Kenya: How to discredit al-Shabaab

By Abdullahi B Halakhe
Posted on Friday, 27 September 2013 14:17

Kenya’s intervention in Somalia in 2011, an inauguration of a robust militaristic foreign policy, has come with obvious costs. The rationale, goal, mission, and exit plan of that intervention, the final chapter of President Mwai Kibaki’s foreign policy record, were never clearly articulated.

you took over Kisamyo, we shall hit you where it hurts most

That Kenyans were informed about troops sent into Somalia by their government, not by the president, nor by the minister for defense, but by the minister for internal affairs, on a weekend, is a measure of how poorly the whole operation was planned.

The initial stated goal of the intervention was the pursuit of the al-Shabaab militant group, who allegedly kidnapped aid workers in Northern Kenya, and foreign tourists along the coast. This was a plausible reason for going into Somalia, on the face of it: The al-Shabaab bogeyman doctrine being, one can say anything and everything about the islamist group to whip public opinion on one’s side, and get the West’s unstinting support.

But the intervention has degenerated into a charade resembling an occupation rather than the liberation of southern Somalia from the yolk of al-Shabaab. It has done little to secure Kenya from al-Shabaab’s attacks. Attacks against the country, in fact, escalated after Kenya went into Somalia, revealing the east African country’s (in)security underbelly; its inability to sufficiently police its borders.

The winner is

The blowback, since the intervention, has been obvious. There is a deteriorating security situation along the border with Somalia, and in Nairobi there have been a series of grenade attacks. While some of the violent acts have been the work of opportunistic criminal and business groups, others like an attack on a church in Garissa, bear the hallmark of al-Shabaab (and have been claimed as such through their twitter handle).

Additionally, events in the port city of Kismayo have revealed that all along Kenya was more interested in establishing in sphere of influence via the formation of Jubaland (a satellite state – remote controlled from Nairobi) than containing al-Shabaab. But it is counterproductive, as Ethiopia will not continence such a move because the region is largely occupied by the Ogadens, who are waging a rebellion in southern Ethiopia. Such a move will be akin to providing them a rear from where they can launch attacks against Ethiopia.

The establishment of Jubaland will also weaken Mogadishu, which is currently trying to delicately balance several overlapping and competing interests. The emergence of another center of power with allegiance to Nairobi will hugely undermine the long-term stability of the country.

The winner from this standoff is al-Shabaab, who at least, rhetorically, projects a pan Somalia image that subordinates divisive clan interests. More significantly, the tug of war between Nairobi and Mogadishu, which has been exemplified by murmurs and planned demonstrations against Kenya’s Defense Forces (KDF), coupled with a recent report of illegal charcoal sold by the same KDF, increases resentment towards Kenya.

Further, acute internal contradictions within the group are of greater existential danger than any external interventions – the pan-Somali nationalism espoused by Aweys and the transnational jihadist wing of Godane (nom de guerre of ‘Abu Zubeir’) was difficult to reconcile. The recent departure of Sheikh Aweys (regarded as the father of the jihadi movement in Somalia), the alleged killing of Ibrahim al-Afghani and the fleeing of the group’s spokesman Mukhtar Robbow, reveal a serious power struggle within the group.

But what is going on in Kismayo gives the group a second chance, similar to the 2006 Ethiopian invasion. The last chapter of this struggle was last week’s killing of Alabama-born al-Shabaab commander Omar Hammami, known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki or “the American”. With this Godane, Afghanistan-trained, has completely taken over al-Shabaab, and the transnational Jihadi is the next phase of the group’s operation.

The attack on Westgate shopping mall, a symbol of Kenya’s economic rise and security, was a retaliation for the group losing the port of Kismayo, their economic lifeline. And their message is: you took over Kisamyo, we shall hit you where it hurts most.

Beyond Somalia

Overall, however, there is a need for recalibrating Kenya’s Somalia policy, as staying the course exclusively will hardly inoculate the country from future attacks.

A long term policy that combines political efforts – supporting the present Somalia government, combined with a more enhanced border patrol, tracking the money sources and transfers, immigration reform and fundamental security sector reform – will be more fruitful than relying purely on a military solution. Also, a measured response anchored in law will go a long way in discrediting al-Shabaab as opposed to a robust military response.

Following the attacks, there is an understandable palpable sense of anger towards Somalis, Somalia and Muslims in general. This will be heightened by, especially, security forces. But ethnically profiling Somalis could make human intelligence regarding Somalia incredibly difficult, and strained relations between Kenyans and Somalis will not auger well for stability.

The Somali-Muslim leadership as well as the national and local leadership need to have interdenominational outreach mechanisms to diffuse such tension. Muslim leaders need to come out and take a stand about this incredibly dangerous situation because al-Shabaab’s recruitment has transcended the traditional Muslim-Northern Kenya and Coastal communities, into other communities.

Abdullahi Boru is a Horn of Africa analyst, specialising in Kenya. He has worked with International Crisis Group, where he authored several reports in the lead up to Kenya’s 2013 elections. He is currently a consultant for the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, researching the impact of international intervention on Kenya’s election proceedings. Follow him on twitter @QulshTM.

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