Overcoming al-Shabaab in Kenya


By Nick Haslam

The recent killing of 36 people in a mine in Mandera in north-eastern Kenya is only the latest in a series of terrorist acts meted out by al-Shabaab.

Since the notorious Westgate attack in Nairobi in September 2013, al-Shabaab has unleashed a wave of atrocities in Kenya, particularly in the north-east and coastal regions. Exploiting ethnic and political tensions, it and its affiliates have stepped up recruitment along the Kenyan coast and continued to cement their presence in Nairobi and parts of the Somali border. Many new recruits are Kenyan nationals. So what drives people to join the Somalia-born Islamist extremist group? What can be done to prevent them doing so? The possible solutions shed light on what the role of development actors might be in countering violent extremism in Kenya and around the world.

The reasons why people globally sign up to violent and extremist movements are complex, and Kenyan recruitment to al-Shabaab is no exception. Skewed governance, a heavy-handed police response – including raids, corralling and targeting of ethnic minorities – and corruption can and do play a part. A sense of historical injustice exists in zones of the country that have had little investment.

Political neglect and feelings of ethnic and religious discrimination, of Somalis and Muslims in particular, are rife along the coast and in the north-east. Such sentiments are now stoked by Kenya’s military presence in Somalia and the Government’s clampdown on radical Islamic mosques.

Economic factors are influential, but only when relative; when people perceive they are worse off than those around them. Poverty alone is rarely enough to push an individual towards al-Shabaab.

Conversely, Kenyans are also ‘pulled’ into radical Islam by their friends and peers and by a sense of belonging. In a survey of Kenyan al-Shabaab recruits carried out by the Institute of Security Studies, in 39% of cases friends played the most active part in recruitment and 87% reported feeling part of a group. Religious ideology is, of course, paramount, often serving to translate a local radical agenda into a universal rallying cause. In the same survey, 87% of Kenyan recruits admitted to joining for religious reasons, and many of them had been approached by a Muslim figure of some importance.

It is clear that drivers of radicalisation are often, in fact, development challenges as well – and there are ways to combat them. Police repression and corruption can be tackled through security sector reform. Increased civil society and government dialogue can help create middle ground between polarising forces and the space to air grievances without resorting to violence.

Government communications could likewise bolster a faltering social contract. Tolerant Islamic institutions with a strong voice might offer a counter-narrative to that put forward by al-Shabaab – and, preferably, a rejection of the latter’s ideology. Lastly, economic adversity is particularly amenable to improvements in job creation and vocational education.

None of it will be easy: countering violent extremism generally takes place in a fraught and highly sensitive environment. The political and social divisions on which radical Islam draws run deep and may stand in the way of a rapprochement between opposing sides. Attempts to overhaul the relationship of the Kenyan police with citizens in an understandably security conscious country could run into opposition within the security establishment. It goes without saying that anything seen as Western ‘meddling’ in Muslim affairs would have unintended, and largely negative, consequences.

The particular nature of countering violent extremism interventions also requires a departure from the development norm, meaning that donors and implementing organisations may need to get used to a revised modus operandi. Programming needs to be based on a thorough grasp of politics, religion and society and to take into account the tensions that exist across all these areas. Development actors must accept a higher level of risk and be willing to partner with unconventional individuals and/or outfits.

Above all, initiatives need to be quick to react, to be flexible to success or failure, to be patient, and to target the right parts of the population and country. All of these should be reflected in results frameworks.

Kenya is neither Nigeria nor Syria, and al-Shabaab is not equivalent to Boko Haram or the Islamic State. Drivers of radicalisation, and the response to them, vary country by country, and generally within countries as well. But similarities between them offer up lessons for how best to counter violent extremism. Tolo TV, for example, was supported by USAID to become an influential moderate voice in Afghanistan, whilst in West Africa informal associations of young people (known as fadas) have proved effective at channelling grievances and easing government engagement with the public arena.

For Kenya to prevent more Mandera-style attacks and get to grips with its domestic terror threat will require sustained, responsive and equitable development. Well-researched, realistic and adaptive development programming to counter violent extremism will have an important role to play in preventing al-Shabaab from establishing a full-blown regional insurgency.