11 May 2014

After Westgate, Kenya goes to war against al-Shabaab

Africa Correspondent

Since the Westgate shopping mall attacks, many Kenyans now live in fear. But the government’s anti-terror crackdown has angered many Muslims, some of whom have flocked to al-Shabaab.

The worsening security situation in Kenya is very worrying. The al-Shabaab assault on the Westgate shopping mall in 2013, which resulted in the deaths of 67 people, grabbed international headlines, but it wasn’t the first.

Grenade attacks and other bombings have become commonplace since the Kenyan army invaded Somalia in 2011. Only last week both Nairobi and Mombasa were struck. The Somali terrorist group was accused by Kenya of being behind both these recent attacks, even though the group has not claimed responsibility.

In response to the attacks, thousands of Somalis in Kenya have been rounded up, imprisoned and some deported to Mogadishu. In response, human rights groups have urged a stop to the crackdown: “Kenyan police and other security agencies should stop arbitrary arrests and detentions, extortion, and other abuses against Somalis”.

In the coastal region, mostly populated by Muslims, law enforcement agencies are accused of intimidation, arrest and extrajudicial killings.

Assassination campaign

Sheikh Abubakar Sharif, known as Makaburi, who was killed last month, was the latest in an on-going assassination campaign that’s targeting high-profile Muslim clerics in Kenya. It came days after a top government official announced “a shoot to kill order on all terrorism suspects”.

Makaburi, who had defended al-Shabaab terrorist attacks on Kenyans, was the third high-profile Muslim figure to be shot dead in less than two years. No one claimed responsibility for the killings. Kenyan authorities say the crackdown is part of a necessary campaign to counter the threat of al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists like al-Shabaab.

However, the on-going battle looks like a scenario which an al-Shabaab commander described to me in 2010. He was talking about “how to win a war”. Back then, the Islamist fighters were in control of most of southern and central Somalia. Kenya and al-Shabab had a mutual understanding: “Don’t touch me, I won’t touch you.”

Both parties had something to lose. All that has now changed. Kenyan forces are in Somalia while al-Shabaab and affiliated groups are active in Kenya. They are now at war.

Why did al-Shabaab strike at the heart of Kenya's capital?

To explain al-Shabaab’s long-term strategy, the commander used an animal analogy. “Do you watch animal programmes on television?” he asked me. I nodded.

“You sometimes see a lion bringing down an elephant and killing it. That proves size doesn’t always determine the winner.

“We are not as bag as our enemies, but with the right tactics we can win the war. We need to choose the weakest one, isolate, confuse and just follow what lions do.”

Animal inspiration

Who would have thought al-Shabaab fighters watch animal programmes to get inspiration?

The commander said their aim was to destroy Kenya’s tourism sector – and hoped it would have a knock-on effect. “There will be less money to pay soldiers and buy weapons to fight us. Unemployment will rise. There will be crisis. Eventually the elephant will get tired and give up the fight.”

He added that in his view, al-Shabaab had a stronger will to fight than any of its enemies. “How long can Kenya fight? Ten, 20 or even say 30 years. We will last longer.”

Exclusive: inside an al-Shabaab training camp

Back in 2010, the whole idea sounded far-fetched to me, but looking back, some of the signs are already there, with them stating that they would go for attacks on soft targets – not only direct hits against the Kenyan army.

Now Kenyans live in real fear of terrorist attacks aimed at their resorts, shopping centres and children. You cannot enter a public place without security checks. The atmosphere is so tense that Somalis – 900,000 of whom live in Kenya – are now feared.

Kenya’s tourism sector, second largest source of foreign exchange, is at risk of being badly affected by the insecurity.


The government’s response to the terrorism threat is a crackdown that has angered many Muslims and as a result, some people are joining the Islamists.

During my last trip to the al-Shabaab heartland, in December 2013, I saw fresh recruits from Kenya, who told me that they no longer feel safe in Kenya because of anti-Muslim sentiment, and that they had turned to al-Shabaab to acquire fighting skills and then go back to Kenya and fight. In their words, to “liberate our land”.

Al-Shabaab strategists probably feel they have isolated the target. That’s Kenya. In turn, the Kenyan government appears not to know how to deal effectively with the challenges.

Will Kenya be the elephant that got tired and fell? Or will al-Shabaab be the lion that is kicked to death? I would have loved to ask the commander about that but he’s already fallen.