There seems to be no limit to brutality for al-Shabaab, the Somali jihadi group. In what is estimated as the 17th attack in the last three years in Kenya, 148 people, mostly students, were mercilessly mowed down by the group’s militants on the Garissa University campus in eastern Kenya, not far from the border with Somalia. The motive for this latest atrocity is difficult to fathom. While the jihadists claim it was in retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia, the deliberate targeting of non-Muslims in these attacks raises some questions. Is al-Shabaab trying to foment religious strife in Kenya (where there is a substantial Muslim population in a largely Christian country), or is this yet another action by a weakening group to assert its strength as a jihadi outfit affiliated to al-Qaeda? The attack was reminiscent of the killings at the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013. The Kenyan government managed to handle the repercussions of that tragedy by projecting a face of unity and not allowing the attacks to descend into sectarian turmoil. But in a country that is riven by disparities, the resilience seen thus far will be put to severe test following the Garissa tragedy, coming as it does on top of a series of other incidents since 2013.
Al-Shabaab’s recent actions — which are not limited to those in Kenya — cannot be seen in isolation from the situation in Somalia. A tattered country that has faced civil war and strife for more than two decades now, Somalia has been a breeding ground for groups such as al-Shabaab which grew out of the youthful sections of radical Islamic organisations like the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Ironically, in the mid-2000s the ICU had provided some semblance of order — even if motivated by theocratic concerns — in a country that had suffered warlordism and lawlessness since 1991 when a civil war began. An Ethiopian invasion in 2007 which defeated the ICU spawned the guerrilla forces of al-Shabaab, which consolidated power in the late-2000s and soon imposed harsh laws in areas under their control. The UN-approved African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) which included military forces from Kenya, helped take on the repressive al-Shabaab in 2012, but the latter has since then again turned into a guerrilla group engaged in indiscriminate violence both within and outside Somalia. Of late, AMISOM has registered some major successes in driving out al-Shabaab forces from its remaining strongholds. This could explain al-Shabaab’s desperate actions in Kenya and Uganda (which is also part of AMISOM). Kenya needs to redouble its efforts as part of AMISOM in Somalia, even as it strives to avoid any reprisals against its own Muslim community.