8 Apr 2015

Al-Shabaab: breeding fear among Kenya’s Christians

Africa Correspondent

Al-Shabaab is using the aftermath of its deadly Garissa university attack to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians and destabilise Kenya.

Following the Garissa University attack last week, al-Shabaab leaders believe they are winning the war against Kenya.

They are using a strategy that they feel is working for them: divide and conquer – one of the oldest arts of war, often used by powerful nations.

This latest assault was the deadliest attack by al-Shabaab inside Kenya.

In September 2013, they murdered 67 people at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, followed by Mpeketoni last year where 60 were killed. Weeks later, Islamist gunmen executed 28 passengers after ambushing a bus from Mandera that was heading to Nairobi.

During each attack, the attackers separated Muslims from Christians and shot dead those who did not subscribe to the same beliefs as them.

Their main objective is to create fear amongst Christians and force them to flee.

“Christians must leave Muslim lands,” al-Shabaab told me. They want Muslims in Christian areas to do the same. It’s an attempt to drive Kenya apart and it appears to be working.

Living in fear

After the Mandera attack in November 2014, hundreds of Kenyan Christians fled the predominantly Muslim area in the north east.

Even civil servants like teachers and doctors refused to work in the region fearing for their safety. In Garissa, we are seeing similar stories.

While politicians emphasise their common interests as Kenyans and want to show a united front, behind the scenes there’s mistrust. This is nothing new.

Muslims in the north east have historical grievances against the government and especially the army. Events such as the Wagala massacre, where thousands of Muslims were killed in 1984, makes the locals regard the military as an enemy.

Meanwhile, Kenyan Christians view the army as their protectors. It is this conflicting perspective that al-Shabaab is exploiting.

The main message can be gleaned from recent propaganda videos issued by the group that are aimed at Kenyan Muslims: “You have suffered enough under a Christian-led country and we are coming to rescue you.”

The Kenyan security forces’ reaction to al-Shabaab’s attacks is playing a big part. Authorities carry out security crackdowns in Muslim dominated parts of the country.

This angers many young Muslim men who find the al-Shabaab messages appealing. Heavy handedness by the authorities increases recruits wanting to “join the jihad”.

This strategy of divide and conquer is a relatively new one for al-Shabaab.

Previously, the terror attacks were perpetrated under the banner of “punishment” against perceived crimes the Kenyan military had committed in Somalia.

Now they see that widening the pre-existing divide between Muslims and Christians as an efficient and cost effective way to forward their agenda.

Since the university attack, security in Garissa has been tightened. There is a visible military presence and a curfew from sunset to sunrise. There are also reports of military violence against civilians.

This can only separate the two communities further.