Garissa is a borderland. It is hard to understand the peculiar risks it faces without understanding its history. It is both peripheral and significant within Kenya, a contested terrain in which intense rivalries play out between local people and across its boundaries. 

Before independence from British rule, Garissa was not formally within Kenya: it was part of the Northern Frontier District (NFD). In 1925 the British carved the NFD out of Jubaland – the rest of which now lies across an international border in Somalia. 

Historically, ethnic Somalis have been the dominant population in Garissa. In the run-up to Kenya’s independence, many believed they would be free to unite with a greater Somalia. When Kenya decided to fold the NFD into Kenya, an armed struggle ensued. ‘Shifta’ is a Somali term meaning bandit, and – partly to undermine the struggle – the secessionist conflict became known in Kenya as the Shifta War. 

The creation of ‘protected villages’ by counter-insurgency units, and the killing of many Somalis along with their livestock, traumatised and changed Garissa. Even after the Shifta War formally ended in 1967, unrest persisted for decades. Some Somali leaders remained in prison till the late 1970s, and emergency rule in the then North Eastern Province remained in place until 1991. [12]

Somalia may be a different country now, but of Garissa county’s people 70 percent are still (Kenyan) Somali. The county also hosts hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. A knock-on effect of the tense security environment and the high refugee population is that many people in Garissa find that “getting an ID is almost impossible”. [13] Security concerns led the government to close the Garissa regional passport office in September 2014. For most Kenyans, proof of your parents’ nationality is required, but local Somalis complain that they are required to produce proof of their grandparents’ identity too.  As ISS have noted, this is a significant reason why Kenyan Muslims feel discriminated against. [14]

This issue matters a great deal. Even for those who have ID, checkpoints and random searches make moving freely a challenge. Without proof of identity, there is no chance of a job as a teacher, a policeman, a soldier or a civil servant, and it is difficult to access government services. As a group of young people explained to us, “There is a general marginalisation from the national government on issuing IDs, education and health programmes”. [15]

Indeed, Garissa is officially one of Kenya’s ‘most marginalised’ counties. [16] A paved road links Nairobi to Garissa town, but the road north to Wajir is untarmacked and patchy. On the unpaved, poorly signed roads trailing east, one could easily stumble unawares across the border into Somalia. Health services and schools are inadequate, especially in rural areas. And “youth unemployment is common in both refugees and the host community,” as a peace worker explained. [17]

Much of the economy is based around cattle, and there is little water to go around. This means that conflict often revolves around disputes over water and land for pasture. 

Although Garissa remains poor, when outside investment and development has reached Garissa, there have been tensions. East Africa’s largest proposed infrastructure project, the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopian Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor, passes through Garissa. As land along the route has become more valuable, it has become a bone of contention. 

The arrival of new people with modern customs and dress has also jarred with local culture. “Hizi nguo mnavalia hapa mtavalia kaburini” was a phrase recalled by one local religious leader. It means: “the tight fitting [western] clothes you are wearing now, you will wear in your graves”. [18] 

While such hate is hard to comprehend, some of the anger felt by Kenyan Muslims is rooted in a very tangible history of marginalisation. A Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission appointed by former President Kibaki in 2007 noted that: it is harder for Muslims to get passports and IDs; most Muslim areas are deprived of public and private investment; Muslims are under-represented in senior public service roles; and the Anti-Terror Police Unit and other security actors often violate the law in their treatment of Muslims. [19]

The remedies proposed by this Commission were, however, largely ignored. [20] Thus it is hardly surprising that (with some notable exceptions), “few, if any, Muslim community leaders easily align themselves with the government”. [21] Another challenge for Kenya’s Muslims is that the ‘Christian ethos’ of Kenya’s politics “has taken on a pentecostal and stridently evangelical tone which at best excludes Muslims and at worst is openly hostile to them”. [22]

Aside from being marginalised, Kenya’s Muslims are also divided amongst themselves. Wahhabism has grown increasingly influential in Kenya in recent decades. Garissa town had five Wahhabi madrassas by the early 1990s. [23] The Wahhabist critique of secular political order set its adherents at odds with an older generation of Kenyan Muslims who were closer to the political establishment. [24]

Garissa and its people may be marginalised in many ways, but ethnic Somalis in fact dominate its power structures. These days, top Kenyan Somali leaders are prominent figures in national politics. Garissa Member of Parliament Aden Duale is a majority leader in the National Assembly of Kenya for the ruling Jubilee coalition. 

Garissa became a county under the new Kenyan constitution of 2010. In 2013, a county government was elected and funds were devolved – a move which was widely welcomed by communities in the county. The process has not gone smoothly though: the fight for power at county level can be intense; and relations between elected county governments and presidentially appointed county commissioners have sometimes been acrimonious, and have hindered the provision of security. There are also significant public concerns about how county funds are being spent – for example, a deal to lease unneeded ambulances at enormous cost in Garissa county led to a national outcry. [25]

The county’s fraught politics are intertwined with the complex Somali clan structures that extend across into Somalia and upward into Ethiopia. 

When the Somali state collapsed in 1991, its people naturally needed something to rely on for protection and survival. This strengthened the bonds of kinship that both tie Somali people together and tear them apart. Affiliations stretch up from immediate family ties to membership of great clan groups. Within the four big Somali clans, there are many levels of sub-clan – links that run all the way back down to the family level. 

Within the Darood clan, the Ogaden are a significant sub-clan. On the Somalia side of the border, Ogaden influence pervades the transborder area from the coast and the economically important port of Kismayo right up through Jubaland. On the Kenya side, the Ogaden are dominant from the coast, throughout Garissa county, and north into Wajir. 

Although the Ogaden dominate Garissa, as a religious leader explained: “This county has clan dominated conflicts in all areas”. [26] Ogaden sub-clans in the County are intensely competitive with each other. This competition determines the distribution of resources and political affiliations, as well as who is in conflict with who. 

Each sub-clan has its sphere of influence: Abudwaq dominate Garissa township and Fafi; Abdalla have primacy in the southern part of the county; and the areas around Dadaab, Lagdeera and Balambala fall to the Auliyahan. Although there are also minority clans, these three Ogaden sub-clans control Garissa county, and their members compete to extend their influence. For example, between Garissa township and Lagdeera lies Dujis, an area that is therefore contested between the Auliyahan and the Abudwaq sub-clans. 

Aside from tensions over territory, these three groups are in intense competition over the control of constituencies and political posts. The Abudwaq have more influence within the national government, but the Auliyahan are making up for this at the county level. The Abdalla (despite close ties to the Abudwaq) tend to ally with whichever group offers better terms. 

There are also conflicts across county boundaries. With water and grazing land in short supply, pastoralists bring cattle across the Garissa-Tana River county boundary, involving local Somalis in fights against the Pokomo farmers to protect their resources. Another dispute relates to the claim that Wajir county is expanding into Garissa – a political dispute that is also bound up with clan dynamics.  Somalis from Lagdera in Garissa have long been at loggerheads with Borana from Isiolo county over access to water and pasture. 

Garissa is also a county where tensions play out between ‘locals’ and ‘outsiders’. Such tensions include resentment about the impacts of new investments and customs on local traditions and property. 

But the most important trans-border issue affecting Garissa’s recent past, and potentially its future, is how it links to events in Somalia, and Kenya’s role there. As we know, the violence in Garissa has been widely publicised – but violence inside Somalia has been hard to report and poorly understood in the outside world.  

Suspected members of al-Shabaab under guard in Kismayo shortly after its recapture by Kenyan, Somali and Ras Kamboni forces, October 2012. Photo: UN Photo/Amnisom/Stuart Price

Suspected members of al-Shabaab under guard in Kismayo shortly after its recapture by Kenyan, Somali and Ras Kamboni forces, October 2012. Photo: UN Photo/Amnisom/Stuart Price

Although the Kenyan military officially entered Somalia in 2011, many local people talked to us about its earlier alleged engagement. A report based on Wikileaks diplomatic cables alleges that in 2009, as Shabaab grew in strength near the Kenyan border, Kenya began mobilising and training a force of 4,000 Somalis. Most were from Somalia, but many came from Garissa as well as nearby Isiolo, Marsabit, Mandera and Wajir counties. [27] They were deployed in a low-profile initiative to combat Shabaab within Somalia, reportedly at the request of the transitional Somali Government and the commander of the Ras Kamboni militia – former Islamist Commander and Islamic Courts Union Governor of Lower Juba region Ahmed Madobe. [28]

The initiative was opposed by local religious leaders and many Kenyan MPs – including the powerful Garissa town MP Aden Duale. [29] We even heard that one local politician retrieved young members of his clan from the Manyani paramilitary training camp. However, as one participant in a focus group discussion said: “The young men who were left are not accounted for to date”. [30] Many locals remain bitter about this.

Little is known about what happened to many of these young people. Some, lacking combat experience, are presumed to have died fighting, others escaped and returned or disappeared – perhaps fearing official recrimination as deserters or as suspected Shabaab infiltrators.  Others may have defected to al-Shabaab. [31]

Nor is it clear why these young men were not incorporated into the Kenyan security forces at an official level. According to the Sunday Nation:

A retired director of military intelligence said: “These young men became quickly disappointed when the promises that were made to them did not come through. Instead of fighting, they quickly dissolved into their clans with their weapons”. [32]

What is clear is that Kenya felt threatened by and was already engaged in conflict with Shabaab before the official invasion in October 2011. Thus Kenya’s conflict with al-Shabaab had already drawn in hundreds of Garissa’s young people by the time attacks in Garissa began to mount. [33]

When Kenyan forces officially entered Somalia in 2011, a number of interests were at stake. Firstly, Kenya wanted security on its borders and to suppress a movement that was actively recruiting Kenyan followers. As Shabaab grew in Somalia, it expelled humanitarian agencies in the midst of a devastating famine. This drove hundreds of thousands of refugees into Garissa’s Dadaab complex, which had quadrupled in size in just six years to accommodate nearly half a million refugees. [34]

Somalis arriving at the Dadaab refugee camp in 2008. Photo: IRIN/Allan Gichigi

Somalis arriving at the Dadaab refugee camp in 2008. Photo: IRIN/Allan Gichigi

A second Kenyan objective was to assert military influence in a context where other regional powers were already getting involved. A third was capturing the port of Kismayo and cutting off Shabaab’s income from the port (estimated at $25 million per year). [35] However, Kismayo lay 300km into Somalia from the Kenyan border. Kenya could not hope to reach it without local support so it worked closely with Madobe’s Ras Kamboni and the Ogaden clansmen of the area in a bloody campaign that eventually routed Shabaab from Kismayo in 2012. In fact, Kenyan forces in Somalia still work closely and share bases with Ras Kamboni to date. 

More broadly, given the oil exploration in the disputed maritime waters between Kenya and Somalia, and the need to secure the region surrounding the LAPSSET corridor, the invasion was also economically motivated. [36] Of course, as it turned out, Kenyan intervention failed to prevent Shabaab from taxing goods that passed through Kismayo, [37] and the backlash dramatically destabilised northern and coastal counties like Garissa. 

Kenyan African Union troops advance on Shabaab near Kismayo, 30 September 2012. Photo: UN Photo/Stuart Price

Kenyan African Union troops advance on Shabaab near Kismayo, 30 September 2012. Photo: UN Photo/Stuart Price

The inexplicable and cruel violence taking place in Garissa was visible to many Kenyans and international observers, but many Somalis on both sides of the border would also have been aware of less visible but nonetheless indiscriminate and brutal violence within Somalia. Here, Shabaab was responsible for considerable violence, but at the same time, Kenyan forces were implicated in abuses that needlessly exacerbated grievances and opposition. Within a month of the Kenyan intervention, Human Rights Watch criticised Kenyan forces for two attacks on civilians: bombing and machine-gunning civilians at an IDP camp near Jilib, killing five people and injuring 31 children; and killing four elderly Kenyan fishermen. [38] The following month Kenyan forces allegedly bombed and machine gunned civilians in the village of Hosingow, southern Somalia, killing eleven civilians including seven children. [39] These attacks were part of a pattern in which “Kenyan air and naval forces… indiscriminately bombed and shelled populated areas, killing and wounding civilians and livestock”. [40] From 2012, Kenyan forces became part of the African Union (AU) forces in Somalia, who were also implicated in abuses. For example, in 2014, according to the Human Rights Watch: “AU troops and allied militias were responsible for indiscriminate attacks, sexual violence, and arbitrary arrests and detention”. [41]

Kenya’s Somali intervention also affected clan dynamics in a way that reverberated into Garissa. Apart from wanting to control Jubaland, Kenya wanted a buffer zone in Gedo to the north – another area within Somalia bordering Kenya. But Gedo is dominated by the Marehan, a Somali sub-clan whose influence is also important in Mandera – a Kenyan county north of Garissa. 

Gedo’s Marehan clansmen were opposed to Kenya establishing a buffer zone in their area of influence, and to the wider expansion of Ogaden influence that Kenya’s military alliance with the Ras Kamboni militia brought. These cleavages underpinned the bloody El-Ade attack [42] on Kenyan forces in Gedo, Somalia. Nonetheless, fighting Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces in Somalia was hard for Shabaab. Garissa, by contrast, was a softer target that could enable those angered by these developments to gain publicity and sow divisions within Kenya.  

A Kenyan AMISOM soldier in Kismayo, shortly after its capture from al-Shabaab, October 2012. Photo: UN Photo/Stuart Price

A Kenyan AMISOM soldier in Kismayo, shortly after its capture from al-Shabaab, October 2012. Photo: UN Photo/Stuart Price

A crackdown against terror attacks in Kenya also created a climate of fear for Kenyan Somalis and Somali refugees. According to one estimate, at least 21 Muslim clerics were killed by security agencies between April 2012 and July 2014, [43] with militants also accused of killing moderate preachers and Imams for countering radical ideology. [44] From 2012-14, police were reportedly demanding that ethnic Somalis pay ever higher bribes ever more frequently to avoid arrest. [45]

Then, in April 2014, the Kenyan government launched operation Usalama Watch (‘Security Watch’) – which was presented as a counter-terror measure to remove ‘foreigners’ from the country. Over 6,000 police and other security services rounded up people from Somali-dominated urban districts such as Eastleigh and South C districts in Nairobi. According to the government, over 4,000 people were arrested within the first week. [46] The operation ethnically targeted Somalis and victimised Muslims with random arrests, beatings, theft of property and widespread extortion. [47] In April and May 2014, ‘Kenya deported 359 Somalis, including registered refugees, to Mogadishu’. [48]

Usalama Watch undoubtedly alienated Kenya’s Somalis and Muslims, and was deeply felt in Garissa. Amid widespread condemnation by religious and political leaders, local MP Aden Duale threatened to withdraw his support from the ruling coalition in protest. Meanwhile, evidence of torture and extra-judicial killing of terror suspects continued to mount. [49]

The attacks on Garissa that began in 2011 took aim at a county that had suffered the harsh suppression of secessionist ambitions – a place with a history of marginalisation, that remained the site of intense political contestation between local sub-clans and which lay just across the border from the bloody war against al-Shabaab in Somalia. Both this war and domestic counter-terror measures created a context in which al-Shabaab could and would call on all Kenyan Muslims – including those in Garissa – to take arms against the Kenyan government. So how did local people interpret and react to these developments?


12. International Crisis Group, ‘Kenya’s Somali North East: Devolution and Security’, p 2
13. Participant in focus group discussion, Garissa town, January 2017
14. Institute for Security Studies (2014), ‘Radicalisation and al-Shabaab recruitment in Somalia’, September, p 8 (
15. Participant in focus group discussion, Garissa town, January 2017
16. International Crisis Group, ‘Kenya’s Somali North East: Devolution and Security’, p 3
17. Peace worker interview, Garissa town, January 2017
18. Religious leader interview, Garissa town, January 2017
19. International Crisis Group (2014), ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home’, 25 September, p 7 (
20. International Crisis Group (2014), ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home’, 25 September, p 7 (;
Anderson D, McKnight J (2014), ‘Kenya at war: al-Shabaab and its enemies in Eastern Africa’, p 20 (
21. Anderson D, McKnight J (2014), ‘Kenya at war: Al-Shabaab and its enemies in Eastern Africa’, p 20 (
22. Anderson D, McKnight J (2014), ‘Kenya at war: Al-Shabaab and its enemies in Eastern Africa’, p 20 (
23. International Crisis Group (2014), ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home’, 25 September, p 8 (
24. Ibid p 8
25. Ibid p 8
26. Key informant interview, religious leader, Garissa town, 9 January 2017
27. Daily Nation (2015), ‘How Kenya brought the Al-Shabaab cancer home’, 11 April (
28. Ibid
29. Ibid 
30. Focus group discussion, Garissa town, January 2017
31. Anderson D, McKnight J, ‘Understanding al-Shabaab: clan, Islam and insurgency in Kenya’, p 545
32. Daily Nation (2015), ‘How Kenya brought the Al-Shabaab cancer home’, 11 April (
33. See also
34. International Crisis Group, ‘Kenya’s Somali North East: Devolution and Security’, p 6
35. Anderson D, McKnight J (2014), ‘Kenya at war: Al-Shabaab and its enemies in Eastern Africa’, p 8 (
36. Ibid p 7
37. Ibid p 11
38. Human Rights Watch (2011), Kenya: Human Rights Concerns of Operation “Linda Nchi”’, 18 November (
39. Human Rights Watch (2011), ‘Kenya: Investigate Bombing of Somali Village ‘, 21 December (
40. Human Rights Watch, ‘World Report 2013: Somalia’ (
41. Ibid
42. Oladipo T (2016), ‘What happened when al-Shabab attacked a Kenyan base in Somalia?’, BBC, 22 January (
43. IRIN (2014), ‘Gunned down in Mombasa – the clerics that have died’, 28 July (
44. Anderson D, McKnight J (2014), ‘Kenya at war: Al-Shabaab and its enemies in Eastern Africa’, p 20 (
45. International Crisis Group (2014), ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home’, 25 September, p 13 (
46. Amnesty International (2014), ‘Somalis are scapegoats in Kenya’s counter-terror crackdown’, 27 May, p 6 (
47. Anderson D, McKnight J (2015), ‘Understanding al-Shabaab: clan, Islam and insurgency in Kenya’, p 547 ( Also see: Amnesty International (2014), ‘Kenya: Somalis scapegoated in couter-terror crackdown’, 27 May (
48. Human Rights Watch (2015), ‘World Report 2015: Somalia’ (
49. Human Rights Watch (2014), ‘Kenya: Killings, Disappearances by Anti-Terror Police’, 18 August (

Header photo: A fighter from the Ras Kamboni Brigade, who fought with Kenyan forces to capture Kismayo, Somalia, from al-Shabaab in October 2012. Photo UN Photo/Stuart Price