By Neda Ardehali (2014)
This essay seeks to explain why the militant terrorist organisation Al Shabaab hijacked and killed 28 people on board a bus travelling from the town of Mandera in Kenya to the country’s capital Nairobi. In order to do so, I will firstly critically analyse a news article which reports the event and assess whether or not it is has failed to address wider issues relating to the incident. I will then explain who Al Shabaab is and what it seeks to achieve as an organisation, subsequently detailing the category of terrorism it should fall under as a result. Additionally, I will discuss the reasons behind the attack, looking both at Al Shabaab as a Somali force, and consequently focussing on why Al Shabaab attacked Kenya in particular. Both religious and political motivations will be addressed in order to truly understand the motivations behind the attack. Finally, this essay will look out the outcome and responses to the attack and how this links into the future of Al Shabaab, with regards to countering it as a terrorist force.
On the 22nd of November 2014 a bus travelling to the Kenyan capital Nairobi was hijacked by the Somalia based militant group Al-Shabaab. Of the 60 passengers on board “28 non-Muslims were killed”. The article chosen to describe the incident is taken from the Fox News website, in which the author places great emphasis on emotive writing in order to recreate the scene of the event. From the very beginning it seeks to sensationalise the occurrence, evoking feelings of horror and suspense: “One gunman shot from the right, one from the left, each killing the non-Muslims lying in a line on the ground, growing closer and closer to Douglas Ochwodho who was in the middle.” The article consistently mentions the perpetrators of the attack as being “Islamic extremists” (Fox News, 2014) although there is no detailed explanation as to what the attackers are seeking to achieve or what their grievances are to begin with. There is however, an extremely condensed history of their origins, which simply links them to al-Qaida and a summary of the attacks they have previously carried out, suggesting that these may be linked to Kenyan intervention in Somalia in 2011.
In addition to this, only a minor section of the article is devoted to explaining the rise in Al-Shabaab’s attack’s within Kenya as potentially being linked to the “longstanding grievances of Kenya’s Muslim community, such as official discrimination and marginalisation” (Fox News, 2014). The rest of the article in contrast is concerned with a detailed narrative of how the event transpired and the harsh condemnation and responses of both the Kenyan and United States governments. Furthering this, the tone of the article is in keeping with the dramatic description of the attack and as such gives little attention to any profounder motives and issues which may exist. Thus, the attack is portrayed as nothing more than Islamic extremists aimlessly attacking non-Muslims.
The rise of Al Shabaab
The group responsible for the attack, Al-Shabaab (Harakat Al-Shabaab) meaning the ‘Youth’ or ‘Youth Movement’ emerged in the early 2000’s, approximately in 2004 (Marchal 2009). Its origins and growth is complex due to the domestic clannishness within Somali society, but is agreed to be rooted in the Union of Islamic Courts. Mwangi (2012) explains Al-Shabaab’s rise followed the UIC’s defeat by the Transitional Federal Government and Ethiopian forces in early 2007, from which they distinctly emerged as a palpable force of their own and launched an insurgency against the TFG and Ethiopian ‘occupying forces’. The ideology it holds is a Salafi-Jihadist movement although it has been labelled by many as Wahhabist due to its avocation of extreme Islam. It therefore has a ‘global jihadist vision’ whilst simultaneously upholding a ‘Greater Somalia’ nationalist ideology, the latter of which contributed to its successful recruitment, and the former causing the Somali people to overwhelmingly reject it (Aynte 2012; Solomon 2014). Much of the international grievances held by Al-Shabaab are attributed to being a result of the US and its allies foreign policies within the Middle East. Many of the founding members previously travelled to Afghanistan where they saw the impact of such policies. As such, they believed the only option they had to protect themselves, as well as seek revenge, was to carry out a Jihad against the ‘Kufaar’(Marchal 2009).
Since 2006 Al Shabaab has increasingly drawn attention to its cause through the use of suicide bombings, its declaration of loyalty to the international network of al-Qaida and its ability to reach out on a global scale to recruit Somali diaspora (Hansen 2013). Despite the international element to the organisation however, Hansen (2013: 2) further argues that “Al Shabaab’s modus operandi suggests an organisation with a local focus, and its attacks since 2007 have been directly connected to local warfare, even when attacking outside Somalia.” Thus, Al-Shabaab has seemingly developed from other offshoots of the UIC into an organised faction, attempting to balance internal clan related issues within Somalia alongside the ideologically driven motivation of Islamic order.
Classifying Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation
Since 2008, Al-Shabaab have been classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States, with Australia following suit in 2009, and The United Kingdom and Canada soon afterwards in 2010 (Hansen 2013). But the definition of ‘terrorism’ is widely debated and there is no universally accepted description of the concept. Jenkins (1980) explains the difficulty in defining terrorism lies with the fact that the very word has become a ‘fad’ used far too promiscuously, often being applied to acts that are not strictly acts of terrorism. Moreover, the word itself draws attention, particularly within the media and as such adds to the drama surrounding the violence. Once a group has been labelled a ‘terrorist’ every act they carry out regardless of the intended outcomes will be labelled terrorism. Despite the difficulties of labelling terrorism however, there are common features which can be identified within most formal definitions. As Martin (2013) notes, these include the use of illegal force, subnational actors, unconventional methods, political motives, attacks against “soft” civilian and passive military targets, and finally acts aimed at purposefully affecting an audience.
The attack carried out by Al-Shabaab clearly retains such characteristics. All 28 killed were civilians, 17 of whom were teachers, many travelling home for the Christmas holidays. The perpetrators clearly differentiated between their victims, forcing them to recite the Shahada and killing them when they could not. Subsequently this event can be classified as a definite act of terrorism. It is worth further elaborating however, as to what category this act of terrorism can be classified as. According to Martin’s (2013) typologies, the attack on the bus can be considered both an act of ‘Religious Terrorism’ as well as ‘Terrorism by Dissidents.’ It can be considered an act of religious terror based on the group’s upheld belief in waging a jihad in defence of Islam; they believe themselves to be mujahedeen (holy warriors). Amble and Meleagrou-Hitchens (2014: 1) furthers this,
“the universal nature of the call to jihad is among its most defining features [within the movement Al-Shabaab claim membership]. Jihad transcends borders and is obligatory for all Muslims in order to defend their brothers and sisters around the world.”
In reference to its ‘dissident terrorism’ classification, it can be considered such due to it being committed by a non-state movement against a perceived enemy. The victims, primarily Kenyan Christians, were chosen arguably because they represent an obstacle to the spread of Islam within the region, a significant objective within the Al-Shabaab organisation. As well as being considered a reprisal for the intervention by Kenyan forces in Somalia in 2011, under the military operation ‘Operation Linda Nchi.’ An in-depth analysis into the main reasons behind the hijacking of the bus and the subsequent killings will be detailed further in the ‘causes of the attack’ section of this work.
It is crucial however, to note that religion is not the only contributing factor to the rationale behind the Al-Shabaab attack. Whilst religion appears to be the fundamental motivation, local clan politics play a significant role in the actions taken by Al-Shabaab. Thus, it would be too simplistic to reduce their attacks to just religious dissidence. As Schaefer and Black (2011) explain, despite Al-Sabaab’s claims to transcend clan politics within Somalia through its pro-Al Qaida rhetoric and strict Islamic identity, they are still very much influenced by Somali clan politics. They further, that in an effort to face the occupying Ethiopian forces Al-Shabaab were able to link both their extremist religious agenda with the nationalist identity against a “common enemy” of Ethiopia, gaining clan support across the country in a way that would not have been possible without the presence of such an enemy. But close analysis of their conflicts since Ethiopian forces withdrawal expose prominent clan dynamics; a prime example being the seizing of control of the port of Kismayo in 2009. The port itself holds great strategic value and Al Shabaab ousted a former ally in Hizb al-Islam allowing them to gain control.
Causes of the attack
Both the causes of the attack, and the type of terrorist organisation Al Shabaab is defined as, are intrinsically linked together. Thus, both primary and secondary motives play a significant role in the attacking on the bus in Kenya. Mwangi (2012) details three key reasons behind Al-Shabaab’s particular targeting of Kenya, which can be founded in both religious and political agendas. These include the political and military support given by Kenya to the TFG in Somalia, its support of US counterterrorism measures which especially target Somalia and its citizens, and finally its perception of Kenya being a Christian state which it deems to be a hindrance to the spread of Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa.
With regards to the political and military support given by Kenya, Operation Linda Nchi (beginning October 2011) in particular is highlighted as being a significant contributor to the increase in attacks on Kenyan soil, carried out by Al-Shabaab. Boulden (2013) explains that Operation Linda Nchi (meaning ‘Protect the Nation’ in Swahili) occurred primarily because of two reasons. First there was a mass exodus of refugees crossing the Somalia-Kenya border due to the famine within Somalia. Second was the kidnapping of a number of foreign nationals (including NGO workers and teachers) along this same border. Because of this, Kenyan officials increased fortifications along this frontier and deployed troops into Somalia with the objective of creating a buffer zone between the two countries in order to reduce the risk of Al-Shabaab operations within Kenya. It is estimated that 2400 Kenyan troops entered Somalia at this time, meeting harsh local resistance. Arguably, as a direct result of the operation, by 2012 “almost one-quarter of the group’s attacks (22.7%) took place throughout Kenya, primarily in Garissa (13 attacks), Nairobi (8 attacks), Wajir (4 attacks), Mandera (4 attacks), and Ifo (4 attacks)” (START, 2013).
In addition to this, Kenya has also been supportive of the US counterterrorism measures taken within Somalia, in which the US heavily invested in the training and equipping of the African Union peacekeepers, who served as an opposing force to Al Shabaab. As well as working with the Somali federal government in order to replace the peacekeepers with the national security forces (Bass and Zimmerman 2013). Kenya in return has been provided with “127 million U.S dollars in terms of security assistance since 2011 to support counter-terrorism and border security programmes and for the procurement of aircraft, patrol boats, and equipment upgrades” (Xuequan 2014). Thus, Kenya is deemed to be working with, and benefiting from, its current relationship with the United States, whom Al Shabaab undeniably sees as its enemy.
Finally, the nation of Kenya itself is made up of approximately 80% Christian citizens, 10% Muslims and less than 1% follow Hinduism, Sikhism, Baha’I and traditional indigenous religions (US department of State 2012). Al Shabaab sees Kenya as an institutionally Christian state and as such, have utilised this in order to gain the support of Kenyan Muslims, whom they argue are marginalised and treated as second class citizens. In 2007 the US Department of State noted that there had been “very few reports of societal abuse or discrimination based on religious belief or practice” (US Department of State 2007). However, the latest version of this report in 2012 noted that there had been a number of changes to the actions of the Kenyan government, including allowing some schools to ban the wearing of the hijab in class and increased scrutiny towards ethnically Somali Kenyans. Arguably, Al Shabaab has played on and exploited this growing religious divide in order to achieve its own objective of spreading its version of Islam in the region. By repeatedly claiming it is in defence of Kenyan Muslims it has been able not just carry out attacks within Kenya, but has also been able to recruit members, many of whom are jobless and frustrated youths living in Mombasa and surrounding coastal areas (News24 2014).
Outcome, responses and looking ahead
At a very rudimentary level the terrorists did in fact achieve their outcomes of this specific attack. They sought to inflict terror whilst gaining the national and subsequent international attention they desired. However, the aims of the organisation are not simply about gaining attention to their cause. Al Shabaab is intent on establishing an Islamic State within Somalia as well as ridding the nation of any outside forces. Moreover, it has a specific military wing, the Al Quds brigade, which is solely devoted to the destruction of the State of Israel (Anti-Defamation League 2013). Thus it is clear the motivation behind the attack is still rife. Al Shabaab is part of a collective movement, linking themselves to Al-Qaida in both ideology and manpower. The overarching issues facing the Middle East, such as the impact of Western interference as well as domestic Somali issues must be addressed and rectified before there can be any hope of stopping recruitment in the organisation to begin with.
With particular reference to Kenya, a report in The Guardian (2014) stated that following the attack on the bus, Kenyan security forces carried out a series of strikes killing approximately 100 Al-Shabaab members near the town of Mandera, close to the Kenya-Somalia border. The report claims that two successful operations were carried out, killing a large number of targets, as well as destroying several Al-Shabaab owned vehicles and weaponries. Moreover, reports claim that since the attack four Mosques have been closed in the Kenyan city of Mombasa based on the belief the places of worship had become synonymous with religious extremism. Whilst this act of retribution may have a temporary effect of appeasement, in the long term it is likely to be used as propaganda in order to recruit more members from within Kenya. Anneli (2014) argues that it is vital in the fight against terrorism to ensure that the diversity of Kenya is celebrated and respected. If trust deteriorates based on religious and ethnic differences, then Kenya is threatened with a divide that is likely to ensure radicalisation will continue to rise. It is crucial that the Kenyan government work to employ strategies which build a national identity which is all inclusive; else this cycle of radicalisation is set to continue.
With reference to Al Shabaab in Somalia, Williams (2014) argues that the best course of action to counter terrorism is to ensure the recovery and development of the political structures within the country. This includes “finalizing the national constitution and agreeing how to put into practice federalism and the decentralization of power beyond Mogadishu” (Williams 2014: 923). This in turn will aid in the security of the nation and ensure Somalia is not vulnerable to an increase in support for Al Shabaab.
Al Shabaab has proven itself to be an organised and threatening force in the face of the world arena. It has shown its ability to gain the support of marginalised Muslims in and around the region, as well as Somali diaspora around the globe. It has managed, quite uniquely, to unite clans within Somalia based on a belief in higher power and a greater good. It has also succeeding it attacking outside its home nation for several political motivations. But Al Shabaab is not a representation of Somalia as a whole. It presents an extreme ideology which many Muslim scholars throughout the world have denounced as terrorism, which is something that needs to be made abundantly clear, now more so than ever. Whilst it could be argued that it is difficult to include as much detail in a news report relating to Al Shabaab as it would a scholarly essay, it is vital that the news which is reported is done so to a standard which includes more facts relating to the wider issue facing the region, as opposed to focusing on narrating a ‘sensationalised’ event.
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