Islamist insurgents in eastern Africa

Somalia, Kenya and their neighbouring countries are increasingly haunted by extremist violence. This essay assesses why this region has become a hotbed of Islamism and why one-dimensional, military interventions by external forces have not delivered the desired results. By Emmanuel Kisiangani
Victims of the attack on Garissa University in April. Canik/AA/picture-alliance Victims of the attack on Garissa University in April.

In eastern Africa, the Islamic faith has been used for political purpose for a long time. Muslim groups were active in various movements, including the mostly secular liberation struggles against the colonial powers in places such as Tanzania (then Tanganyika), Sudan and Somalia.

In national politics, adherence to a particular faith often defines allegiances and roles in politics. In a short essay of this kind, however, it is impossible to convey the entire complexity of the matter. This essay is, thus, concerned with a more recent phenonomenon of political Islam in Eastern Africa: violent extremism, which will be called “Islamism” here. Its intolerant ideology is to enforce Koranic rules by radical means, regardless of a country’s constitutional order.

Eastern Africa was largely inoculated from Islamist violence until the “war on terror” that started in the late 1990s. In 1998, the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were attacked by foreign terrorists linked to Al Qaida. Since then, terrorist groups have slowly emerged in the region itself. Violent Islamism has  increasingly become interwoven in local conflict systems, particularly in Somalia and Kenya.


A patriotic cause

In Somalia, the upsurge of malevolent Islamism must be seen in the broader context of decades of civil strife, economic mismanagement, lacking governance and ill-conceived foreign interventions. The emergence of the brutal al-Shabaab militia in early 2007 was, for instance, fuelled by Somali patriotic militancy against the abrasive counter-insurgency tactics used by the regular Ethiopian military. Ethiopia had invaded Somalia in an attempt to wrest control from the Islamic Courts Union which had taken over large parts of the strife-torn country. The Ethiopian intervention was appreciated by Washington and some other western governments.

Al-Shabaab is a a self-proclaimed Islamic militia that rose up against the Ethiopian troops and the western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Al-Shabaab considered the TFG a “puppet regime” and called its  Ethiopian backers “invaders”.

The militia’s declared goal is to turn Somalia into an Islamist state. Accordingly, it focused its attention on the TFG and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) after Ethiopia withdrew its forces in December 2008 and January 2009. AMISOM is a regional peace-keeping mission that was initiated in 2007. So far, it has been impossible to uproot Al-Shabaab because the organisation, apart from evolving and adopting new strategies, enjoys the backing of local communities that feel protected, rather than threatened by it (see box). Making matters more complex, ethnic Somalis live in Ethiopia and Kenya as minority groups.

The one-dimensinal armed interventions against Islamists, however, have fostered a violent fundamentalist backlash. Markus Virgil Hoehne has shown why external counterterrorism measures have been counterproductive. Social, cultural and political cross-currents in the region defy easy military solutions. This does not mean that the war against terror is unjustified. The point is that complex issues of local needs, identity and faith must be considered if it is to be won.


Kenyan challenges

In Kenya, an important reason for the growing frequency of acts of extremist Islamism is that Nairobi, the capital city, has for sometime now not been at ease with the country’s periphery, especially the coastal and north-eastern regions. The populations of these regions are predominantely Muslim, and share sentiments of political marginalisation and even prosecution.  

In the 1990s, the separtist Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) emerged at the Kenyan Coast, demanding, among others an independent state to liberate the coastal people “from mistreatment and marginalisation by successive Kenyan governments”. The MRC, which was not faith-based originally was, in 2010, declared illegal by the Kenyan government and has in the recent past gone underground.

Many coastal communities do not support the group’s secessionist claims, but they evidently share its sense of grievance. To some extent, feelings of discrimination and marginalistion also mark criminal networks along the coast.  

There is reason to worry about the converging goals of various militant and insurgent groups in eastern Africa, including Al-Shabaab, the MRC and alleged militant networks in Zanzibar. Problems are compounded by the fact that Kenya has deployed troops in Somalia to fight the insurgents. The Kenyan military moved into Somalia in October 2011.

In retaliation, the extremists have launched attacks in Kenya. More than 600 people have been killed, and a significant number of the terror attacks were carried out by Kenyan al-Shabaab fighters, some of whom had converted to Islam only recently. Some experts reckon that about a quarter of Al-Shabaab’s fighters are Kenyans.  

Al-Shabaab has significant links to local communities, both in Somalia and parts of Kenya. Even though it has been driven from Mogadishu and Kismayo, two important Somalian cities, where it levied taxes from traders, Al-Shabaab still has considerable financial support. Moreover, it is successfully recruiting fighters.

In Kenya, the target group is young men in their 20s. Recruitment is linked to poverty, structural inequalities and youth unemployment. Indeed, low-ranking Al-Shabaab leaders are said to get the equivalent of  $ 60 to $ 200 per month. It is no coincidence that Al-Shabaab seems to have drawn more recruits in the north-eastern and coastal regions. Reports suggest, however, that the organisation is keen on building a multi-ethnic generation of fighters, rather than relying only on ethnic Somalis.

Some educated young men from comfortable backgrounds have also joined the group. For instance, Abdirahim Mohammed, who participated in the killing of 147 students at Garrisa University in April, is the son of a Kenyan government officer and a law-school graduate. It seems unlikely that someone like him would be driven by economic reasons. He was probably inspired by a religious ideology of the fight between Muslims and those they see as unbelievers. Reinfocing religious faultlines in Kenya, Al-Shabaab has recently been targeting Christians.  



On the whole, extremist Islamism in eastern Africa is inextricably linked to historic grievances and local dynamics. As Chris Harman, a British journalist and socialist has pointed out, post-colonial societies were traumatised by imperialism and subsequently suffered exploitation by domestic elites and multinational interests.

These issues cannot be resolved by military action as such. Even though external troops have inflicted substantial damage on Al-Shabaab, the group maintains its strategic advantages thanks to its strong links to local communities who consider the militia legitimate. A viable solution to dealing with Al-Shabaab and similar groups lies in winning over the civilian population. Otherwise it will be impossible to beat the Islamists.

Emmanuel Kisiangani is a senior researcher at the Nairobi office of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS Africa). The ISS Africa is based in Pretoria and also has offices in Addis Ababa and Dakar. ekisiangani@issafrica.org

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