African Arguments by Devon Knudsen
Al Shabaab and the irrational insurgency
Posted on December 17, 2013
Following the Westgate attack, many argued that al Shabaab demonstrated a shift in tactics, targets, and capacities. Two attacks in Nairobi over the past several days show that in fact, al Shabaab has gone back to its apparent irrationality. On Saturday, a grenade thrown into a privately-owned bus in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh reportedly injured 15 people. This was followed by several grenades thrown into shops in the same predominantly Somali neighborhood on Monday.
Eastleigh has borne the brunt of al Shabaab attacks in Nairobi. Earlier in December, two grenade attacks in Eastleigh took six lives. In November, the community suffered a similar strike. These kinds of attacks have been a regular occurrence for the past several years. Eastleigh also saw IED attacks in June 2013 and August, November and December 2012.
This series of attacks has been met with frequent instances of reprisals by security forces and the public. Seen as the center of the Somali diaspora in Nairobi as well as a hub or transit point for illicit flows of arms, money, and other goods illegally imported through Somalia, many innocent Somali and non-Somali residents of Eastleigh suffer as a result. Refugees trying to build news lives, recent graduates in search of affordable housing, small-scale shop owners and entrepreneurs who contribute to an important segment of Nairobi’s economy and job market: all are indiscriminately affected both by the terrorist attacks and the reprisals and roundups they provoke. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly released in-depth reports of violence by Kenyan security forces against women and children in Eastleigh. If Eastleigh were a solid source of support for al Shabaab, why would al Shabaab attack it?
Poor relations between the Kenyan government and Somali communities mean al Shabaab attacks against ethnic Somali communities in Northeast Kenya and the Dadaab refugee camp have little political or military influence. Wajir, Mandera and Garissa are all seen as part of the somewhat-abandoned ‘Greater Somalia’, and the camp is almost exclusively made up of Somali refugees. The Kenyan government has historically punished these areas for their connection to Somalia. Since Westgate, Internal Security Minister Joseph Ole Lenku has blamed the camp for sheltering and supporting al Shabaab in comments seeming to threaten the closure of the camp, an action which would have major humanitarian implications, and have caused considerable alarm among refugees. In sum, Somali communities in Kenya are hardly pet constituencies of any powerful faction within government. So why are al Shabaab’s main targets in Kenya the areas with the largest concentrations of Somalis?
There seem to be three possible explanations. The first two are simple: convenience and control. Despite speculation about Westgate involving elaborate, sophisticated planning and orchestration, in fact, al Shabaab’s capacities remain spotty. Recent financial difficulties stemming from the loss of Kismayo (due, in large part, to KDF’s operation ‘Linda Nchi’) and other key territories, have limited al Shabaab’s activities. Al-Shabaab leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane’s concentration of resources in the Amniyat, an elite force whose attentions are likely concentrated on Somalia, might also keep Kenyan affiliates on a tighter budget. Even before these financial constraints were felt, excluding Westgate, al Shabaab attacks in Kenya seemed to demonstrate a preference for easy targets. Nairobi has no shortage of elite or western-affiliated locations, but al Shabaab attacked Nairobi’s poorest residents, in locations that decision makers paid little attention to. These sites may have provided easier escape routes and certainly provoked less government reaction.
The second possible explanation also has connections to distant and historical insurgencies in which insurgent groups had greater success in controlling the local population by using targeted terror campaigns which prevented “hearts and minds” campaigns from having much effect. Would al Shabaab want to control Somali populations in Kenya? Control over Eastleigh and Dadaab could have certain financial and operational benefits.
The third explanation is more complex. To start, it may help to identify what al Shabaab is not doing. Looking back to the context of the Cold War, when debates over African “terrorists” and freedom fighters provided a very different context than we see in the Horn today, some nationalist insurgencies took more straightforwardly rational approaches. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela explains Umkhonto we Sizwe’s prioritization of targets. Their first choice would be military infrastructure that involved no loss of human life; second was state infrastructure, such as power facilities, which enabled the Apartheid system to function; only if these non-human targets were unreachable, then military officials would be targeted, and as a last option, white civilian targets. These attacks were a means to achieve an objective that was believed to be the ANC’s real goal.
What is al Shabaab’s objective? Certainly, elements within the group aim to establish Islamic law over a peaceful Somalia, free of Western or regional intervention or influence. The latest UN Monitoring Group report provides evidence that at least parts of al Shabaab’s leadership are more motivated by other goals. In any event, how do the attacks against Dadaab and Eastleigh help achieve the objective of a reclaimed Somali state? There is the oft-repeated rationale that al Shabaab is attacking Kenya to get KDF to withdraw from Somalia, and there are frequent attacks against security forces along the border. If the attacks against security forces were the only attacks, or even the majority of the attacks in Kenya, that explanation would be more satisfying. The attacks against civilian Somalis in Dadaab and Eastleigh are different, and serve different ends. Westgate supports this argument: a prolonged series of attacks against politically-disempowered Somali communities received minimal government concern. One attack against an elite mall however, prompted massive government action: all of a sudden, KDF withdrawal from the Juba region is being seriously discussed. While Westgate is not the only reason KDF withdrawal is on the table, al Shabaab’s subsequent return to the earlier type of low-level attacks in Eastleigh is definitely not adding to the impetus to bring KDF home.
So the third possible explanation is that al Shabaab’s objective behind these attacks against Kenya’s Somali populations is to maintain a state of profitable or politically-useful disorder. This rationale has motivated government-insurgency collaboration to prolong conflicts ranging from Liberia to DR Congo. Many experts, led by David Keen, have explained how maintaining a certain level of insecurity in key geographic areas of resource extraction, or in this case trade, obfuscates regulation and limits both national redistribution and entry by potential competitors. Eastleigh is al Shabaab’s ‘financial capital,’ and Dadaab is an important transit point en route, where insecurity prevents further regulation of the border. Recent attention has been on the charcoal trade, but arms, oil, roadblock revenues, khat, foreign aid, and other income sources can’t be ignored. According to UN Monitoring Group report, Sheik Ahmed Mohamed Islam ‘Madobe’ with both Ras Kamboni and Kenyan forces have set up profitable trade networks which spread beyond Somalia’s borders and intersect with al Hijra, al Shabaab, and affiliated politicians.
Al Shabaab is a complex organization which has different factions and affiliates, each with its own priorities and motivations. Trying to paint al Shabaab with the typical motivations of more familiar terrorist groups or nationalist insurgencies will only detract from our understanding of their aims. Concentrating on Westgate over attacks against lesser known targets will also skew any interpretation of the group and its operations. The relationships between al Shabaab, Somali populations in Kenya, the Kenyan government and armed forces, and leaders within each group, is an area which urgently demands closer examination and revision.
Devon Knudsen works on the Horn of Africa for the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed in this article are entirely her own.