Kenya: KDF must review Somalia strategy to tackle Al Shabaab – By Ben Rawlence

BenRawlenceAl-Shabaab strikes again. With the security services seemingly unable to protect Kenyans, it is time to reflect on strategy. In the commotion since last week’s brutal murder in Mandera, much ink was spilled in outrage at the hopelessness of the security services and at the callousness of absent politicians. More will no doubt now follow. But, once gain, I am sure, little attention will be paid to trying to understand the attacks themselves beyond a lazy assumption that al-Shabaab is ‘evil’ and that they want to incite religious war for the sake of it. Such attitudes will not take Kenya very far. What is al-Shabaab’s strategic goal? And what is Kenya’s strategy to counter it?

First let’s take a look at what the terrorists themselves are saying. Survivors of Westgate quoted their attackers as saying, “You are killing our people in Somalia now it is your turn.” The notice justifying the attack on Mpeketoni included as its second point, “the massacre of innocent Muslims in Somalia.” A survivor of the Mandera bus attack reported the gunmen making similar claims, and now al-Shabaab’s statement following the quarry murders states they are “a response to Kenya’s occupation of Muslim lands and their atrocities therein.”

Given the centrality of the Kenyan occupation and the killings of civilians inside Somalia in al-Shabaab’s justifications for reprisals against innocent Kenyans, it is surprising and alarming that the debate has focused so little on these facts. In three years since the Kenyan invasion of Somalia in October 2011, through a mixture of fear and complacency, no journalist or human rights organisation has attempted to visit Somalia to investigate. To do so is entirely possible and absolutely necessary so that Kenyans can begin to assess whether the KDF’s Somalia adventure is worth the price being paid by ordinary citizens.

Every military intervention is inevitably accompanied by human rights violations. The question is, how bad is it? Anecdotal evidence from returning KDF officers suggests atrocities and collective punishment have been widespread. We have seen how the security forces treat Kenyan citizens even in the full glare of the media spotlight; in the twilight of a foreign country against a people whom the government is happy to vilify, who knows what horrors they can commit?

This leads to a second question: are the abuses being dealt with fairly and promptly in a way that does not undermine the military and political objective? This is important. Senior US commanders are currently wondering in public about whether drone strikes “create more terrorists than they kill.” Recent research published by the rights group Reprieve in the UK showed that for 41 one men targeted by US drones in Pakistan and Yemen, 1147 people were killed. 

Kenyan airstrikes (and US drones) have killed hundreds of people in Somalia. But no one knows, least of all the KDF, how many of them were innocent civilians. How are we to assess the terrifyingly imprecise claims of the KDF that, in response to the Mandera bus killings, air strikes killed 20, 50, 45 “militants”? And what of the Vice President’s vague boast of killing “over a hundred”?

These numbers matter. More than once NATO mistakenly bombed weddings in Afghanistan and Yemen – incidents which resulted in major investigations, millions of dollars in compensation and months of confidence building. How confident is the KDF that last week it did not unleash the equivalent of 4 Manderas on innocent Somalis? And why should the Kenyan public trust their version of events? Innocent victims whether of terrorist attacks or collateral damage from air strikes have the same value and must be counted – and accounted for.

This core grievance, plus the police excesses against muslims and refugees within Kenya (which everyone knows is counterproductive and yet which apparently no one can stop) are central to al-Shabaab’s strategy: it is pursuing growth; in territory, income and followers.

Since Westgate, al-Shabaab attacks have been distinguished by the separation of Muslims and Christians. This is not a war against Christians rather, as the French scholar Gilles Keppel put it over a decade ago, it is “a battle for Muslim minds.” The very specific focus of the Mandera attack on teachers, and the reported urging of them not to come back after the school holidays brings to Kenya one of al-Shabaab’s signature policies in Somalia: the attack on secular education. Like Boko Haram in Nigeria, whose very names means “secular education is haram”, al-Shabaab well understands that its capacity to radicalise relies on eliminating the possibility for young minds to be formed in anything other than a religious context: the religious self, not a secular one, is their goal.

While al-Shabaab appears to have a clear strategy, the KDF does not. The Kenyan government is a victim of its own lies and hubris: there is no peace in southern Somalia, there never was. Instead, it appears that since the 2011 invasion, Operation Linda Nchi has amounted to little more than a financial accommodation with al-Shabaab on the charcoal trade punctuated by spasms of indiscriminate vengeance every time there is an attack inside Kenya. Both activities fuelling the growth of al-Shabaab in terms of rhetoric and cash. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that Kenyan lives are being lost to pay for the greed of senior military and political figures.

So, what now?

Firstly, if the KDF cannot define and execute a clear military and political strategy for bringing peace to southern Somalia beyond making money and propping up Ahmed Madobe, it should withdraw.

Second, the government must invest in, and protect, North East Province before it’s too late. The dire service provision in NEP is a scandal that should not have been allowed to persist for so long. The state and the rest of Kenya must stand with the embattled communities of NEP, not abandon them as some union leaders and Moses Kuria have suggested. Otherwise, Kenya may assume other Nigerian characteristics such as al-Shabaab moving into swathes of north eastern Kenya that have been abandoned by a terrified state.

Ben Rawlence is working on a book about Dadaab refugee camp and is the author of “Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War” (2012).


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10 thoughts on “Kenya: KDF must review Somalia strategy to tackle Al Shabaab – By Ben Rawlence

  1. There are so many statements that are wrong with this article that I do not know where to begin. Disclaimer, I am not a Kenya Government bot and do take everything I am told with a grain of salt.

    First, KDF has a strategy it’s just that you do not know it. To assume that they are in Somalia without one is plain foolish.

    Second, It seems like you favour the Al-Shabaab version of events especially regarding airstrikes. You do not have to believe the KDF version of events but Somali reporters do report the airstrikes as they happen confirming what KDF is doing. Even as I write this, a KDF plane has crashed near Kismayo. Al-Shabaab claims to have shot it down. How did they get this ability at this time especially when they have no access to any port for them to bring the weapons? Why did they not shoot the planes down earlier since KDF has dominated the airspace over Somalia?

    Third, very little of Southern Somali is under Al-Shabaab especially after Godane was killed. They have been kicked out of the major towns and their economic lifelines. Please note this trend started after KDF invaded Somali and joining AMISOM forcing Al-Shabaab to concentrate it’s terror efforts on Kenya. It favours Al-Shabaab to claim, that KDF is not battle hardened and yet they will not face them in a face to face battle. Just look at the number of KDF soldiers that have died in battle in Somalia.

    Fourth, the Government has not abandoned North Eastern Province. This are loud mouth Union leaders and activists who are urging people to leave. This is not the first time that North Eastern Province has been involved in serious fighting “forcing” non Somalis to leave. It happened right after independence and lasted almost two years before the area was brought under control.

  2. Dear, Ben, you are an Alshabaab sympathizer. Your argument is biased and skewed towards Alshaabs and Muslims in general. Your article is not only full of propaganda and misinformed point of view but narrow thinking, shallowly speculative and absolute nonsense. Kenyan government MUST investigate you. I have strong conviction that you are an appendage of Alshabaab.

    When you say that KDF should withdraw what do you mean? KDF has no strategy??But alshabaab have??? Are you sure? Which part of Kenya do you come from??? Your gossip about KDF killing civilians in the cross fire could be exonerated. But you have no facts. So stop misinforming the people.
    “….The Kenyan government is a victim of its own lies and hubris…..” you are a legendary fool.

    Kenya is in Somali for a bigger course. To flush out radicalized Muslims who have reduced Somali to a failed state. We believe in egalitarianism. We love Muslims and they are our brothers and sisters. In Kenya we live with them side by side and we have overlapping identities. Go to market places, go to universities and you will see Muslims dine with Kenyas. We are the MOST generous country in Africa. The majority speaker in Kenyan parliament Aden Nduale is a Muslim. And many senior political leaders are Muslims. This demonstrates our commitment to fairness and inclusiveness. What a hell are you talking about??

    Since Kenyan government went to Somali, there is lots of order In Somali. The Mandera killings are the last kicks of a dying horse. You should be writing articles that rallies the world against extremists.

    Dear, readers, don’t regard what Ben the propagandist is saying. He is out of touch with Kenyas Government strategies on terrorist! He lives in a fantasy world! He should do in-depth research before spewing up garbage.

  3. I congratulate the author of this piece for demonstrating a deep understanding of the troublesome situation that Kenyan invasion and occupation of Somalia created. His analysis illustrate a grasp of the political complexities in the region beyond ignorant headlines that Kenyan and other journalists feed to unsuspecting public. It is a fact that before the Kenyan ill-advised invasion of Somalia, Al-Shabab was not killing Kenyan civilians. The other fact is that Kenyan troops killed hundreds of innocent Somali civilians and mistreated and even tortured others. Videos showing Kenyan troops torturing Somali civilians is abundant in the net. Kenyan troops became part of the Somali political problem by supporting a warlord against another and by alienating Somali government and the community in the occupied region. The corruption in Kenyan commanders and political leaders is well documented. For example, United Nations reported that Kenyan troops are actively involved in illegal charcoal export. For the sake of Somali and Kenyan civilians who are victims of this war, Kenyan troops should immediately withdraw from Somalia and should be replaced by troops from other neutral countries like Uganda and Burundi.

  4. The two comments criticizing the author seem to be Kenyan government officials. However, their criticisms of the author are not based on facts or good arguments. One accuses the author of supporting Al-shabab, because the author dared to tell Kenyan people that their government is economical with the truth. Kenyan troops did not go to Somalia to help the Somali people but for their own interest. At the time of the invasion, many experts predicted that the invasion would backfire and could strengthen Al-shabab, that seems to be exactly what is happening. Instead of attacking the messenger, it is better for the Kenyan government and the international community to look at the situation and take a decision based on facts and good judgement. I think the author is right that Kenyan government went into Somalia without giving proper though about the consequences.

  5. Dear all, i too agree with Mr Ben Rawlence . I have lived and worked in Dadaab Refugee Camp for a while now. My point of information to them gullible Kenyans who believe in totality the government justifications as to why they went to pursue Al shabab in Somalia s that,

    Truth be told, the incursion was never for the safety of the ordinary Kenyan rather it was because of selfish interests . Mr Gichui an NGO Worker with CARE INTERNATIONAL, was abducted way before the incursion and the government remained non committal , the media ? never even talked about it.
    All in all, the biggest enemy we ought be fighting is corruption in the police force and tackle this quagmire with sobriety it deserves. The government remains clueless so is their gullible citizens. Lets critically analyse to Ben’s suggestions . Big up Ben.

  6. This article is full of speculation and facts, desktop journalism at it’s best. If you feel that KDF is committing atrocities in Somalia, then do what journalist do, pack your bags and head for Kismaayo! Commercial flights are now available from Wilson direct to Kismaayo airport.. thanks to the “evil” KDF

  7. I have refrained from commenting but CGITOSH demands a reply. The anecdotal evidence I speak about is not small. I have interviewed dozens of people robbed, raped, beaten by KDF in Somalia, and dozens more victims of airstrikes – including several children who watched their mothers, sisters, fathers burned alive. And I have spoken to people who have served there with KDF who say that there is lots more we don’t know. If I can do that on my own then what can the Kenyan media houses do with all their resources and better contacts?

  8. “I have interviewed dozens of people robbed, raped, beaten by KDF in Somalia, and dozens more victims of airstrikes…”

    Oh! Ben! how long have you been in Africa again?

    If you don’t know it already, let me spell it to you my friend, that, you, simply by virtue of being a Mzungu, will never get anything out of any convoluted African situation such as the Kenya-Somali one, simply by walking in there and interviewing “victims”

    What you are doing here is propaganda for Al-shabab and their sympathisers.Just do me a quick favour and check up here and see the people that support your article(yup! feel free to spit out “bigot” any time).

    How sure are you of the victimhood of those purported “victims”? how sure are you that people were not fetched, oathed, threatened and lined up just for you,a mzungu, to “tell their story”? Don’t get me wrong, I have a background of living and working in the NEP. I know how these things go and I have seen somali refugees (and some kenyans) work the mzungus I worked with quite deftly to get exactly what they wanted, and time and again, the mzungus fell for it, especially the journalists and ngoesque types.

    All I have to say to you is be careful when you go out there as a Mzungu reporting on African issues. Even when you try to be impartial, alas, your skin colour will always go before you and might even hamper your quest to find the truth in Africa. I have seen two kinds of mzungu journalists in my time on this planet: the one that goes into Africa with their minds made up of what the story is going to be (often a negative storyline) and simply looks for “facts to back it up. The other one is the type that has an open mind and a good heart and, alas! quite gullible to the wiles of their “news items”.

    Second point, as a Kenyan, I would like you to tell me on a future article if you please, what you would like us to do about the cross border violence that had become the norm thanks to various somali formations (from clan warloads to present day alshabab). Should we kenyans just be good infidels and allow ourselves to be slaughtered at will without trying to defend ourselves? is that your point? because if it is, I find it quite offensive and hypocritical as no serious government on earth would stand for that.

    As my friend cgitosh observes, the KDF have done a good job opening up some sane spaces in Somalia for you and your fellow mzungu journalists. Good luck on your journeys there!

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