No Hearts, No Minds, The War on Terror in Africa Part 1 is a new ZAM-AIPC transnational investigation. It shows that a 'war only' strategy creates more and more terrorists in the eastern and western regions of the continent. In this chapter: Kenya.
If to intimidate, persecute, abuse and kill suspects is a way to the “hearts and minds” of marginalized young Muslims who are sensitive to the call of extremist militants in Kenya, the Kenyan government is doing well in the War on Terror. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. On the contrary: the community of Kenyan Somalis – all Muslim – receive more and more reason to hate the powers-that-be. Travelling through the districts and villages in Kenya where Somalis live, our team of journalists continuously observes discrimination, human rights abuses and summary executions of Somalis.
Somalis in Kenya have historically been marginalised. Criminal incidents, blamed on Somali individuals or groups, have twice in our history been followed by massacres of revenge carried out by soldiers in villages, in which all men were killed and women raped.
Kenyan Somalis are treated with suspicion
Even Somalis – and there are many – who have taken and still take great pains to “Kenyanise” (for example, learning to speak good English and Swahili, carrying Kenyan identity papers at all times, singing the national anthem flawlessly and participating in Kenyan political and social life) are still treated with suspicion based on their appearance and religion.
In the current years of the War on Terror, this has only gotten worse. Hundreds of Somali fathers, mothers and children have been arrested during anti-terror raids and carried off to detention centres or refugee camps. Somali shopkeepers and businessmen deal daily with blackmail by police and other authorities: pay, or they fabricate charges of “terrorism” against you. Increasingly, young Somalis are disappearing from their communities and villages. Recruited by Al Shabaab, or killed by the police? Both?
As a journalist of Somali descent, I also cannot escape the daily threat. In June this year, policemen raided my house in Eastleigh, Nairobi. The humiliation (I was mocked for my slick hair and a fat policeman did a stinky “number two” on my toilet) was only equalled by the fear, as well as the time and energy it took to try, in the middle of the night, to escape both arrest and robbery (the policemen demanded money to let me go). Meanwhile, all around me, neighbours’ families were loaded onto trucks that drove away, at times with children still dangling partly outside. Such experiences create at least some understanding for some of my fellow Somalis, who have become tempted to follow a path of violence.
There are many more of us who do not go down that path. This is, of course, due to the horrific methods of Al Shabaab. The attacks on innocent people, the mass killing of shoppers at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, and the bloodbath among Garissa students: our community wants nothing to do with it, and neither do I.
Cycle of violence
Yet it is important to understand the developments that preceded today’s terrorism. The Al Shabaab organization (meaning “youth” in Somali) began as a resistance movement against the 2006 invasion of Kenya’s neighbour, Somalia, by Ethiopia and the United States. It was argued by the invaders that, with the coming to power of the “Islamic Courts Union” in Somalia, the “Islamists” were now in control of the government. And that that was a terrorist threat to the rest of the world.
But the fact remains that, before the invasion, there wasn’t a militant, armed anti-Western group in Somalia. After the invasion, there was. Al Shabaab, the youth, drew thousands of our young people to join the fight against the Western and Ethiopian “occupation”. The US, the UK and the rest of “the West”, including Kenya, responded with military operations, secret service activities, drones, bombings, and Guantanamo-like secret detention centres.
It was only then that Al Shabaab starting attacks in Kenya, saying that “if you murder our women and children, then we do the same with yours”.
It is in this cycle of violence that we now find ourselves.
Dozens of observers, analysts and investigative journalists, including myself, have in recent years warned that recruitment by Al Shabaab and its little brother, Al Hijra in Kenya itself, can only be countered by a well-coordinated hearts-and-minds strategy that joins hands with the Somali community, starts a dialogue on improving its social position and addresses the structural subordination of Somalis by and in the state apparatus. Such warnings have also been voiced for years now by such venerable institutions as the International Crisis Group and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa, as well as by academics from the London School of Economics and mainstream opinion makers in Kenya itself.
Sadly, the Kenyan government is still refusing to head these calls. It is left to local residents in the Somali Eastleigh neighbourhood in Nairobi to launch a project for unemployed youth; musical bands and youth centres, which discuss modern Islam and provide a platform for artists and musicians with a message of peace get support from international musical partners, not from the Kenyan government.
Meanwhile, the authorities continue to turn a blind eye to increasing extrajudicial executions by police death squads. What started with deadly police raids against hate-speeching imams like Aboud Rogo has now degenerated into a routine of disappearances and murders of young Somali activists, whether they belong to Al Shabaab or not. “The police are under pressure to get results, but without strategy, intimidation and violence are the only things they can think of. And so it will only get worse,” says John Allen Namu, who made the linked film about death squads for Al Jazeera.
Namu recently made another documentary for Al Jazeera, titled “The Wall”. It deals with the last project of the Kenyan government and army: building a 700km long wall along the full length of the Kenyan-Somali border. It is meant to keep the terrorists out.
"But,” says Namu, “the idea that a wall can help to terrorists keep out is wrong. It defeats the very goal of the fight against terrorism which is winning support of communities that are at the frontline of this war. Walls have hardly reinforced this tenet, and only become symbols of otherisation.”
Ibro Ibrahim is a pseudonym. The author's investigation into death squad killings in Kenya continues. His name and record are known to ZAM.
Photo: Saadia Yussif Abdi and her mother Maryon Mohamed in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. Credit: Oxfam International