The murder by al-Shabaab militants of at least 147 Kenyans has served as a reminder of the Islamist group’s ability to inflict mass casualties despite a clampdown by Nairobi and the death of its top leaders.
The attack has highlighted the threat of homegrown extremists in east Africa’s largest economy while deepening questions about a government security strategy that critics say has alienated Kenya’s Muslims and its large Somali population.
“[Al-Shabaab] needs to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion to gain a lasting foothold. They may succeed if the Kenyan response isn’t thought out well,” said Mohamed Mubarak, a security analyst based in Somalia, following the attack.
Al-Shabaab militants took control of a university in the town of Garissa near the Somali border on Thursday, tossing grenades and spraying bullets. They later freed some Muslims and targeted Christians in a siege that lasted 15 hours. The attack in a remote part of Kenya was the deadliest since al-Qaeda bombed the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, and the most spectacular atrocity committed by al-Shabaab in east Africa since the group seized control of a shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing 67 people in a siege that attracted worldwide horror. But even though the group has since lost swaths of territory in Somalia and fragmented, diplomats warn it still retains the capacity to stage brutal guerrilla attacks.
“Basically, we are witnessing the birth of a Kenyan Boko Haram,” said a senior western diplomat, referring to the Isis-aligned jihadist militancy that has taken over parts of northern Nigeria. “There is a clear strategy by Shabaab to first of all weaken the grip of the central Kenyan authorities on the whole of North Eastern [province], and to alienate ethnic Somalis from the rest of Kenyans.”
Security experts say the attack managed to isolate a soft target even though universities in Nairobi had warned the government of the possibility of an imminent attack. “[Kenyan authorities] had intelligence they tried to act on, and Shabaab found a crack,” said another senior western diplomat.
The government’s failure to act has inflamed local anger. “It’s because of the laxity by the government that these things are happening. For something like this to happen when there are those rumors is unacceptable,” Mohamed Salat, a 47-year-old Somali Kenyan businessman, told Reuters.
Although the Kenyan government has shaken up its security apparatus recently — replacing unpopular figures, making a greater effort to boost co-ordination between agencies and root out corruption — diplomats say its targeting of some of Kenya’s ethnic Somalis has backfired.
Many Muslim social and human rights groups say their communities have been alienated by heavy-handed and indiscriminate Kenyan security crackdowns on the Muslim population. “[Al-Shabaab doesn’t] target Muslims because the Kenyan government does that, so they do the opposite,” added Mr Mubarak, the Somalia-based security analyst. Kenyan police raids on mosques and areas identified as hosting jihadis have swept up thousands of ethnic Somalis at a time, many of whom complain of ill-treatment and bribery despite being released without charge.
Last year, bands of Shabaab militants raided several towns on the coast, slaughtering Christians and describing the attacks as reprisals for the deaths of several imams it claimed were assassinated by the state.
While al-Shabaab militants regularly kill Muslims in Somalia through targeted suicide attacks and car bombs, in Kenya they have recently made a point of sparing Muslims — millions of whom are ethnic Somalis — during bloody onslaughts along the predominately Muslim Kenyan coast.
Although the nationality of at least four gunmen killed during the siege is not yet known, Kenyan authorities say they are hunting for a Kenyan Somali they named as its mastermind. A former madrassa teacher in Garissa itself, diplomats told the Financial Times, the man, whose aliases include “Gamadhere”, still has family in the town and is known as a “local godfather” and populist Osama bin Laden-like figure.
In recent months, al-Shabaab has had problems of its own, which experts say have only made it more dangerous for Kenya. The group has been severely weakened, ceding territory in their homeland Somalia to troops sent by African governments as part of a UN-backed force.
Besides sometimes deadly internal divisions, US strikes have also killed several of the top command of al-Shabaab, including leader Ahmed Godane, last year. Three weeks ago, the US said it had also killed Adnan Garaar, thought to have planned the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, in which 67 died. “It’s making them a bit more dangerous because they’re fragmenting,” said the diplomat. “They are just looking for soft spots, and they found a soft spot.”
Source: The Financial Times