Countering Al-Shabaab’s narrative in Kenya’s fight against extremism

From: Berhane Habtemariam <>
Date: Tue, 14 Apr 2015 22:30:10 +0200

Countering Al-Shabaab’s narrative in Kenya’s fight against extremism

– By Ngala Chome

NgalaChomeIn March 2015, several months after the Kenyan coastal town of Mpeketoni and neighbouring villages were brutally attacked, the Somalia-based armed group, Al-Shabaab, released a video of the attack on Youtube. In what seemed like a direct retaliation to previous Kenyan government responses to terror, the video sharply discredited the government’s claim that the attack was not staged by Al-Shabaab, but by “local political networks”. The video has since been deleted, but its main import seemed to be the projection of a well thought-out, manipulative propaganda strategy that sought to justify violent tactics, propagate an extremist ideology and win new recruits. In this way, the video added to an existing series of online and offline platforms through which Al-Shabaab members, recruiters and sympathisers have constructed a narrative that has gained traction amongst a section of Kenya’s young Muslim population.

Since the brutal attack on a university campus in Kenya’s northern town of Garissa, much discussion in local and international media has put an emphasis on the untimely response to the attack by Kenya’s security agencies, and of the general lack of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. While a broad campaign for a more adaptive and effective strategy is justified and proper, we ought not to assume that this would be sufficient in reducing the threat of terror more broadly. Glaringly absent in this discussion is the obvious lack of possession by the Kenyan government, religious institutions, the media and civil society organisations, of a narrative to counter the one that has been employed by Al-Shabaab and its affiliates in Kenya.

What narrative is Al-Shabaab employing to recruit more Kenyans and what narrative can Kenya use to counter it?

The Garissa University attack has, more than any other, invited us to consider these questions with greater urgency. One of the gunmen, Abdilrahim Mohamed, who has been described as an “ordinary-looking guy”, was not unemployed, disenfranchised or uneducated. Rather, he was a trained lawyer and an intern in a local bank. His father is a government chief, an integral part of the local structure of the Kenyan government in Garissa County.

Abdirahim’s story teaches us at least three key lessons. First, that the commonly-held belief that Al-Shabaab recruits only from disenfranchised and marginalised youth is faulty. Second, the view that radicalisation happens to someone, rather than it being a process the radicalised actively chooses to participate in. Last and perhaps most important, we cannot persist in viewing Al-Shabaab as an external threat to Kenya’s peace, but as a manifestation of the impact of unaddressed local grievances. It is under the latter context that Al-Shabaab has successfully taken advantage of Kenya’s existing fault lines to draw membership (and sympathy) to its side.

Before Al-Shabaab became a force in Kenya there existed multiple groups that in one way or the other sought to channel similar grievances. The most well-known of these outfits include the unregistered Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK) that was formed in the early 1990s in Mombasa and the banned Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) that drew media attention during 2012 and 2013.

The effort by Al-Shabaab to make use of existing fault lines  was seen after the Mpeketoni attack and in the subsequent video that was prepared and released by its propaganda machine. Through this attack, where close to 90 people were killed, Al-Shabaab carefully re-packaged coastal and Somali grievances against the Kenyan state. For instance, reference was made to the Shifta Wars of the 1960s – when Kenya’s first independence government was fighting an insurgency in Kenya’s North-Eastern province –the perceived loss of coastal land to ‘outsiders’, the massacre of Kenyan Somalis by the country’s security forces in the 1980s, the arrests, torture and elimination of Muslim clerics (a trend that began in earnest during the 1990s), and an operation against ‘illegal immigrants’ in Eastleigh in 2014 that was marked by serious human rights violations.

These events have been represented by Al-Shabaab and its Kenyan affiliates as evidence of systematic discrimination against Muslims. To make the memories of these events more potent they have been tied to international events occurring in the wider Islamic world. The circulation of a narrative of Muslim persecution has correlated with increased demand for fiery rhetoric through sermons in Kenyan mosques. Most significantly, this has been backed by evidence of government responses to acts of terror that, more often than not, prove to be counter-productive.

The result (and reality) is that we are currently faced with a collection of discursive repertoires found in DVDs of sermons that are readily accessible, online platforms run in the name of ‘cyber-sheikhs’ and the well-known Al-Shabaab affiliate publication Gaidi Mtaani (terrorist in the neighbourhood); all of which glorify and justify the killing of non-Muslims as ‘jihad’. In sum, Al-Shabaab’s use of indiscriminate violence in Kenya and in Somalia has been supported by a compelling narrative that authorises its strategy, justifies its violent tactics, propagates its ideology and wins new recruits.

In the last decade, the question “What could be an effective counter-narrative to win the ‘battle of ideas’ with those vulnerable to Al-Qaeda’s narrative?” has often been asked in the global arena as military and hard counter-terrorism strategies have remained largely unsuccessful. Counter-narratives are attempts to challenge extremist and violent extremist messages, whether directly or indirectly through a range of online and offline means. But for this to happen, we need to understand the narrative of the violent extremist organisation. Terrorism should be understood more in terms of communication and propaganda, rather than merely in terms of (political) violence.

In Kenya, most people know almost nothing about Somalia, let alone Al-Shabaab. The school curriculum only focuses on the history of a few select African countries other than Kenya. Mainstream Kenya is only nominally secular. Its social and political culture is infused with Christian language and imagery, and this relates to a general ignorance (and sometimes outward contempt) towards Islam and Muslim communities. As a result, many look the other way (or support) when Muslim clerics are carefully eliminated, and when collective punishment of the Somali community (rape, exhortation, assault, concentration camps) is conducted. Kenyan scholar Keguro Macharia noted in The East African in 2013 that “forms of surveillance that [Kenyans] practice on each other; in the expressions of contempt toward Somalis… […] In the forms of economic jealousy expressed against Somali-owned businesses and residential areas; in the re-consolidation of Christianity as state religion…in the state-sanctioned acts of violence… all in the name of ‘safeguarding’ Kenya”.

It is this current state of affairs that needs a re-examination, in addition to and in complementing intelligence efforts and effective counter-terrorism measures. Existing fault-lines need to be bridged, historical injustices genuinely addressed; and alliances with respectable members of the Muslim community made so as to promote the already existing form of Islam that has always been peaceful and tolerant. The latter can, and will act as a buffer against growing radical ideologies originating from outside the region.

Ngala Chome is a private research consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Received on Tue Apr 14 2015 - 16:30:10 EDT

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