Visiting al Shabaab – How terrorizing terrorists creates more terror

Al Shabaab members in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2010. The spread of the extremist group into Kenya has prompted a vicious crackdown. --AP

By David Francis, a freelance journalist who has been interviewing militant extremists across sub-Saharan Africa.

The search for more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria has drawn the attention of the world to the campaign of terror waged by the group in recent years – and to a lesser extent, the  human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian military in response.

In Kenya, as I noted in the first report for this series Al Qaeda 2.0 in Africa, there’s a similar crackdown on the Islamist extremist group al Shabaab. I recently visited with some of these militants in Nairobi’s slums and came away with the disturbing impression that the cycle of violence is set to intensify.

As in Nigeria, Kenyan security forces are in the midst of a crackdown and are reportedly committing numerous human right violations as part of an effort to eradicate al Shabaab, the al Qaeda linked group that had been terrorizing Somalia and Kenya for years. Once a group gets branded as terrorists, the restraints are off. Anything goes.

Just as violence tends to beget more violence, terrorizing – whether done by ‘the terrorists’ or by official armed forces – tends to beget more terror. And it is often the innocent who suffer the most.

Kids in the Kibera slum of Nairobi
Kids in the Kibera slum of Nairobi
Flickr, moonlit2011

Security forces were everywhere when I traveled to the slums of Nairobi in October to report on the aftermath of the September Westgate Mall attack.

My fixer John (name changed to protect his anonymity) said that this was unusual; Kenyan authorities usually let the slums, where millions of Somali refugees and Kenyans of Somali decent live, police themselves. Now, according to reports in the Kenyan media, and from sources I have in Nairobi, that’s changed.

The Kenyan Army, with the help of Kenyan police, has begun to arrest anyone with connections to Somalia that live in Nairobi’s slums. According to Human Rights Watch, up to 4,000 people have been arbitrarily arrested.  Some have been sent back to Mogadishu.

I was told when I was there that anyone with any connection to the group was being arrested or dealt with in more violent ways (my final piece will detail one such incident).  The Human Rights Watch report confirms this.

“Scapegoating and abusing Somalis for heinous attacks by unknown people is not going to protect Kenyans, Somalis, or anyone else against more attacks,” Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in his organization’s report on the roundup, called “Operation Usalama Watch” by Kenyan authorities.

“Kenya’s deportation of Somalis to their conflict-ridden country without allowing them to seek asylum would be a flagrant breach of its legal obligations.”

In addition to the roundups, Kenyan authorities have issues a shoot-to-kill order on all terror suspects. According to reports in the Kenyan media, a high-level cleric named Sheikh Abubakar Sharif, who is also known as Makaburi, was the most recent target. He was killed last month.

These operations are in direct response to the Westgate attack. But Kenyan authorities have launched similar operations in response to Al Shabaab attacks, most recently from November 2012 to January 2013, after grenade attacks attributed to the group.

The al Shabaab members I met with knew they were being hunted; one changed his SIM card repeatedly because he thought his phone was being tracked.

It took hours and much convincing from my fixer to get them to meet me. They hid in the vast slums of Eastleigh (also known as “Little Mogadishu”), Majengo and Mathare. The video below, shot in Mathare, gives you an idea of where they’re taking cover from Kenyan authorities, and where I met some of them.

Violence Breeds Extremism

I’m not sure whether the people I met with have been captured in the roundup. But what’s clear is that the human rights abuses committed by the military and police, both in Kenya and Nigeria, exasperate the kind of extremism at the core of Boko Haram and al Shabaab.

The al Shabaab members I met with told me as much. They said that their leaders used human rights violations committed by Kenyan authorities to recruit new members.

Northern Nigerians have said the same thing. There, police and the military have reportedly killed people now connected with the group indiscriminately. Warplanes have reportedly open-fired on crowds without certification that Boko Haram members were a part of it. A recent headline on the Atlantic’s Web site called the Nigerian military the “Blood-Stained Hunters of Boko Haram.”

The Nigerian military has also shown itself to be inept at taking action that could stop the group. Amnesty International claims that the Nigerian security forces failed to act on warnings on Boko Haram’s raid of the school where the girls were kidnapped. According to the group, the Nigerian military were tipped about the raid four hours before it happened.

“It amounts to a gross dereliction of Nigeria’s duty to protect civilians, who remain sitting ducks for such attacks. The Nigerian leadership must now use all lawful means at their disposal to secure the girls’ safe release and ensure nothing like this can happen again,” Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Africa Director, Research and Advocacy, said in a statement making the accusation.

The cruel irony is that the actions of the Nigerian military are having the same impact as the actions of Boko Haram  – innocent people are being forced from their homes, creating a humanitarian crisis that is overshadowed by the threat posed by the group.

Is there a military solution?

There’s no doubt that groups like Boko Haram and al Shabaab need to be dealt with, sometimes with force. But so far, the use of force has failed to eradicate the threat.

Many argue, especially in the case of the missing girls in Nigeria, that the U.S. military should be more involved in eradicating the threat. Whether American Special Forces are operating on the ground in Nigeria is a mystery. They seem best suited for the kinds of operations that can disrupt groups like Boko Haram and al Shabaab (it’s important to remember, however, that al Shabaab turned away SEAL Team 6 in a post-Westgate raid). But for now, the Obama administration seems content with serving as advisers while providing airborne assistance with the search for the girls.

Perhaps the only way to deal with extremist groups born of poverty and corruption is through a combination of policing, military force, and economic development. However, in the slums of Kenya and in the poor, arid north of Nigeria, the third part of the solution seems to have been forgotten, while the first two have been taken to extremes.

Force is sometimes necessary, but the kind of violence occurring in Nigeria and Kenya will only serve to breed more violence.


David FrancisDavid Francis is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC and Chapel Hill, NC. He reported from Kenya as the Richard Holbrooke Journalist-in-Residence at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His reporting was funded by the International Center for Journalists in Washington and the Internationale Journalisten Programme in Germany. He reported from Nigeria in 2011 as an International Reporting Project fellow. Visit his web site here and follow him on Twitter @davidcfrancis.

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