Kenya fight against Shabab shifts to its own backyard

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY STE­FAN SMITH

From hit and run at­tacks and mas­sacres to a shop­ping trip, So­mali-led Shabab mil­i­tants are on the march in north­east­ern Kenya.

With large num­bers of troops in south­ern So­ma­lia but seem­ingly un­able to ef­fec­tively po­lice its own outer re­gions, Kenya must re­act quickly to stop the al-Qaida-af­fil­i­ated Is­lamists from gain­ing sig­nif­i­cant ground and find­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of re­cruits, West­ern se­cu­rity of­fi­cials say.

“The So­ma­lia theatre is no longer of in­ter­est to the Shabab,” a West­ern se­cu­rity source told AFP.

“They’ve been de­feated there. They are los­ing mo­men­tum, and their rare op­er­a­tions there don’t get much me­dia at­ten­tion. It’s the op­po­site in Kenya, where they have found a new play­ground for their ji­had, a new source of re­cruits and a very strong po­ten­tial to desta­bi­lize.”

The up­surge in cross-bor­der at­tacks and the emer­gence of Kenya-based Shabab cells is now Kenya’s num­ber-one se­cu­rity headache, and a strate­gic blow given that it de­ployed troops into south­ern So­ma­lia in 2011 in the hope they would serve as a buf­fer and pro­tect the long, por­ous bor­der.

In­stead, Shabab units — hunted by African Union troops and U.S. drones in­side So­ma­lia — have flanked the Kenyan con­tin­gent to mount a string of grue­some cross-bor­der raids.

In the Man­dera re­gion, 28 pas­sen­gers were dragged from a bus and ex­e­cuted late last year. Days later, 36 quarry work­ers were pulled from their tents at night and mur­dered.

In Garissa, just half a day’s drive from the cap­i­tal Nairobi, a small group of gun­men stormed the town’s uni­ver­sity in April and mas­sa­cred nearly 150 stu­dents dur­ing a day-long siege.

Fill­ing the Vac­uum

While the heavy death tolls and high-pro­file at­tacks grab the head­lines, se­cu­rity sources say that a se­ries of low pro­file, non-deadly op­er­a­tions — dur­ing which the mil­i­tants briefly fill the space left va­cant by the Kenyan se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus — are equally wor­ry­ing.

Last month the mil­i­tants en­tered a vil­lage in Garissa County and de­liv­ered a hard-line ser­mon to a cap­tive au­di­ence be­fore with­draw­ing unhindered.

This week, sus­pected Shabab mem­bers moved into a vil­lage in Man­dera County, an­other im­pov­er­ished bor­der re­gion, forc­ing schools to close and some res­i­dents to flee, the Na­tion news­pa­per re­ported.

The pa­per

said

the gun­men

chat­ted with res­i­dents who re­mained in the vil­lage, and even shopped for goats.

“It’s a re­peat of the strat­egy of AQIM (Al-Qaida in the Is­lamic Maghreb),” com­mented an­other West­ern se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, point­ing to the growth strat­egy of the Is­lamists in the Sa­hara, no­tably into north­ern Mali.

He said there was an ur­gent need for the Kenyan gov­ern­ment to re­assert its con­trol over the bor­der re­gion — point­ing to the fact that many paved bor­der cross­ings were sim­ply un­manned.

There are signs Kenya’s lead­er­ship may be tak­ing stock of the shift in Shabab strat­egy, and that the ques­tion of pulling out of So­ma­lia — up to now dis­missed as akin to giv­ing in to ter­ror­ism — may at least be up for dis­cus­sion.

To­ward a So­ma­lia exit strat­egy?

Quoted by Cap­i­tal FM news on Tues­day, the chair­man of the Kenyan Se­nate’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity and For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, Yusuf Ha­jji, sig­naled that an exit strat­egy was no longer taboo.

“The aim is to come up with a ‘white pa­per’ that will de­tail a strat­egy on how to fight in­se­cu­rity in Kenya,” he was quoted as say­ing, adding the plan would also in­clude mea­sures to “de- rad­i­cal­ize youth” in the im­pov­er­ished, Mus­lim- ma­jor­ity bor­der re­gions.

He nev­er­the­less stressed that any pull-out from So­ma­lia was de­pen­dent on Kenya’s African Union troop-con­tribut­ing part­ners, ac­cord­ing to Cap­i­tal FM, and no­tably the pos­si­bil­ity of find­ing an­other coun­try that could take Kenya’s place in south­ern So­ma­lia.

Even if it can re­de­ploy sig­nif­i­cant man­power to the bor­der re­gion, Kenya also faces an up­hill task in win­ning over hearts and minds.

Kenyan po­lice said ear­lier this week they were in­ves­ti­gat­ing pho­tos posted on so­cial me­dia — al­legedly by a se­nior mem­ber of the force — that ap­pear to show of­fi­cers mer­ci­lessly whip­ping a group of young So­mali men in Garissa County with a rub­ber hose.

Lo­cal MP Ab­dikadir Ore said such in­ci­dents were com­mon­place, and the rea­son why Kenya’s fight against Is­lamic ex­trem­ism “can­not be won” with­out a ma­jor change in the con­duct of it se­cu­rity forces.

“How will the se­cu­rity agen­cies ex­pect the lo­cal peo­ple to work with them while they tor­ture peo­ple in this man­ner?” said Khalif Abdi, co­or­di­na­tor of the North-Eastern Fo­rum for Democ­racy.

“What will stop the vic­tims from har­bor­ing re­sent­ment against their gov­ern­ment, and hav­ing a soft heart for ter­ror­ists?”

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