TSG IntelBrief: Al-Shabaab’s Strategic Move Into Kenya
March 29, 2012

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Bottom Line Up Front

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  • The most serious threat facing Kenya continues to be the violent extremism of the Somalia-based Al-Shabab. The porous Somali-Kenyan border and the massive flow of Somali refugees into Kenya have enabled Al-Shabaab to expand its presence there. The extent of the Somali refugee flow into Kenya is exemplified by the Dadaab refugee camp. Home to almost half a million refugees, its population would rank it as the third largest city in Kenya.

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  • The large ethnic Somali population in Kenya is vulnerable to the Al-Shabaab narrative of economic marginalization, discrimination, and social injustice at the hands of the central government in Nairobi, themes with sufficient basis in reality to resonate within the target audience.

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As of late-March 2012, the violent extremism of Al-Shabaab continues to be the primary threat facing Kenya. Arising from the void of centralized governance in Somalia during the 1990s, Al-Shabaab has evolved into a complex and, at times, enigmatic organization that combines the operational structure and capabilities of a local insurgent group with the vision and affiliations of a transnational terrorist organization. Add the overarching theme of Somali irredentism ― the creation of a greater Somalia that gathers together all ethnic Somalis within the Horn of Africa along with the regions of Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti where they currently reside ―  and the insidious nature of the threat comes into clear focus.

This threat could be viewed as reasonably manageable if a strategy of containment could effectively limit Al-Shabaab’s area of operations to Somalia. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be a viable option.

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An Unprotected Border

The Kenyan-Somali border is arguably the single most vexing national security issue facing the government in Nairobi. This is highlighted in a 2011 White Paper on military cooperation with United States issued by the Kenyan Ministry of Defense (MOD) that includes a section detailing the many challenges inherent in managing what are described as “long and porous borders with five neighbors and long coastline.” The MOD readily concedes that maintaining constant surveillance, much less security, at the borders is simply not possible.

In addition to geography, there are additional and fundamentally intractable problems ― one structural and one legal ― that remain beyond resolution as both are outside Kenya’s ability to unilaterally address them. The structural challenge arises from the fact that the government presence on the Kenyan side of the border has no parallel on the Somali side. The feeble Transitional Federal Government in Somalia simply lacks both the resources for and, more importantly, an interest in securing the border in any meaningful fashion. This organic inability to maintain even a semblance of border control is one of the primary reasons Somalia has been included, along with Chad and Sudan, on the list of failed African states compiled by foreign policy experts in the West.

The sporadic, yet never-ending waves of violence and the desperate lawlessness that pervade the border region are but a reflection of what is unfolding deeper within Somalia writ large. A report issued by the U.S. Agency for International Development eloquently captured the essence of the environment near the Kenyan-Somali border when it described it as “not peace, not war.”

Securing the border from the Kenyan side is further exacerbated by international law that largely limits Kenya’s ability to restrict the flow of Somali refugees fleeing a bona fide political, social, and environmental disaster at home. As a result, these refugees, in the desperate pursuit of safety and sustenance, have entered Kenya in vast numbers. The Dadaab refugee camp, located approximately 100 kilometers from Kenya’s eastern border with Somalia, is currently home to over 450,000 Somali refugees. To place this into context, if Dadaab were a city, it would be the 3rd largest in Kenya. The camp has grown over the last few years at the rate of between 2,000 to 5,000 new refugees every month and this trend is likely to continue unabated for the foreseeable future.

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A Base of Operations for Al-Shabab

Many of the refugees have formed business connections with members of the large community of ethnic Somalis who reside in Kenya. This has facilitated the establishment of banking and telecommunication networks within the camp. While such a build-out of the infrastructure within the camp has raised the standard of living at Dadaab, it has also created a growing nightmare for Nairobi.

Dadaab has become a de facto rest and relaxation center for Al-Shabaab fighters, as well as a target-rich source for recruiting. This has not been lost on national security officials in the Kenyan government who have begun to view Dadaab as an insidious breeding ground for terrorism. Given its relative proximity to the southern region of Somalia and the ease with which men and materiel can be moved across the exceedingly porous border makes the Dadaab refugee camp an exceptionally useful staging point for Al-Shabaab to expand its presence in Kenya.

Leveraging its increasingly robust presence at Dadaab, as well as within Islamic communities in the capital and the North Eastern Province, Al-Shabaab will continue its two-step campaign of radicalization and recruitment, primarily employing a narrative that focuses on social injustice and economic disparity facing ethnic Somalis in Kenya. This narrative paints the central government as corrupt, self-serving, and discriminating against the ethnic Somali population in the country. The campaign has proven effective in large measure due to the fact that the narrative doesn’t significantly diverge from the political reality within Kenya. While the entire country has long-suffered from varying degrees of deprivation, the North Eastern Province ― primarily inhabited by ethnic Somalis ― has struggled against the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, and the myriad ailments that invariably accompany such socio-economic problems. Whether these troubles can be rightfully blamed on the inequitable policies of the central government is of less relevance than the ability of Al-Shabaab to exploit the appearances of systematic discrimination against ethnic Somalis.

According to the aforementioned Kenyan MOD white paper, the primary mission of the Kenyan Armed Forces is to “protect the country against external aggression.” In light of the interminable challenges at the borders, the government will increasingly need to protect the country from internal aggression orchestrated by external aggressors.

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Forecast:

Near-term forecast:

  • Without a formal counter-radialization program ― or a viable counter-narrative ― the Kenyan government will be unable to meaningfully check Al-Shabaab’s ability to capitalize on the legitimate grievances of the ethnic Somali population. Further military deployments into Somalia may satisfy an emotional need to strike back at Al-Shabaab, but such a strategy will prove to be not only ineffective in substantially diminishing Al-Shabaab’s military capabilities, but also counterproductive as it feeds into the narrative that focuses on Kenya’s systematic targeting of ethnic Somalis. 

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Long-term forecast:

  • While acts of terrorism inside Kenya can understandably capture Nairobi’s attention, the more enduring challenge will involve the radicalization of Muslims throughout Kenya (and not only due to the influence of Al-Shabaab).  As the ethnic Somali population expands ― primarily through the influx of refugees from Somalia ― and economic opportunities decline, the twin pillars of Somali irredentism and global jihadism will offer seemingly attractive avenues for ethnic Somalis desperate for a solution to, or respite from, their struggles.

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