Deadly attacks this week in Mpeketoni, Kenya have left many wondering what Somali militant group al-Shabab hoped to accomplish with the killings. Experts say the attacks – for which the group quickly claimed responsibility – are unlikely to broaden the militants’ support base among Swahili-speakers in Kenya or the region.
Roland Marchal, senior Research Fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, says this kind of “havoc violence” does little to advance the group’s political aims or gain recruits.
“Whether they want to prove that they are able to learn from ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] in Iraq or other groups in Syria, I believe they already made the case, they killed so many innocent people for nothing,” Marchal says. “You could have strategy to deteriorate the relations between Christians and Muslims in Kenya, but what they have been doing over the last year with some scale, this kind of violence is not readable that way, because you kill people who have absolutely no say in anything, so the point is lost in this mass killings.”
In recent years al-Shabab has made significant success in infiltrating East Africa and recruiting followers who either go to Somalia to fight alongside the group or carry out operations in nearby countries, including Kenya. Some experts put the number of east Africans who work with al-Shabab at more than 1,000.
But Marchal said the attack in Mpeketoni also undermines the group’s strategy for creating more support in the region.
“Over the last year, after their leadership crisis after June, Shabab sent back Swahili speakers back into East Africa, mostly Kenya, and the purpose was not to get rid of non-useful fighters inside Somalia but try to bring military or terror experts to these countries and hoping those trained people will be able to build branches or new movements that would imitate Shabab, “ he says. “They have been successful to certain point in Kenya. So why act in a way that is contradicting the strategic plans made by the Shabab leadership?”
The Somali militant group said it carried out the attacks to avenge the killing of Muslim scholars in the Kenyan city of Mombasa, which it blames on Kenyan security forces.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said al-Shabab was not behind the Mpeketoni attacks, which he described instead as politically motivated ethnic violence.
Experts say they believe Al-Shabab was involved directly or indirectly.
“Without knowing what lies behind the president’s words, it’s entirely possible perhaps, even likely that al-Shabab affiliate al-Hijra which is comprised of mainly non-Somali Kenyans would have been involved in this attack because it required local knowledge, it required understanding local politics and dynamic and it required people to be able to survey the target and to plan the operation without being detected in rural areas, where strangers would have been noticed,” said Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Research, a think tank in Nairobi, Kenya.
Al-Hijra was created in 2008 in Kenya. In 2012, the group merged with al-Shabab when al-Hijra leader Ahmed Iman Ali gave his allegiance to al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.
The merger means that al-Shabab could claim responsibility for the Mpeketoni attacks, even if al-Hijra carried them out, according to Bryden.
But he adds that Swahili-speaking al-Shabab supporters have been with the group for years, and are capable of carrying out the attacks.
Other experts have raised questions whether there are other hidden forces that may have carried out the attack. Some hinted at involvement of the Mombasa Republican Council, a group with separatist tendencies.
Experts also say the attack required intricate planning that would not be work of an amateur organization.
“The attack required a well-organized, apparently trained and quiet disciplined force,; it required considerable planning and it required large numbers of weapons, and either explosives or incendiaries,” Bryden says. “There is no other group in Kenya that is known to possess those capabilities. So either this is what appears to be an al-Shabab - al-Hijra attack or some as yet unidentified group has been able to put together force of this nature with its capabilities under the noses of Kenyan intelligence and police which would represent a remarkable intelligence failure. “
Experts believe a combination of security and political measures could turn the tide against the group.
“The point is what the Kenyan authorities are and international community is going to do?” asks Marchal. “Are we going to keep a policy that provides Shabab with the means to get regional or are we trying to curb that by getting back to politics… [Authorities need] to keep acting on the security side but also to bring into the discussion some elements of new policies, dialogue and take on board social consideration that has been completely lost for years in Somalia and in the region.”
All governments in the region need to stop the radicalization of Muslims, according to Marchal.
“What I see the strategy followed by al-Shabab is to get radicalized Muslims who are not yet violent or not yet thinking about terrorist tactics to use them and to boost them, and to cross the red line so they will have no solution except to join or to work with al-Shabab. This is the current situation in Kenya. This is why we need much more sophisticated [responses] from the Kenyan state.”