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Al-Shabaab’s Kenyan Ambitions
Al-Shabaab’s Kenyan Ambitions
Political Turmoil ahead of Somalia’s Elections
Political Turmoil ahead of Somalia’s Elections
Members of the hard line al Shabaab Islamist rebel group parade during a military training exercise in Huriwaa district, southern Mogadishu. 5 September, 2010. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Commentary / Africa

Al-Shabaab’s Kenyan Ambitions

Three members of Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa staff consider the implications of Al-Shabaab’s longstanding ambition to broaden its campaigns from Somalia into the wider East Africa region.

Al-Shabaab’s 2 April attack in Kenya that killed 147 people at a university in Garissa, 120km from the border with Somalia, has again cast doubt on the Kenyan government’s ability to keep its citizens safe.

Why is Al-Shabaab increasingly targeting Kenya?

In its statement following the attack, Al-Shabaab claimed it acted to avenge atrocities it alleges have been committed by the Kenyan military deployed in Somalia (now part of the African Union peace-support operation AMISOM). This puts pressure on the Kenyan commitment to that mission. Al-Shabaab also claimed that its fight is to liberate “all Muslim lands under Kenyan occupation”, including “north-astern province and the coast”. Despite being anachronistic given Kenya’s recent divisions into county based government, this language chimes with pan-Somali nationalist and irredentist slogans of the 1960s and 70s.

Furthermore, trying to sow domestic divisions in Kenya, Al-Shabaab claimed it was taking revenge for historic injustices against Muslims in the country. It hopes in this way to prompt draconian responses from the government that would further embed the narrative of an anti-Islamic Christian government and gain more recruits. It also claimed that it spared Muslims in the Garissa attack, echoing directives on minimising Muslim deaths most recently heard from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. Nevertheless, Al-Shabaab still killed Muslims at the university; in Somalia, most of its victims are Muslims.

How deep is the extremist problem in Kenya?

President Kenyatta’s immediate statement that extremists are deeply embedded in Kenya is significant. The statement, as well as the fact that the government offered a ten-day amnesty to all youth who have joined Al-Shabaab, is a new acknowledgement of the home-grown threat. Since the 1998 al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, and a second al-Qaeda attack that hit Mombasa in 2002, the government has consistently downplayed the home-grown threat and blamed extremism on outsiders. Kenya was spared further attacks until 2011, although extremists, including Al-Shabaab and sympathisers, used the country and its main towns for radicalising, recruiting and fundraising throughout this period. There was an uptick of attacks after 2011, apparently because of the Kenyan government training of anti-Al-Shabaab Somali militias and Kenya’s direct intervention into southern Somalia in October of the same year. These ranged from low-level incidents to the high profile mass-shooting that killed four attackers and 67 other people in the Westgate Mall in September 2013.

Al-Shabaab is not without Kenyan supporters. As previous Crisis Group reporting has shown, extremism thrives on a groundswell of Muslim grievances, radicalised by wider global trends and writings.

How is the Kenyan government responding to the threat?

The political response to this latest attack has been mixed. National and county governments acknowledge their shared duty to combat the threat and preserve national unity. However, the financial freeze of 86 bank accounts of named individuals, companies, and NGOs looks more like political score-settling than thorough counter-terrorist action. Much more radically, senior Kenyan Somali politicians and county leadership have called for the closure of Dadaab, one of the world’s biggest refugee camps, between Garissa and the Somali border.

Like Westgate, and other less high profile attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu county (June 2014) and Mandera county (November and December 2014), Garissa again exposed serial prevention and response failures by the security services, even though the raw intelligence relating to specific threats is not lacking. It is clear that the government underestimated the domestic “blow-back” of its 2011 Somalia intervention, as Crisis Group has warned. There are now growing calls for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia too.

Still, the domestic threat to Kenya – umbilically linked to Somalia – is gathering momentum. This makes the political and administrative strategy to combat extremism all the more critical. The shock of Westgate triggered bad policy decisions that cost the government support, including mass arrests and internment in Nairobi’s immigrant-heavy Eastlands estates, violent raids on mosques in Mombasa, and suspected extrajudicial killings of Islamic sheikhs sympathetic to Al-Shabaab. The subsequent Al-Shabaab attacks in Mpeketoni and Mandera brought further polarisation between different ethnic and faith communities, as well as thinly veiled aspersions cast about “opposition” involvement.

How resilient is Kenya?

Apart from frightening away the tourist dollar, a potentially more insidious effect of the latest attack may be to push out non-locals and non-Muslims, including health workers and teachers, from Muslim dominated regions like Garissa. This not only reduces government service delivery capacity, but also reduces national cohesion. Another extremist goal is to reverse the relative progress made in normalising Kenya’s north east since the early 90s, forcing Nairobi to make a de facto return to the “closed area” policy under emergency laws reminiscent of the colonial period and the first twenty years of independence. Some perceive a conspiracy between Al-Shabaab and those in the establishment who find the recent rise of the Kenyan Somali community a threat to their political and commercial interests. Yet overall, threats to Kenya’s stability are not primarily due to terrorism, but rather depend on whether the authorities use the current crisis to bring about long-awaited security apparatus reforms, including both improving morale and leadership in the police and clamping down further on corruption.

Despite Al-Shabaab’s claims of the historic marginalisation and persecution of Kenya’s Muslim ethnic minorities, the country’s new system of devolved government has brought unprecedented financial resources and local governmental autonomy to Somali-majority counties of the north east. Though the full effects are yet to be felt, locally led administration and development could prove to be the best weapon against Al-Shabaab and other extremists. But an operational gap between the still centrally controlled security apparatus and county political and administrative structures is the immediate weakness. Many are pointing to the need for locally raised police and militias to combat the threat. They cite the example of the successes of the “special police” in neighbouring Ethiopia, which has managed to keep Al-Shabaab (as well as other insurgent groups) at bay, even though this has taken a considerable toll on basic civil liberties. Kenya has its own experience of “home-guards” in counter-insurgent operations that have their own bitter legacy.

What does this attack say about Al-Shabaab in Somalia?

For the last two years there has been a narrative that Al-Shabaab’s attacks both in Somalia and increasingly in Kenya are a sign of the group’s weakness. In fact, Al-Shabaab has made a strategic shift. The extension of Al-Shabaab outside of its Somalia base began at least four years ago under the late Emir Godane (killed by a U.S. drone strike in September 2014) and continues under his successor, Ahmed Diriye. This strategy is a response to its earlier tactical military mistakes inside Somalia, its anticipation of more coordinated East African military pressure against it, and its ideology of widening a regional and global jihad.

Al-Shabaab has shown it can operate across Somalia and can control minds and money through indoctrination and intimidation. In Kenya, as in Somalia, it has also consistently articulated local grievances alongside its jihadi propaganda, a mutually reinforcing narrative that attracts recruits and resources, locally and internationally. Its local knowledge allows it to exploit communal tensions and target weakness in elite political establishments. Critically, it exploits dissatisfaction with the way security apparatuses appear more concerned with defending the Kenyan establishment than protecting local communities. Al-Shabaab has long honed and employed these tactics. The East African context will not change quickly, and Kenya still has a long struggle ahead of it.


Former Project Director, Horn of Africa
Former Researcher, Horn of Africa
Analyst, Somalia
A woman walks to her makeshift home in Al futo IDP camp, June 2019. CRISISGROUP
Commentary / Africa

Political Turmoil ahead of Somalia’s Elections

Somalia is headed into an electoral season that promises to be heated. If not carefully managed, politicking could spiral into violence. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to press for implementation of consensus-based electoral model, provide technical assistance, and keep up assistance to the Somali security sector and the African Union’s peacekeeping mission (AMISOM).

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Autumn Update.

Somalia is headed into an electoral season that promises to be heated. If not carefully managed, politicking could spiral into violence. Centre-periphery tensions, which have grown markedly during incumbent Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo’s” administration, have cast a shadow over electoral preparations and doubt upon the prospects of a smooth poll. Parties made significant progress in the third week of September when they agreed upon the outlines of an electoral framework, but details remain unclear and timely implementation will be a challenge. With pre-electoral manoeuvring among the politicians dragging on, clan militias appear to be arming while Al-Shabaab militants seek to leverage the political bickering to their advantage. Averting trouble will require an inclusive approach by President Farmajo in particular, rather than a reversion to the unilateral decision-making that has marked his rule thus far.  

To support Somalia at this critical juncture, the European Union and its member states should:

  • Maintain pressure on all Somali stakeholders to implement the consensus-based electoral model in a timely fashion.
  • Provide technical electoral assistance, including for the purposes of developing clear post-election dispute resolution mechanisms in conjunction with other partners such as the UN.
  • Keep up assistance to the Somali security sector and the African Union’s peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) ahead of the latter’s planned drawdown by the end of 2021, as the elections (and their aftermath) pose clear dangers of deadly unrest.

Elections Will Test Newfound Consensus

Somalia’s chronic centre-periphery tensions have been on vivid display in the tussle over electoral preparations, threatening to turn the vote into a trigger for a wider crisis. The constitution mandates that parliamentary and presidential elections take place by November 2020 and February 2021, respectively, but given delayed technical preparations, these timelines look increasingly ambitious. The key obstacle that blocked consensus for much of 2020 on the most divisive issue – the voting system for the forthcoming polls – is pervasive distrust between the federal government in Mogadishu and Somalia’s regions, or member states. Although that distrust has blighted Somali politics for years, the Farmajo administration has widened rifts with its often-combative approach to these relationships over the past three and half years, particularly its attempts to replace federal member state leaders. 

The third round of direct talks in September 2020 over the forthcoming election did, however, yield a breakthrough, as President Farmajo and all member state presidents agreed to shelve one-person-one-vote elections in favour of an indirect voting system. Under the terms of the deal, delegates from different parts of the country will form electoral colleges that in turn will select parliamentarians. Parliament will then vote for the president. This is similar to the model used in 2016, albeit with a slightly expanded number of delegates, a provision aimed at addressing international demands to demonstrate progress toward eventual universal suffrage. This outcome, which effectively closes the door on a one-person-one vote election this time around, may disappoint many of Somalia’s external partners. But the reality is that political bickering among rivals and inadequate preparations meant that such a vote was unattainable in either 2020 or 2021. The Somali politicians who promoted it for the most part were more interested in extending their mandates with an election delay than making the country’s politics genuinely inclusive and participatory. The indirect voting system should allow the polls to take place in a more timely manner.

The agreement is a positive step but big challenges remain. The deal unblocks an impasse between the federal government and Puntland and Jubaland member states in particular, whose relations with Famajo are particularly strained and whose leaders boycotted a previous round of talks, accusing the president of not negotiating in good faith. Yet many details remain unclear and implementation within the given timeframes will be fraught. Mogadishu and member state leadership, in tandem with other stakeholders, still need to agree on the precise roles and responsibilities of the federal and state-level electoral bodies that will manage the election, on the final determination of voting locations in each member state and, perhaps most crucially, on the selection process for the electoral college delegates.  

Still, the agreement charts a potential way forward to end the grinding political crisis over the vote. It also contains some progressive elements. The process by which delegates will be selected is yet to be finalised, with Mogadishu and member state presidents continuing discussions on the subject. But the newly agreed model hands civil society an enhanced role in electoral delegate selection – an improvement on past elections. It also envisages women constituting a minimum of 30 per cent of the electors. That said, the key test will be whether this provision will be implemented. In 2016, Somalia enacted a similar quota but ultimately fell well short of the threshold, as some regions failed to send sufficient female delegates.  

Clear Dangers

Electoral preparations are taking place in a fluid and fraught security environment. In recent months, opposition to the Farmajo administration mounted, including among powerful clans whose leaders suspected the incumbent planned to put off elections in order to extend his administration’s mandate. Concrete evidence is hard to come by, but Mogadishu residents told Crisis Group that clans in the capital have been arming themselves in case disputes over the polls escalate into violence, portending a return to the clan-based fighting that damaged the country so badly in the 1990s. Major groupings like the Mudulood, part of the Hawiye clan – one of Somalia’s most politically dominant – have held large conferences warning about the possibility of delays in the electoral calendar. In principle, the recent electoral agreement should diminish such tensions, but delays in implementation would give them oxygen.  

For its part, Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency has stepped up its attacks, a sign of its ability to exploit political infighting in the capital. Al-Shabaab’s burst of activity is all the more concerning given that AMISOM is scheduled to hand over primary responsibility for the country’s security to Somali agencies by the end of 2021. The insurgents seem to be preparing for a scenario of prolonged electoral standoff – Crisis Group interviews indicate that the group has recently established new training camps and launched recruitment campaigns. Already, the group has hit Mogadishu hard, including a siege at the Elite Hotel on 16 August, when it conducted the first complex attack in Somalia’s capital in 2020. There have been at least eight suicide attacks in the city since June. Al-Shabaab has also stepped up violence in such outlying areas as Gedo, Lower Juba, Bay and Mudug. 

The potential for clan-based opposition and the Al Shabaab campaign present clear challenges in the run-up to the elections. The risks are high that Somalia could descend into further conflict should the electoral process be mismanaged. 

What the EU Can Do

The EU has long championed efforts to stabilise Somalia and deepen state capacity in the country. Today, pressure from Somalia’s partners, including the EU, but also the UN and U.S., appears to be the main factor keeping electoral discussions on track. Following the broad agreement on the electoral model, Brussels should urge the federal government and member states to embrace the same spirit of consensus as they discuss details on electoral management. In order to keep the elections on track, the EU should lean on Farmajo and all the member state presidents to speedily implement the electoral agreement.

The EU should continue to provide technical assistance to support discussions over implementation.

The EU should continue to provide technical assistance to support discussions over implementation. Both the federal government and member states harbour concerns about possible manipulation of voting procedures. The selection process of electoral college delegates by elders, civil society and member states will be highly contentious: whoever has influence over these delegates will be well positioned to choose the next president. The EU can press Somali politicians to use methods that reduce the potential for corruption in the selection process, such as ensuring civil society can play the envisaged oversight role in delegate selection, and developing clear and timely dispute resolution mechanisms to address grievances around that selection. The EU should also push for Somalis to fulfil the quota of 30 per cent woman electors this time around.

Security is also key, especially as the number of voting locations in Somalia will expand. The EU has extended support for AMISOM until December 2020. This step is welcome, but present trends indicate Somalia will still need security assistance in the aftermath of the elections. The EU will thus need to renew its funding for the mission throughout 2021.