Kenya Steps Up the War Against al Shabaab Before Its Elections

People of Lamu and the Swahili Coast feel trapped between the savagery of al Shabaab and the corruption of Kenyan officials who may view all Muslims as suspect.

Feisal Omar/Reuters

LAMU, Kenya—Against the backdrop of untainted white beaches on the Indian Ocean and the regal beach houses here that mix Omani, Indian, and Swahili architecture, live mortars arched across the Kenyan night skies. Unsuspecting tourists could have mistaken them for shooting stars. But they kept on coming. One after another, like fireworks.

This was another naval exercise by the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) conducted earlier this month, on the night of July 9, at the start of the tourist season on Lamu Island—and just weeks before Kenya's elections.

The show of force went on for an hour, alternating between live mortars and storms of gunshots as a response to the brutal and indiscriminate beheadings and killings of innocent civilians by al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate in nearby Somalia, just a few days earlier.

Lamu and neighboring islands are a part of the Swahili Coast facing the Indian Ocean in eastern Kenya. Culturally, the region is distinct from the rest of Kenya, influenced by trade with the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, and even China.  The population descends from five or six original families who have been on the islands for the past 400 years. Most practice Sunni Islam with centuries of Sufi spirituality,  historically mainstream Kenyan Islam, with an emphasis on peaceful coexistence with all members of Kenyan society.

Modern-day Lamu County is comprised of two parts: Mainland and the Islands. The major islands are Shela, Lamu Island (“Lamu Town”), and Manda. Tourism, primarily from Europe, makes up most of the economy. A new port in Lamu Town is projected to surpass Mombasa as Kenya’s largest, which may not help tourism but ought to bring jobs and a much-needed lifeline to citizens affected by al Shabaab’s merciless attacks near the border.

The KDF Navy base where the live exercises took place is on Shela, which is a popular destination with tourists and long-term expatriates. Our time in Lamu was part of an original field study looking at how Muslim populations in the Horn of Africa themselves perceive the threat of al Shabaab.

To our surprise, local Swahili communities and tourist managers were notified of the exercise merely three hours ahead of time, leaving little time to know whether this was a live battle with al Shabaab militants or an exercise. The result was not only to heighten fear of the militants, but to deepen mistrust of the government, making the job of those trying to push back against extremism all the more difficult.

The July 9 live exercise came at a key moment. A couple of days earlier, al Shabaab had attacked a police station on the Mainland and planted an IED underground. The next day, al Shabaab followed up the violence with the beheading of nine civilians in the little village of Jima on the Mainland, a gruesome tactic that surprised even the locals, who have been living with the al Shabaab threat and subsequent military actions for the past four years.

Al Shabaab, “the Youth” in Arabic, was formed in 2006 and has since held and governed territories in various parts of Somalia. The group has connections to both al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. Al Shabaab’s goal is to form a utopian Islamist society reminiscent of various East African Islamic Sultanates, such as the 10th century Kilwa Sultanate in the Horn of Africa. Al Shabaab began attacking Kenya in 2011 after the KDF went into Somalia to fight against al Shabaab on its home turf.  The KDF also gives support to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), which has been in the country since 2007 with limited success.

Many in Lamu have been against al Shabaab from the start. They see it as a collection of violent extremists who believe in a narrow, rigid, and legalistic interpretation of Islam, but also an organization with which some resonance among the younger generation who see al Shabaab as stating plainly their own concerns in the modern age.

Al Shabaab’s version of Islam and its extremist allies globally have proselytized over the past half century with generous financial resources and unchecked ideological campaigning, making it a formidable force against which governments and local communities find it difficult to marshal countermeasures.

Overall, the people of the Swahili coast are religious, with most children attending Quranic schools in Arabic in addition to formal public schools. The island is home to a diverse array of mosques, ranging from Shia to Sufi and everything in between, and to an annual festival celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The festival, considered blasphemous by al Shabaab, brings thousands to Lamu. Yet it remains a fertile recruiting ground for extremists, lying only 174 miles away from the porous Somali border, and with the lawless Boni Forest in-between.

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The appeal of al Shabaab is growing, especially in light of the KDF human rights violations , and the precipitous decline in tourism for the entire Lamu County. KDF allegedly carries out extrajudicial killings, many of which appear to be well documented, and subsequently labels them as the work of al Shabaab fighters. The KDF also stands accused of labeling petty crime as al Shabaab attacks to get more resources and funding from the United States. Rumors of disappearances, whether real or not, of suspected “al Shabaab fighters and supporters” are rampant. Some were well-known political activists and opponents.

In the midst of clashes between al Shabaab and the KDF, civilians are caught in the middle and have suffered the economic consequences. While attacks have been limited to the mainland and have not affected the islands, the optics have discouraged visitors. For four years in a row, tourism has been hit hard by travel warnings issued by the European Union and British governments. Hotel occupancy rates have plummeted, according to Swahili tourism managers.

When the travel warning was finally lifted in 2017, the locals breathed a sigh of relief, as tourists started to trickle back. They were looking forward to the peak season from late July to early September. But with the recent beheadings committed by al Shabaab, the locals fear that the travel warning will be reinstated. Already, the Kenyan government put in place a 6:30 PM curfew starting July 10th, effective for 90 days for all of Lamu County except the islands.

“Most tourists can’t distinguish between Lamu Mainland and Islands. They hear Lamu and think that it is all dangerous, even if we have not had a single attack on the islands,” lamented a Swahili tourism manager on Shela.

A commonly held belief is that the Kenyan government unnecessarily puts in these measures to collectively punish Lamu, as it sees all Muslims as enemies. Locals point to the lack of Muslims within the ranks of the national security apparatus and military.

All the local grievances have taken their toll. Among the Swahili communities, there are rumors that since the beginning of 2017, a few Swahilis have joined al Shabaab, but there has not been any official confirmation from authorities. Al Shabaab itself has exploited the growing rift between the locals and the government.

Rather than presenting itself as a strictly ideological group, it has re-branded in these parts as a rebel group fighting against the resented and corrupt Kenyan government. It has taken advantage of the local perception that the Kenyan government and politicians can be bought, even when it harms the interest of the people and the country. Al Shabaab also portrays the U.S. as a cash cow for the KDF, easily manipulated and blindly zealous in its global war on terrorism. Local confidence in the U.S. and Kenyan response to this security threat has decreased dramatically.

“It’s like we have to choose between security and livelihoods,” says a Swahili tourist manager who has spent his entire life on the islands, reflecting a very common view. “We don’t want al Shabaab to be here, but at the same time, the other option is the Kenyan government, who hates all Muslims, even if we are moderate. We are caught in between two equally bad options.”  

The security of Lamu and the coast is increasingly significant in the broader context. The Horn of Africa could be key for Salafist-jihadist terrorist groups like al Shabaab and the Islamic State. As they are squeezed out of the spaces they have occupied in the Middle East and some parts of North Africa, they are eying countries such as Somalia, Djibouti—and Kenya—as their next havens.

Already, Kenya has seen more than its fair share of al Shabaab related terrorism. The assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013 slaughtered at least 67 innocent people; in 2015, 147 people died in a massacre at Garissa University.

Already, Kenyans have traveled to Libya to join the so-called Islamic State, and some 900 Kenyans currently serve in the the ranks of al Shabaab, according to senior Kenyan intelligence officials. For the first time ever this year a bomb that was used in an attack in Kenya reportedly was constructed within the country, rather than smuggled in from Somalia.

As the draw of extremism grows and battle-hardened fighters return to Kenya, the danger will increase. And while Kenya has thus far been spared the kind of “lone wolf” attacks that have wrought so much carnage in European cities like Manchester and Nice, Kenyan authorities say they are preparing for those as well.

“The security situation is becoming more precarious,” says a senior-level security official. “Kenya could turn into a terrorist haven if we do not start preventing violent extremism and inoculating Kenyans against violent ideologies.”

As the world has learned, that is much easier said than done.