Al-Shabaab’s 2 April attack in Kenya that killed 147 people at a university in Garissa, 120km from the border with Somalia, has again cast doubt on the Kenyan government’s ability to keep its citizens safe. Three members of Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa staff consider here the implications of Al-Shabaab’s longstanding ambition to broaden its campaigns from Somalia into the wider East Africa region.
Why is Al-Shabaab increasingly targeting Kenya?
In its statement following the attack, Al-Shabaab claimed it acted to avenge atrocities it alleges have been committed by the Kenyan military deployed in Somalia (now part of the African Union peace-support operation AMISOM). This puts pressure on the Kenyan commitment to that mission. Al-Shabaab also claimed that its fight is to liberate “all Muslim lands under Kenyan occupation”, including “north-astern province and the coast”. Despite being anachronistic given Kenya’s recent divisions into county based government, this language chimes with pan-Somali nationalist and irredentist slogans of the 1960s and 70s.
Furthermore, trying to sow domestic divisions in Kenya, Al-Shabaab claimed it was taking revenge for historic injustices against Muslims in the country. It hopes in this way to prompt draconian responses from the government that would further embed the narrative of an anti-Islamic Christian government and gain more recruits. It also claimed that it spared Muslims in the Garissa attack, echoing directives on minimising Muslim deaths most recently heard from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. Nevertheless, Al-Shabaab still killed Muslims at the university; in Somalia, most of its victims are Muslims.