A devastating massacre of more than 150 students at Garissa University is the latest in a long and painful history of attacks by the Somali Islamist group al Shabaab inside Kenya.
Al Shabaab claimed in a public statement that the attack was revenge for atrocities against Muslims in Somalia by Kenyan troops and “unspeakable atrocities against the Muslims of East Africa”.
The Islamic group also claimed they spared Muslims in the attack and this was uncritically echoed in media accounts of the tragedy that referred to the separation of Muslim students from Christians. But al Shabaab in its various forms has killed countless Muslims and when it entered the university at Garissa the shooting was described as “random”.
The murderers terrorised the students by making them phone their families before killing them. As if this wasn’t enough horror for the media, lurid reports of beheadings now fully discredited, were gleefully repeated.
Indicating foreknowledge, both al Hijra and al Muhajiroun gave hints before the attacks and Kenyan authorities and foreign embassies issued alerts.
Al Muhajiroun even appeared to issue a warning to associates in a message on March 31st: “tunaomba Mujahideen hapo Afrika Mashariki wa subiri” – “we ask the East African Mujahadin to wait”.
Yet security at the University was almost non-existent and the supposedly rapid reaction Recce Unit was held up in Nairobi for hours and half the team dispatched by road. They didn’t arrive until more than 12 hours after the attacks began.
Survivors were forced to sleep in the open and identification of the dead continues to be painfully slow for anxious relatives. Once again access to information has been stage managed and support for victims subcontracted to NGOs.
Kenya and politics
Previous attacks have spawned knee-jerk responses that have ranged from mass-round-ups of Muslims in Mombasa and Nairobi, arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings–allegedly by security services–to calls for the mass removal of Somalian refugees and the construction of a Gaza-style wall in the North East of Kenya.
In a deadly cycle this approach becomes the fuel for further recruitment by Kenyan affiliates of al Shabaab such as al Hijra and the newly identified al Muhajiroun, who have long been a vital East African conduit of finance and manpower.
In the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, where residents are usually amongst the first victims whose civil liberties are trampled on by security services, people took to the streets to protest against al Shabaab and were rewarded with tear gas by the authorities.
Instant experts offered TV opinions that belied their lack of understanding of the indigenous nature of the problem and Kenyan politicians seized the opportunity to bandstand their agendas.
Senator Mike Sonko issued ludicrous advice from the safety of his gold-plated luxury suggesting in future those targeted by attacks should fight back while Adan Duale, once again blamed refugee camps for harbouring Al Shabaab and called for their removal.
Yet Adan Duale and his brother Noor Barre not only own vast property holdings in Garissa but he has been linked via clan relations to the firebrand Islamist Nairobi preacher Sheikh Hassaan Hussein, who is close to some of Al Shabaab’s leaders.
Hassaan recently made public calls for alliance with ISIS yet despite occasional run-ins with the authorities, remains free and continues to operate with impunity.
Kenya’s Shifta history – people not bandits
But in Garissa conflict and collective punishment is nothing new, the inhabitants suffered 30 years of emergency rule during the ‘Shifta Wars’ which was essentially a secessionist fight after British colonisers reneged on a deal to align the region with Greater Somalia.
The word ‘Shifta’ means bandit in what was another way to frame and identify citizens as outsiders.
The massacres of Somalis and Kenyans by security services during this time, including the Wagalla massacre in Wajir, 1984, when over a thousand Somalis were murdered during what was supposed to be a disarmament process, have only recently been acknowledged in a report by the Kenyan Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The idea that there is a unique, homogeneous Kenyan-Somali identity is one of the myths that perpetuates justifications for xenophobia. This enables the displacement of the problem from Kenya itself to ‘elsewhere’.
The Garissa attackers spoke Swahili, videos and magazines produced by Al Shabaab are also largely in Swahili. Kenyans have been a strong component of al Shabaab for a long time and many have since returned to Kenya after training in Somalia.
Now one of the attackers has already been identified by friends who knew him as Nairobi University graduate Abdirahim Mohamed Abdullahi, the son of an administrative Chief in Mandera, who worked as a legal officer at a bank.
Al Muhajiroun also communicate in Swahili and specifically target Kenyan issues such as the murders of Islamist Sheikhs and the marginalisation of Muslims and aim them to a wider East African audience.
Research shows that one of the principle motives for enrolment into Al Shabaab is not religious but political.
Kenyans know the corruption of those that rule them – they experience it every day in Mombasa and Nairobi when the authorities demand bribes for imaginary offences. Kenyan passports are for sale, weapons are transported and impunity is bought for a fee.
The shifting alliances between organised criminals, officials and violent Islamists both in Kenya’s northeast and the Swahili coast defies easy labelling.
The tentacles of corruption extend from the very top of the tree. Those in government who denounce the rot, such as John Githongo, who exposed the Anglo Leasing scandal, have to flee for their lives.
Financial reward is also a temptation for a marginalised population with little alternative for survival. But historically, Kenyan development avoids those who need it most and Muslim rights groups who run counter-radicalisation programmes are starved of funds.
Meanwhile, we learn that one of the university guards may have been allied with the attackers. A police officer in Garissa earns a ‘hardship allowance’ of 20 Kenyan shillings per day with no risk allowance and no medical cover.
The elephant in the room – a globalised complicity.
Saudi Arabia and other middle-eastern countries offer Africans free education programmes in Wahhabist universities and fund mosques and madrassas that replace state education programmes cut by structural adjustment programmes imposed by the IMF.
Across East Africa Saudi-educated youth have returned home and challenged the religious practises of their elders and overthrown Imams to take control of some mosques.
Revivalist Islam in the shape of Wahhabism, various forms of Salafism both non-violent and violent and Tablighi Jamaat have been propagated via networks of dawaa – preaching.
The UK and the US outsource interrogation tactics to East African countries including Kenya and Uganda that would not be legal in their own countries and have been exposed for their arbitrary rendition of terrorist suspects.
The US has a military base in Kenya’s Lamu County, outsources its military approach to Somalia via AMISOM troops from Uganda, Burundi and elsewhere and encourages and shapes East African policies through the lens of its ‘War-on-Terror.
Israeli security services are key advisors to the Kenyan government and have their own agenda that is far from neutral. The proposal by Kenya to build a ‘security-wall’ along the Somali border has dark echoes of the Israeli approach to Palestine.
Israel’s off-loading of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to Rwanda – an already overcrowded, land-poor and politically fragile country – in a cash-deal, just highlights the cynicism of Israel’s foreign policy towards Africa’s citizens.
Al Qaeda introduced East Africa to the violence of terrorism when it bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998.
The ideological leaders of Al Hijra – Sheikh Rogo and Sheikh Makaburi – both Kenyan, were involved with Al Qaeda in the 90s, as I reported for Al Jazeera.
The Al Qaeda interest in what was essentially a local, constantly mutating, Somali Al Shabaab, has been just one of a range of other under-studied foreign supporters and funders of the group.
Both Sheikh Faisal who was imprisoned and then deported from the UK to the Caribbean and Anjem Choudary, the self-publicist activist who together with Omar Bakri Muhammad founded Al Muhajiroun in the UK, have links via diaspora and online networks to East Africa.
Now there’s a new kid on the block as ISIS uses it’s street credibility and transnational media abilities to extend its franchise to Africa.
Sheikh Faisal openly encouraged the East African Al Muhajiroun to pledge baya’ah – loyalty – to ISIS although at the time they turned it down.
Alongside this there are now credible rumours that a disintegrating Al Qaeda will release those armed groups that previously pledged baya’ah – and let them go their own way.
An ongoing trial in Tanzania includes allegations that one of the defendants was in two-way communication with ISIS members in Syria soliciting funding, training and support.
Now newly discovered oil and gas deposits in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania not only offer high profile targets for future headline-grabbing attacks but also risk disenfranchising the people who live near them even further as land values escalate and jobs are offered to outsiders.
All of this indicates that a far more nebulous, flexible and fragmented form of violence may replace the strictly territorially rooted formations of Al Shabaab’s past.
It is their ability to link the specifically local with the transnational imagining of a transcendent, reinvented and victimised Ummah that is central to the recruitment power of ISIS.
A continuation of the highly discredited, top-down, ‘War-on-Terror’ approach will only exacerbate these problems and needs to be replaced by a more nuanced, locally-based, non-sectarian understanding.
A new approach needs to reconstruct the relations of information production so that citizens are both protected and seen as allies and not the ‘bandits’ of the past.
In this framing of the story through the war-on-terror lens, instant experts, politicised government approaches to radicalisation and foreign and local media all collude to play the role of town crier. The war-on-terror is good for business and it boosts careers too.
The genie is half-way out of the bottle in Africa, a second, potentially marginalised generation is in the wings and only a radical change of approach now stands any chance of putting it back in any constructive form.
For a background introduction to Kenya’s violent Islamist groups see my Al Jazeera article here
This article was originally posted on the author’s blog digitadjeli.com.