Al-Shabaab and the Exploitation of Kenya’s Religious Divide

Yesterday’s brutal execution of 36 non-Muslim quarry workers in Kenya seemed to follow the same horrific script as was seen on November 22, when a passenger bus en route from the northeastern town of Mandera to Nairobi was ambushed on a stretch of highway near the settlement of Omar Jillo. The heavily armed assailants, who were later confirmed as members of the al-Shabaab group, commandeered the passenger bus and attempted to drive it across the border to neighboring Somalia. After the vehicle became stuck on a section of the waterlogged highway, passengers were ordered to disembark and were subsequently divided into two separate groups. Those who were perceived to be Muslim were released unharmed. A group of 28 passengers, all of whom were Christian, were ordered to lie face down and were executed.

Speaking to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Kenyan Presidential Adviser Abdikadir Mohammed provided his government’s assessment on the Mandera bus attack. “The aim is to create conflict between the Muslims and the non-Muslims in this country. The aim is to create a religious war, religious strife, in Kenya.”

One would be hard-pressed to disagree with Mohammed’s assertion. The quarry massacre was the latest mass casualty attack by al-Shabaab in Kenya where victims were differentiated according to their religious orientation. In two of the group’s deadliest attacks in Kenya to date, namely the September 2013 raid on the Westgate Shopping Complex in Nairobi and the more recent incursion on the Lamu County settlement of Mpeketoni, victims were religiously profiled based on their identification cards and/or their ability to recite Quranic texts.

But while al-Shabaab’s recent actions may be indicative of a group attempting to stoke religious tensions in Kenya, this shifting strategy has not been formulated in a vacuum.

Kenya’s Muslim community, which accounts for around 11 percent of the population, has long claimed socio-political and economic discrimination by Kenya’s Christian dominated government. A May 2013 report published by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC)—an independent transitional justice organization created in 2008 to retrospectively investigate human rights violations and historical injustices in post-independent Kenya—found that Kenya’s Muslim community faced institutional political, social, and economic discrimination. Predominantly Muslim-inhabited areas were found to be lagging behind in development due to an overt lack of both private and public investment.

The TJRC also found that Muslim representation in Kenya’s public sector, particularly at the level of policy and decision, was significantly low. Finally, the organization found that the country’s Muslim populace were often subject to undue discrimination, harassment, and distrust on both a governmental and societal level.

The already precarious plight of Kenya’s Muslim population would only worsen following Kenya’s cross-border military operations in neighboring Somalia. Muslims, particularly those of the Somali region, were claimed to be subject to various human rights abuses by domestic security agencies such as the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU). According to a report published by Human Rights Watch entitled Kenya: Killings, Disappearances by Anti-Terror Police, Kenyan Muslims were subject to abuses by the ATPU, which included extortion, harassment, arbitrary detentions, and intimidation.

However, among the most disconcerting allegations vested against the ATPU, was its reported involvement in the extrajudicial killings of suspected al-Shabaab operatives and/or sympathizers. The prominent of these were the targeted assassinations of a number of Islamic clerics, claimed by the government to be al-Shabaab ideologues, in the port city of Mombasa. Their murders were violently decried by Muslim youths who purported that their religion was being attacked by an antagonistic Christian-leaning government.

However, the nadir of Kenya’s increasingly discriminatory counterterrorism campaign would only be witnessed in late March 2014 amid the launch of a security operation codenamed ‘Operation Usalama Watch.’ The Kenyan government marketed the security initiative as a multi-faceted operation aimed at clamping down on illegal immigration, combating crime, and countering domestic terrorism. Despite its broad-based nature, however, Operation Usalama Watch was generally restricted to areas of the country with sizable immigrant, particularly Somali Muslim, populations.

At the operation’s conclusion, an estimated 4,000 people were incarcerated, the majority without charge, in conditions which, according to Amnesty International, violated the most basic human rights. When questioned about his thoughts on Operation Usalama Watch at a press conference in Nairobi, Maurice Odhiambo, the president of Kenya’s influential National Civil Society Congress pressure group, noted that “when such an important national security operation takes a partisan religious angle, we are worried Kenyans will splinter along religious lines.”

But is Kenya’s alleged marginalization and collective persecution of its Muslim constituent tangibly aiding al-Shabaab in achieving its potentially divisive religious agenda?

Although it remains difficult to provide both a qualitative and quantitative assessment of the level of support al-Shabaab enjoys among Kenya’s Muslim citizenry, there is evidence that discriminatory policies adopted by the Nairobi administration may be aiding the group in its local recruitment. In a report entitled Radicalisation in Kenya: Recruitment to al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Senior Researcher Anneli Botha details how the discriminatory nature of Kenya’s counterterrorism strategy was radicalizing and directing dozens, if not hundreds, of local Kenyans into the aforementioned organizations. Botha conducted a study in which 95 Kenyan-born al-Shabaab operatives, and a cohort of 45 MRC members, were questioned regarding their motivations for joining the respective armed groups.

In the case of al-Shabaab, Botha’s findings indicated that 65 percent of respondents cited Kenya’s counterterrorism policy as the primary factor which motivated them to join the Islamist group. Discussing her findings for the Daily Maverick, Botha noted that “radicalised individuals are identifying with something other than being Kenyan. It shows that radicalisation will increase as long as Kenyan citizens identify with an ethnic or religious identity that is perceived to be under threat.”

From the advent of the KDF’s counterinsurgency operations in Somalia, al-Shabaab has always vowed to bring the war to Kenya. In its initial phase, the militant group’s asymmetrical armed campaign in Kenyan territory could be defined as indiscriminate. Government facilities, security installations, public venues, in addition to both Christian and Muslim interests, were targeted as part of a strategy seemingly aimed at disrupting all facets of Kenyan life. Although the use of asymmetrical warfare has persisted, the methodology of the violence has evolved. By differentiating victims according to their religion, and citing attacks as being acts of vengeance for the perceived mistreatment of Kenyan Muslims, al-Shabaab’s current stratagem seems focused on widening already deep-rooted religious cleavages.

Disconcertingly, however, it appears that adaptation, as opposed to innovation, is driving al-Shabaab’s tactical shift. The group appears to be exploiting divisive and discriminatory policies haphazardly adopted by the Kenyan government as the panacea to the country’s domestic terrorism threat. The present context is serving only to lose hearts and minds of communities who are being collectively punished for the acts of a handful of extremists to whom, apart from their ethno-religious orientation, they have no discernible linkages. If the status quo persists, the religiously polarized Kenya which many have fearfully prophesized may well become reality.