Why Kenyans Shouldn’t Let the Terrorists Bait Them Into Overreacting

As Kenya struggles to cope with the aftermath of the Westgate Mall attack, one of the biggest problems the country will face is likely to come from within: its own thirst for revenge. Many experts have speculated about the motives behind the attack. The attackers themselves have assailed Nairobi’s active support for the African Union ...


As Kenya struggles to cope with the aftermath of the Westgate Mall attack, one of the biggest problems the country will face is likely to come from within: its own thirst for revenge.

Many experts have speculated about the motives behind the attack. The attackers themselves have assailed Nairobi’s active support for the African Union military mission in Somalia, demanding the withdrawal of Kenyan forces. Analysts note that al-Shabab’s influence within Somalia has been waning lately, and that this could have prompted it to stage the attack to demonstrate its continued potency and improving its attractiveness to recruits. Some have even speculated that the terrorists wanted to strike at a symbol of Africa’s recent economic success. All of these considerations are well within the realm of possibility.

It’s likely, however, that the planners of the attack on the Nairobi mall selected their target based on an additional criterion. Judging by the large number of civilian casualties they sought to inflict, one of their aims was almost certainly to provoke an overreaction by Kenya’s armed forces and government against the Somali population living in Kenya. Kenya has a long history of carrying out draconian military campaigns against "problem groups" within the country, and the country’s large Somali minority (pop.: ca. 1 million) presents an obvious target for reprisals. Terrorist groups often try to provoke overreaching by the governments they target. The resulting polarization contributes to instability in the target country, sometimes allowing terrorists to boost their legitimacy by posing as protectors of the persecuted.

The Kenyan state has used repression and violence as a strategy since it gained independence in 1963. From 1963 to 1967, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, known as the Shifta War, targeting Somali civilians and non-combatants in northeastern and coastal regions of Kenya. "Shifta," a Somali word for "bandit," was used by the Kenyatta government to describe the separatists in the country’s northeast, where a group of ethnic Somali rebels was determined to secede from Kenya and join with Somalia. This counterinsurgency campaign not only targeted members of the Somali minority, but also other ethnic groups along the coastal region of Kenya, including the Swahili and Mjikenda. Thousands of those swept up were put into concentration camps. Though many commentators are quick to point out that coastal Kenyans and the Somalis are predominantly Muslim, this fact is less significant than the reality that the coastal communities and the Somali share a deep distrust of the central Kenyan state that stretches back to the Shifta War.

Later, in 1984, hundreds of Somali were murdered in the Wagalla Massacre, Kenya’s response to the growing unrest among the Somali, who were frustrated at being alienated from state power.

Repression of the opposition, including of the Somali minority, became institutionalized during the 1980s under Kenya’s second president, Daniel Arap Moi. It was Moi who built the now infamous Nyayo House torture chambers, where he detained real and imaginary opponents without trial. Many victims later testified to the cruel beatings and psychological torment inflicted upon them there. In the 1990s, Moi and his inner circle used violence and murder as a strategy to dissuade opponents from voting in Kenya’s first multi-party elections.

Even after Moi left power, allowing a certain degree of democratic space to open in the mid-2000s, the Kenyan police carried out a wild campaign of extra-judicial killings targeting members of the Mungiki movement, a militant youth movement that was seen by the Kenyan authorities as inherently subversive. John Michuki, the interior security minister at the time, formed a death squad of about 16 police officers that was responsible for the assassination or disappearance of at least 5,000 people without trial or investigation, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.

While government oppression has not always targeted the Somali community as such, it’s important to recognize that the Kenyan government has showed a readiness to use indiscriminate violence against non-combatant populations for decades. In all of these instances the Kenyan state has justified the repression in the name of national security. The state-sponsored slaughter of the 1960s, and again in the 1980s, is not a distant memory for the Somali, and al-Shabab is undoubtedly doing its best to play into this dynamic, given their desperate need for new recruits and their interest in striking back at the government in Nairobi.

Keeping these historical tendencies in mind is critical, since there are ominous signs from social media and press conferences that the Kenyan government is winding up for another heavy-handed response. David Kimaiyo, the head of police in Kenya, issued statements calling upon the police "to finish and punish" the terrorists. Such rhetoric is consistent with the terms used by Michuki when justifying the extra-judicial murders of the Mungiki only a few years ago. (The photo above shows a Kenyan police officer responding to ethnic riots in a Somali district of Nairobi last year.)

The government in Nairobi will need, of course, to attend to the justified fears of its population by carefully investigating the sources of this attack and doing what it can to prevent a replay. What the Kenyan government needs to keep in mind along the way, however, is that it can easily become its own worst enemy in its fight against al-Shabab and terrorism. Both the Somali and Muslim communities in Kenya feel perennially victimized. Further alienating these communities will not only hinder Kenya’s War on Terror, but will provide fertile ground for al-Shabab’s recruitment efforts. Even as things stand now, the political and economic marginalization of the Somali and coastal communities has tended to promote a certain degree of sympathy toward al-Shabab within the country. That’s why Nairobi’s next move will be crucial in determining whether al-Shabaab emerges as a significant force inside of Kenya itself.

Declan Galvin is a Global Human Rights Fellow at New York University, focusing on African politics.

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