NAIROBI, Kenya—Just after midnight on Dec. 2, about 20 gunmen from the Somali militant group Al-Shabab rousted awake miners sleeping in a tented camp at a quarry near the border town of Mandera. According to witnesses, the attackers separated the Muslims from the non-Muslims. Those unable to recite a passage from the Quran were made to lie face down and then shot at close range, and at least two were reportedly beheaded.
The quarry raid came 10 days after Al-Shabab attackers killed 48 passengers on a bus in the same town, and a day after gunmen opened fire and hurled grenades into a bar frequented by non-Muslims in a neighboring district, killing one and injuring 12. An Al-Shabab spokesman said the latest attack was a response to “Kenya’s occupation of Muslim lands… airstrikes on Muslims in Somalia… continued suffering of Muslims in Mombasa.”
While the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) have mounted successful offenses against Al-Shabab since Kenya’s 2011 invasion of Somalia, weakening the group’s leadership, militants have passed unimpeded through porous borders, often recruiting fighters within Kenya. (Ethnic Somalis, who fled to Kenya from Somalia’s civil war, make up about 8 percent of Kenya’s population of 40 million.) At first fighters were taken to Somalia; now Al-Shabab has brought the war to Kenyan territory.
That war seized the world’s attention when the group went on killing spree at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in 2013, leaving at least 68 dead in apparent retaliation for Kenya’s military presence in Somalia. Kenya’s government has been widely criticized for its weak security apparatus and failure to act on security warnings preceding the Westgate attack. Rather than trying to figure out how to prevent future terrorist attacks through beefing up security at the borders and strengthening the judicial system, the country’s armed forces and police have relied chiefly on measures that seem strictly punitive.
Poor intelligence and evidence gathering, and a weak judicial process, have resulted in reliance on dirty-war tactics such as mass arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, rape, and extrajudicial killings. Muslim leadership has been particularly targeted; in the last 19 months, at least 15 imams have either been forcefully disappeared or assassinated.
In response to the Westgate attack, security forces subjected mosque worshippers to arbitrary arrests, storming Mombasa’s Musa mosque and arresting more than 100 youths. In May, Kenyan authorities launched Operation Usalama, rounding up thousands of ethnic Somalis, mainly women and children, and detaining them in a stadium for days without adequate food and water or legal representation.
“To say you’ll find terrorists in a mosque is just ridiculous,” says Al Amin Kimathi, a human-rights monitor and activist specializing in counterterrorism who was himself subject to rendition to Uganda in 2010. “Real terrorists—trained operatives who plan attacks like Westgate—are on standby and stay away from mosques because they’re too high on the radar. These youths, the mosque worshippers, are just easy targets for the police.”
After Al-Shabab slaughtered up to 100 non-Muslims in June in Mpekatoni, a town in northeast Kenya populated by the ruling Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s national police chief, Gen. David Kimaiyo, responded harshly. There as well, Al-Shabab said it launched the attack in retaliation not only for the assassination of Muslim clerics but for Kikuyus’ settling on land Al-Shabab claims was settled by Arab Swahilis centuries ago. Kimaiyo answered by jailing the Muslim governor of Lamu County and slapping an open-ended curfew on the county, including islands off the coast whose economies rely heavily on tourism.
Adding insult to injury, police last week raided and closed down four mosques they said were linked to violent jihad and arrested more than 376 worshippers. Mombasa County police commander Robert Kitur told reporters that the authorities had seized gasoline bombs, detonators, grenades, and radical jihad literature in the mosques. Human-rights groups, however, said most of those arrested were released for lack of evidence.
Raids, police say, are a part of Kenya’s ongoing security sweep, ostensibly to prevent political violence, root out radicals, and tame would-be terrorists. But residents and rights groups wonder whether the measures are more punitive than protective and have singled out the police’s Anti-Terror Unit (ATPU) for carrying out summary executions.
“Parts of the Kenyan public may think that police should deal with terror suspects in any way necessary, but police extrajudicial killings, torture, and brutality are never justified. These abuses are not only illegal and can target innocent people, they anger and radicalize communities, undermine the rule of law, and weaken serious efforts to deal with insecurity,” Leslie Lefkow, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division told The Daily Beast.
Muslim leaders have accused the ruling elite of carrying out what they see as religious persecution.
Interior Minister Joseph ole Lenku decried such accusations, tweeting: “The Mombasa operation is not targeted at any religion, tribe or gender and will continue until security objectives are achieved.”
Such explanations notwithstanding, it is not clear what the government’s security objectives are.
So far government officials have refused to come to the table to discuss grievances with Muslim communities, either in Nairobi or on the coast. Suspicions and tensions are running high. Hardline clerics and youths suspect moderates of collaborating with the security forces.
Hussein Khalid, director of the Mombasa-based rights group Haki Africa, told The Daily Beast that last spring he had been making progress dealing with inter-religious fighting by getting a vocal hardline cleric, Abubakar Shariff Athmed aka Makaburi, to meet with moderate leaders.
Haki Africa’s master plan has been to reach out to Kenyan government leaders at the national level. In April, representatives of the group were in the United States to present reported abuses to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs, when Makaburi was gunned down after leaving a mosque in Mombasa.
“The murder of modern religious leaders was unheard of before Makaburi,” Khalid told The Daily Beast. “Since his assassination we don’t know where to start. We don’t know where the youths are or if their networks have been dismantled.”
“We just want peace,” he added. “The two words ‘let’s talk’ can move mountains.”
The two new assaults in Mandera, a predominately Somali-Kenyan town in northeastern Kenya, brings the number of unarmed civilians slain in terror-related incidents since early 2013 to at least 200.
In the wake of the latest attacks, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta fired ole Lenku, the interior minister, and accepted the resignation of Kimaiyo, the national police chief. Kenya’s national intelligence chief stepped down after the Mpekatoni attacks.
Kenyatta made a Bush-like vow to continue the war on Al-Shabab, saying, “We will not flinch.” He added: “This is a war against Kenya and Kenyans. The time has come for each and every one of us to decide and choose—are you on the side of an open, free, democratic Kenya… or do you stand with repressive, intolerant extremists?”
In a press release, Al-Shabab’s spokesman said that “Kenya must change policy of animosity towards Muslims… withdraw from Muslim lands.”
Beleaguered Kenyans talking about the war between Al-Shabab and the Kenyan security forces, meanwhile, can often be heard reciting a Swahili saying: “Wale ndovu wawili wakipigana nyasi ndio huumia.” When the bull elephants fight, it’s usually the grass underneath that gets crushed.