The al Qaeda affiliated group in Somalia locally known as al Shabaab (Harakat Shabaab Mujahideen) has been driven by one core agenda; dethroning the Western-backed government in Mogadishu and in its place establish a nation governed by strict sharia law. However, in recent years their objectives have changed to include putting pressure on regional governments especially those that have troops in Somalia to withdraw from AMISOM; raise its profile in the East African region by establishing active cells in majority if not all countries, as well as soliciting funding and recruiting new members both Muslims and radicalized converts.
Al Shabaab has taken to exploit the spot occupied by the Muslim minorities in the Horn of Africa region by directly and indirectly increasing isolationism by way of heightened suspicion that triggers spite, ethnic and sectarian conflict. When the minorities feel spat, they tend to channel their frustrations into sympathizing and being financiers to al Shabaab as well as more active roles like joining the terror organization as foot soldiers.
It is paramount to note that the spot exploited by the al Shabaab has been to use governments as pawns in their pursuits. Governments in East Africa and especially Kenya and Tanzania, conduct blanket arrests especially targeting ethnic Somalis and Muslims as the narrative is, they are the more likely members of al Shabaab. The blanket arrests play right into al Shabaab’s hand which is to isolate Somalis and Muslims from the Christian majority or other tribes in Kenya and at the same time increase recruitment into the terror organization.
The unintended consequences of al Shabaab attacks and resultant government and national response especially in Kenya are the persecution, suspicion, and isolation of ethnic Somalis and Muslims. Rationally so, when people feel attacked, despised and persecuted based on the actions of a few misguided individuals the Somalis and Muslims tend to turn to Jihadism which appears to fight for their rights even though superficially.
Al Shabaab has mastered the art of divide and conquer in the quest of amercing support and membership by creating both sectarian and ethnic rifts in countries like Kenya where the majority view Somalis and Muslims as the enemy within. For instance, on January 26, 2019, an IED blast rocked the Kenyan CBD in an incidence narrated by witnesses as the act by a Somali man. A trolleyman reported that the blast emanated from a package given to him by a man of Somali ethnicity which adds to already rising tensions in Kenya caused by an al Shabaab attack in the upmarket hotel-office complex.
While Kenyans maintained to be unbowed in their efforts to defeat terrorism and especially by al Shabaab the core of the matter is that the seed of suspicion and fear has been planted. The same is evidenced by a massive exodus of non-Muslim and non-ethnic Somalis from the North Eastern region particularly that of professionals and businessmen. Despite the fact that al Shabaab has been exploiting the element of sectarian and ethnic conflict Kenyans across the board have exercised the spirit of Harambee that recognizes the fact that in order to defeat al Shabaab people have to work together, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Research by the University of Alabama revealed that attacks by Muslim extremists received 357% more US press coverage than those committed by non-Muslims or people of unknown ethnicity. A trend that has spilled over across the globe and is true in Kenya where terrorists’ attacks by the al Shabaab received more coverage than other attacks with heavier casualties. For instance, an al Shabaab attack with less than five casualties is likely to get more press coverage than ethnic conflict or cattle rustling attack with more deaths. Historically, Kenyans are swift to refer to ethnic Somalis as terrorists despite perpetrators of most terror attacks in Kenya being people from across the country that have been radicalized and converted to Islam.
On the other hand, as al Shabaab continues to spike ethnic and sectarian conflict in Kenya, Muslims and ethnic Somalis especially those living in the northern areas suffer massively socially, politically and economically. It is mainly echoed by the fact that in the recent Dusit Complex attack, several of the minorities (Muslim/Somali) were victims.
Recent research by scholars at the University of Nairobi Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations revealed that terrorist groups like the al Shabaab exploit Muslims and Somalis to both directly or indirectly further terrorism in a number of ways:
- Surge recruitment of scorned individuals that feel unjustly persecuted by the government and or community.
- The exodus of professionals and business people in the region leaves it void of development and economic progression which increases poverty levels. Poverty is a leading cause of radicalization as the youths are left vulnerable and susceptible to being lured to join al Shabaab.
- Low literacy levels due to lack of schools and or teachers which is contributing factor for young people to join al Shabaab.
- Isolation by other communities or religions increases the chances of Muslims and ethnic Somalis to join al Shabaab either as a form of revenge, retaliation or in pursuit for a place to belong.
- Persecution of an entire community based on ethnic or sectarian grounds especially based on actions of a few lone individuals has historically pushed people to be financiers or sympathizers of al Shabaab.
- The artificially-generated persecution and oppression of the two groups are used by al Shabaab to justify attacks on non-Muslim and Non-Somali targets in Kenya.