The horrific attack on Garissa University in northeast Kenya on 2 April, which killed 142 students and six security officers, was claimed by Somalia-based Islamist group al-Shabaab. The attack was part of a strategy by al-Shabaab to encroach on Kenya. As the group loses territory and the capacity to carry out attacks freely in Somalia, leaders of the group appear to be looking increasingly toward Kenya as a new theatre of operations. Effective responses to al-Shabaab's ideology as well as its presence and attacks in Kenya need to take into account what the group itself is saying in order to counter its narrative and appeal.
Al-Shabaab claims the attack was revenge for Kenyan military atrocities.
Following the attack on Garissa University, al-Shabaab released a statement claiming that the atrocities were in revenge for violence and atrocities committed in Somalia by the Kenyan military and in Kenya against its own Muslim citizens and refugees. Speaking directly to Kenyan citizens, al-Shabaab stated that because Kenya is a democracy, civilian blood is permissible and the state is responsible for Kenyan deaths. The gunmen's segregation of Muslims from Christians in the attack is also a deliberate attempt to personify the state as the enemy and as Christian, and to present themselves as a champion of Muslims across national borders, a protector against the persecution and marginalisation by the Kenyan state and security services. The attack is unjustifiable and reasoning convoluted. However, the lack of effective response by the state and security forces to al-Shabaab attacks (it took nearly seven hours for security forces to respond to the attack and more than 12 to take down four gunmen), and indiscriminate punishment of entire communities perceived to support al-Shabaab, does create a legitimacy vacuum into which al-Shabaab can move and grow.
Al-Shabaab has always maintained the responsibility of Muslims to protect Muslims as a core tenent of its ideology. Indeed, in its statement following the Garissa attack, al-Shabaab claimed a duty to "retaliate on behalf of their Muslim brothers" suffering under Kenyan military abuses. Kenyans already make up a quarter of al-Shabaab's 7-9,000 members in Somalia. It is logical that the group, having lost much of its capacity to hold territory and govern in Somalia, would look to Kenya as a new theatre of activity. However, to succeed in its expansion of activities to the country, it needs an environment receptive to its ideology and a vacuum of power to fill. A security-centric reaction to the attack, and the flight of non-Muslims from the northeast due to fears of insecurity, will only validate al-Shabaab's message, not destroy it. Instead, a nuanced and community-based approach that works with all citizens and residents, as people in need of protection and support would alleviate concerns of state persecution.
Kenyan security forces have not been effective in countering the group.
The group's intention, with some success, is to undermine the authority of Kenya's government and security services, and in the resulting vacuum of legitimacy, to gain the empathy, acquiescence and ultimately support of Kenya's Muslims. By exploiting latent, and in some cases not so latent, perceptions of Muslim victimhood in Kenya, al-Shabaab is driving a wedge between Kenyan Muslims (eight per cent of the population) and the rest of the nation, creating an 'other.' This is a hypocritical approach that the government, community and religious leaders would be wise to exploit. Somalia, where al-Shabaab originates and continues to conduct the majority of its attacks, is Muslim. Somali Muslims remain the main victims of al-Shabaab's brutality. The dual narrative used to recruit new support and gain new territory can be countered by using the voices of existing victims to build resilience in Kenya against the group's ideology, denying al-Shabaab a receptive environment for expansion.
The actions of Kenyan security forces and government in many cases, however, have not been effective in countering al-Shabaab's encroachment into Kenya. At times, state policies even exacerbate existing grievances. Following al-Shabaab's attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall in 2013, the security forces responded with Operation Usalama Watch, which committed widespread collective punishment against ethnic Somali Kenyans (six per cent of Kenya's population) and Somali refugees and immigrants (nearly 590,000 people, or 1.3 per cent of the population) that increased perceptions of persecution and marginalisation against Somalis in the country, and Muslims in general. Such policies are known to drive recruitment to al-Shabaab. In the wake of the Garissa attack, the government has already suspended money transfer systems on which poor, rural and refugee communities depend in the absence of development or employment opportunities in the region. While it is likely that some people in Kenya are supporting al-Shabaab via such systems, indiscriminate restrictions are likely to reinforce al-Shabaab's message that the government sees Muslims and Somalis as a fifth column.
The closure of Garissa University, announced within days of the attack, while understandable, is also likely counterproductive in the long term. The university was only opened in 2011 as part of an attempt to better integrate the northeast region – one of the poorest in Kenya – with the rest of the country. The loss of students, teachers and staff from around the country to the area, not to mention employment and education opportunities for locals, will be devastating. And the loss of alternative narratives, centred on the university, to the religious radicalisation and extremism espoused by al-Shabaab will aid the group's penetration of the region and further cleave it from the influence of the rest of Kenya.
The closure of Garissa University will be devestating to the community.
Kenya has a closing window of opportunity to reinforce a narrative of 'One Kenya' that is ethnically and religiously diverse, and integrated within its national borders. Al-Shabaab has promised that the Garissa attack, like those in Mandera in December 2014 and Westgate before that, are part of a war against the Kenyan state, where the victims are the civilians whom al-Shabaab holds responsible for the actions of the state. Al-Shabaab's strategy is to target perceptions and realities of economic and political marginalisation and persecution, coopting them into a narrative of religious repression that will create a space for itself in Kenya.