Shabaab’s attacks in Garissa followed a pattern familiar from elsewhere in Kenya. Aimed at businesses, churches, hotels, security forces and the university, they targeted non-Somali outsiders, who were chosen for reasons local people could identify with. In some cases, such as the killing of a prison guard near the Safari hotel, it is not clear whether an attack was the work of Shabaab or just a settling of local scores. 

The Somali community believe the targeting of churches was connected to issues between Muslims and Christians. According to a local Catholic priest, the way Christians dressed and held loud prayer services late at night may have been part of the reason why the two churches were attacked in July 2012. Municipal authorities had also allocated land for churches, and this had created resentment among Muslims (who have to buy the land for mosques to be built). Local women linked religious tensions to resentment over the killing of Muslim clerics and the unfair treatment of Muslims. [50] Against this backdrop, they explained that “fake thinking” had spread among some communities who believed that “if you kill as a terrorist you will be rewarded by God”. [51]

Likewise, hotels may have been targeted because they are owned by Kikuyus (members of Kenya’s dominant ethnic group, who are considered ‘outsiders’ in Garissa), or because the way they operate is considered ‘haram’ (forbidden by Islamic Law). For example, the sale of alcohol at Kwa Chege hotel in Garissa had annoyed some community members prior to the armed attack that left six people dead and a further ten injured in April 2013. 

As in the case of Lamu, [52] Shabaab’s strategy and targeting set out to create polarisation by playing on local grievances. One aim appears to have been to provoke a backlash on the population that might reverse the integration of the Somali North East into Kenya. If Shabaab could aggravate the enmity between Muslims and the security forces, this might win it enough support to destabilise Kenya – an effective counter-punch to Kenya’s operations in Somalia. 

At the same time, Shabaab’s statements about the violence in Kenya repeatedly frame it as a response to both the treatment of Kenyan Somalis and Kenya’s intervention and actions in Somalia. In April 2012, the first edition of Shabaab’s magazine Gaidi Mtaani (‘Terrorist on the street’), published in English and Swahili in Kenya, set out to counter the KDF Operation Linda Nchi (‘Protect the Country’) by dubbing its own efforts Linda Uislamu (‘Protect Islam’). [53]

On 18 May 2014, Kenyan planes began airstrikes on what it claimed were Shabaab militants in Jilib, Middle Juba. [54] Shabaab sources claimed that civilians had been killed. [55] Four days later, Shabaab ideologue Sheikh Fuaad Mohamed Khalaf ‘Shongole’ urged all Muslims in Kenya to “take up arms and fight the Kenyan Government” because it had “killed your children both inside Somalia and inside Kenya”. [56]

During the university attack, the gunmen demanded that the October 2011 invasion and occupation of parts of Somalia by the KDF must end. [57] One of the gunmen was described as a law graduate and son of a local government security official. A statement by Shabaab two days after the attack said the attackers wanted to “avenge the deaths of thousands of Muslims killed at the hands of the Kenyan security forces.” It spoke of Kenyan security forces’ “unspeakable atrocities against the Muslims of East Africa,” and warned that they would “stop at nothing… until your government ceases its oppression and until all Muslim lands are liberated from Kenyan occupation”. [58]

As a member of the County Assembly said, “The attacks came about after the KDF went to Somalia”. [59] Indeed, a very wide cross section of those Saferworld spoke to in Garissa took it at face value that the attacks in Garissa were motivated by revenge for the presence and conduct of the KDF in Somalia – speaking, for example, of alleged atrocities perpetrated by soldiers, including rape and the killing of children. [60]

At the same time, Shabaab was making the effort to connect its struggle specifically to conditions in Garissa. According to one interviewee, Gamadhere (an alias of Shabaab commander Mohamed Mohamud Ali, who had roots in Garissa), criticised a local imam for siding with the Kenyan authorities against Shabaab by saying that “you support guys who have refused to give us IDs and build our roads”. 

Some locals saw attacks on security actors as an expression of local resentment over being targeted by security forces. A local peace worker said: “Security agencies came in and arrested any innocent people and suspects and never returned them back,” [61] so many people were initially indifferent when the police were targeted. Others said:  “Some join to revenge against government torture on terror suspects”. [62] Other locals explained that corruption was the flipside of this torture problem: “Returnees or terror suspects have to offer bribes if they are arrested – or they can be tortured”. [63]

Others still linked the attacks not only to the disappearance of arrested youth and extra-judicial killing, [64] but also to the fate of youth recruited to fight Shabaab in Somalia, as this focus group member pointed out: [65]

“People are bitter – their sons were taken to go and fight in Somalia and never returned back – so an attack on Kenyan soil makes a good feeling”. [66]

Such findings echo those of the Institute for Security Studies, who found in interviews with Shabaab recruits in Kenya that roughly two-thirds saw themselves as motivated by security force abuses, including “collective punishment” and “extra-judicial killings of Muslims”. [67] 

Both Shabaab and Kenyan forces played a role in the escalation of violence before the Kenyan invasion in October 2011, and the violence increased on both sides after that point. At the same time, Shabaab’s vision of creating a caliphate in Muslim-dominated areas of East Africa contravenes the territorial integrity of many countries in the region including Kenya. So it seems likely that Kenya would have faced Shabaab attacks at some point even if the KDF had not entered Somalia. 

Either way, it is obvious that Shabaab’s strategy for fighting back and sowing division in Kenya partly succeeded. Even in 2011, it was estimated that Shabaab counted between 200 and 500 Kenyans within its ranks. [68] Likewise, its operations in Garissa drew on a considerable amount of local involvement and support. According to Anderson and McKnight, “a Kenya National Intelligence Service report, leaked in October 2013, acknowledged that al-Shabaab controlled some two-thirds of Garissa county”. [69] Four of five people arrested for involvement two days after the university attack were Kenyan Somalis. [70] One was a security guard at the university. Although one of the attackers was Tanzanian, many locals affirm that they must have been hosted by the local community. Indeed, a local Christian leader recalled being told, “if you hear an attack has happened in this town, know that the local Somali community leaders are aware. The attackers are actually housed by the local community”. [71]

At the same time, it isn’t clear how widespread local support really was. Another aspect of the local reaction, at least to early attacks in Garissa, was indifference: “There was initial sympathy for the violent attacks as they targeted ‘haram’ lodges and pubs”. [72] At first, many local Somalis didn’t see the attacks as their problem: the churches and hotels were not places of concern to them, and they resented those who frequented them, considering them as outsiders who didn’t follow local customs. 

However, indifference to these attacks was far from the whole story. Some of Garissa’s leaders and communities reacted against the violence from the beginning, with compassion for the victims and solidarity across identity divides. For example, local sheikhs played a role in protecting local churches. [73] Because of this, the government became more inclined to listen to them later on. “Muslim communities and their leaders engaged the local community of other faiths,” as a peace worker explained. Many people we spoke to told us about both “community dialogues” and “joint prayers between Muslims and Christians”. [76] 

The effectiveness of terror attacks hinges on their ability to cut through indifference. As the attacks mounted, all local people felt the backlash. In a wider context of Kenya’s increasingly forceful counter-terror operations, security was beefed up in Garissa. Arrests, beatings and torture of local people became a routine occurrence, and resentment began to grow.  So although “initially the attacks were targeted to the Christians” according to a senior security agent, “the effects of the attacks were severe on the local communities”. [77] Another way in which the violence was adding to local divisions was that “the Muslim community accused the Christians of not talking against too much security in Garissa and discriminatory arrest of local youths”. [78]

A Kenyan police commander discusses policing practices with a young man in Lamu County – another hotspot in Kenya’s war with al-Shabaab. Photo: Margot Kiser

A Kenyan police commander discusses policing practices with a young man in Lamu County – another hotspot in Kenya’s war with al-Shabaab. Photo: Margot Kiser

People identified November 2012 as the first turning point. Following the killing of three of its men, the army reacted by burning the market in Garissa town and shooting local residents. This was a moment when indifference became untenable.

People identified November 2012 as the first turning point. Following the killing of three of its men, the army reacted by burning the market in Garissa town and shooting local residents. This was a moment when indifference became untenable. We were told how “anyone who looked like a Somali or a Muslim” was taken into custody, young or old. At this point, local religious leaders felt impelled to impress upon their communities that “this is about all of us”. Political leaders from the local to the national level came together to discuss the problem. There was a lot of inter-faith dialogue. What was unusual, at this point, was the strength of voices calling on communities to reject the escalating logic of tit-for-tat violence – rather than succumb to it.

Although there were already ongoing efforts to promote unity and reject violence, the violence continued to mount until the shocking Garissa University college attack of 2015. 

When local people were asked for the full story of the university attack, they painted a familiar scene. The University was again a faultline in local tensions. The recent creation of the university had displaced Garissa Technical Training College to a new site. This had generated conflict over the now valuable surrounding land, leading to a large amount of fighting and killing in the area. [79] Because the university lies close to the route of the LAPSSET transport corridor, some believe the university attack was in part an attempt to drive people off the increasingly valuable land. Another issue was the culture clash: the university’s students were from all over Kenya. They dressed and behaved differently to locals. Many local girls were unhappy that young cosmopolitan female students were luring away local Muslim boys. 

Header photo: Mural at Garissa University College. Photo: © Garissa University College

Header photo: Mural at Garissa University College. Photo: © Garissa University College

So, many local people had wanted to close both the university college and the technical college. As in Lamu, Shabaab attacked to avenge Kenyan actions in Somalia, but did so in a way that tapped into local divisions. Gamadhere, the Shabaab commander who ordered the attacks, was formerly the principal of the Madrasa Najah School in Garissa, [80] and was apparently motivated by localised grievances. In addition, some of the attackers were of local origin. Likewise, many local people asserted that even if the attackers were not local, local people must have known about this attack in advance and sheltered the perpetrators. Yet this context of localised grievance and a degree of local support stood in stark contrast to the predominant reaction to the University college attack.


Footnotes

50. Focus group discussion with women, Garissa town, January 2017.  Same points made by participants in a focus group discussion with a mixed group, Garissa town, January 2017
51. Focus group discussion with women, Garissa town, January 2017.  Same points made by participants in a focus group discussion with a mixed group, Garissa town, January 2017
52. Saferworld (2016), ‘Inside Kenya’s war on terror: the case of Lamu’ (https://saferworld-indepth.squarespace.com/inside-kenyas-war-on-terror-the-case-of-lamu)
53. Hiiraan Online (2012), ‘Al-Shabaab attemps to terrorise Kenyans with online magazine’, 8 August (https://hiiraan.com/news4/2012/Aug/25402/al_shabaab_attempts_to_terrorise_kenyans_with_online_magazine.aspx)
54. KeydMedia (2014), ‘Kenyan Airstrikes target Somalia’s Shebab near Jilib, killing 50 Militants’, 21 May (http://www.keydmedia.net/en/news/article/kenyan_airstrikes_target_somalias_shebab_near_jilib_killing_50_militan)
55. International Crisis Group (2014), ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home’, 25 September, p 4 (https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/kenya/kenya-al-shabaab-closer-home)
56. Ibid
57. Odera A, ‘Garissa: Afraid of Rainbows’, The Journalist (http://www.thejournalist.org.za/spotlight/afraid-of-rainbows)
58. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-3025356/Somalias-Shebab-warn-Kenyan-public-long-gruesome-war.html
59. Interview with Member of County Assembly, Garissa town, January 2017
60. Focus group discussion, Garissa town, January 2017
61. Interview with peace worker, Garissa town, January 2017; echoed by participants in a Focus group discussion, Garissa town, January 2017
62. Focus group discussion, Garissa town, January 2017
63. Ibid
64. Focus group discussion with university students, Garissa town, January 2017
65. Focus group discussion, Garissa town, January 2017
66. Ibid
67. Institute for Security Studies (2014), ‘Radicalisation in Kenya’, p 20 (https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/Paper266.pdf)
68. International Crisis Group (2014), ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home’, 25 September, p 4 (https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/kenya/kenya-al-shabaab-closer-home)
69. Anderson D, McKnight J (2014), ‘Kenya at war: Al-Shabaab and its enemies in Eastern Africa’, p 20 (https://afraf.oxfordjournals.org/content/114/454/1.abstract)
70. Newsweek (2015), ‘Kenya arrests five over deadly al-Shabaab attack on university’, 4 April (http://www.newsweek.com/five-arrested-kenya-al-shabaab-attack-319666)
71. Interview with local religious leader, Garissa town, January 2017  
72. Interview with NGO representative, Garissa town, January 2017  
73. Interview with local religious leader, Garissa town, January 2017  
74. Interview with peace worker, Garissa town, January 2017  
75. Focus group discussion, Garissa town, January 2017  
76. Interview with Christian clergyman, Garissa town, January 2017  
77. Interview with senior security agent, Garissa town, January 2017   
78.  Interview with Christian clergyman, Garissa town, January 2017  
79.  Interview with religious leader, Garissa town, January 2017  
80. Daily Nation (2015) ‘Government names Mohamed Kuno as Garissa University College attack mastermind’, 2 April (http://www.nation.co.ke/news/Mohamed-Kuno-Garissa-College-attack-mastermind/-/1056/2674114/-/co6umw/-/index.html)

Header photo: A Kenyan soldier examines the Shabaab flag painted on Kismaayo airport, shortly after the town’s recapture, October 2012. Photo: AU-Un inst. / Stuart Price / AMISOM Public Information