Quilliam’s Political Liaison Jonathan Russell analyses the reasons behind the militant group’s successes and how Kenya can respond.
Al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, has taken responsibility for a series of attacks in Kenya over recent weeks. The ongoing presence of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in Somalia and unsettled disputes over coastal land ownership are blamed for the violence, with Kenya ranking among the countries experiencing the largest increase in terrorist attacks of recent years, with China, Libya and Egypt.
A growing problem underpinning this threat is al-Shabaab’s manipulation of political grievances and religious inclinations among young Kenyans in their radicalisation and recruitment. This is most evident in reports that local residents, rather than those extremists already under surveillance by Kenya’s police, have been the ones to plant grenades in tourist hotspots.
Reported state oppression of Somali communities in Kenya and the widening notion that Somali immigrants are responsible for the terror have both led to a breakdown in community cohesion. Not only do the Kenyan authorities fail properly to distinguish between citizens and refugees, fuelling an identity crisis among Kenyan Somalis, the levels of corruption in the country means that the (often illicit) wealth accrued by Kenyan Somalis is largely invested in Kenyan property, leading to higher property prices and resentment of these communities. This divided Kenya is perfect for al-Shabaab’s recruitment and is exploited by Islamist ideology and jihadi narratives. Resentment of Kenyan Somalis is reframed as oppression of Muslims and KDF activity in Somalia is portrayed as Christian expansionism.
We know from al-Shabaab’s leader in Somalia, Ahmed Abdi Godane, that the group remains ideologically committed to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, despite the fact that most Somalis are Sufis. We also know that it has imposed a narrow and brutal interpretation of Sharia on the areas it controls, including hudud punishments such as stoning and amputations for those that break the group’s rules. It is unlikely that this appeals to the 10% of Kenyans who are Muslim, so why the success in recruitment?
First, there is al-Shabaab’s education and proselytisation strategy in which charismatic preachers such as Abubakr Shariff Ahmed teach young Kenyans the Quran by rote and indoctrinate them with a narrow Manichean interpretation of its contents. Not only is much of this done in Arabic, disabling the English- or Swahili-speaking students from critically engaging with what they are taught, but many of the students are also converts to Islam, more reliant on their teachers, more impressionable to their narratives, and therefore more vulnerable to radicalisation. Some of them then travel to Somalia to attend training camps or fight the KDF (some later return to Kenya), but some of them remain in Kenya ready to commit acts of terror.
The recent shift in al-Shabaab’s rhetoric from nationalist to religious is precisely to recruit young Kenyans and to hit the KDF at home. The internationalisation of the group following its alliance with al-Qaeda is the second major draw, as it reframes domestic social and political grievances such as corruption, poverty, unemployment and insecurity in maximalist terms: Islam vs Christianity, mujahideen vs the West, good vs bad. The Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, the Kenyan opposition party led by Raila Odinga, is calling for a referendum on these domestic social justice issues and has gathered nearly a million signatures in support. Al-Shabaab provides a different strategy for addressing them but does not require a million recruits to wreak havoc and further instability.
So, what’s the solution? Kenya can bolster its border security and continue to improve its ties with the international community to fight terrorism. Its democratic values, respect for freedom of religion and strategic location on the frontline of the war on terrorism preordain it as a Western ally against Islamist extremism. However, it must also go further and offer an alternative education system to teach young Kenyan Muslims about an Islam distinct from Islamism.
Kenya must re-establish public faith in the authorities by being tough on corruption and social inequality, improving the lives of all Kenyan Somalis, and taking real action to boost cohesion, reconcile differences and rebuild communities. The Kenyan authorities need to understand that this community support is essential for their intelligence gathering work, as they are dealing with religious fanatics rather than common criminals. With these changes, Kenya’s all-important tourism industry may be able to be rebuilt, and it may even become the seat of the UN headquarters in Africa once again.
This article was originally featured on the website of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation here.