened at Westgate, Lamu and in Mandera that shows more organization, and which is calculated to maximize both on publicity and the number of casualties. While the targeting of non-Muslims is now a well-established strategy of Al Shabaab terror, the new dimension in that strategy is that by targeting non-Muslims for attack in areas where Muslims form the majority of the local population, Al Shabaab has triggered a mass exodus by non-Muslims from these areas, creating exclusive religious zones in the country.
A consequence of this strategy is that Al Shabaab has created the impression that it now controls territory on Kenyan soil, something it has lost in Somalia, and never had in Kenya before. This new situation justifies the assertion by Kenyatta that Al Shabaab’s ultimate objective is to establish a caliphate extending to parts of Kenya that are contiguous with Somalia.
While Kenya was initially reticent to admit the polarization of the country along religious lines, Al Shabaab has forced the issue, which has now become the subject of open disagreement.
As seen from the reaction by the country’s top leadership, the grave external threat that Al Shabaab represents has not prevented opportunism in the context of the highly divided national context and has been used to score victories in domestic politics without caring about its effect on the country’s security situation.