Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation

Africa Briefing N°85 | International Crisis Group | January 2012


The following briefing from Crisis Group illustrates the Islamist radicalisation of ethnic Somalis in Kenya, and the causes behind the trend. Decades of economic marginalisation of the Somali-dominated North Eastern Province border region has combined with government and public suspicion of ethnic Somalis to produce an unpleasant climate where either Somali loyalty is questioned, or Somalis are accused of ‘taking over’ when they move into the cities or succeed in business and politics. On the other hand, this has been compounded by the shift of East African Muslims in general away from Sufism and towards the conservative strand of Wahhabi Islam that posits the Muslim umma against the secular state, thereby enabling Somalia-based Al-Shabaab to capitalise on grievances in Kenya and encourage oppositional and even irredentist tendencies. The response of the government has overwhelmingly been one of force.

Particular forms of marginalisation have exacerbated the grievances resulting from economic underdevelopment and government violence. Until recently, poor Muslim children were often excluded from mainstream education, restricting their options to Wahhabi-dominated madrasas which promoted the radicalisation of disaffected young Muslims. The Muslim establishment itself is also frequently dismissed as elitist and tied to the government (regardless of who happens to be in power at the time). This includes the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) which, despite its closeness to the regime, has failed to modify the heavy-handed state responses to Muslim radicalisation.

Crisis Group recommends that the Kenyan government cease to view the issue of radicalisation purely through an anti-terrorist lens and recognise the difference between ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’. It is not necessarily a given that the former lead to the latter; and by addressing the issues of marginalisation of Somalis in particular and Muslims in general, Kenya can impede the growth of Al-Shabaab style militancy within its own borders.


Overview, 25 January 2012

Somalia’s growing Islamist radicalism is spilling over into Kenya. The militant Al-Shabaab movement has built a cross-border presence and a clandestine support network among Muslim populations in the north east and Nairobi and on the coast, and is trying to radicalise and recruit youth from these communities, often capitalising on long-standing grievances against the central state. This problem could grow more severe with the October 2011 decision by the Kenyan government to intervene directly in Somalia. Radicalisation is a grave threat to Kenya’s security and stability. Formulating and executing sound counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation policies before it is too late must be a priority. It would be a profound mistake, however, to view the challenge solely through a counter-terrorism lens.

Kenya’s North Eastern Province emerged as a distinct administrative entity dominated by ethnic Somalis after independence. It is, by most accounts, the worst victim of unequal development. A history of insurgency, misrule and repression, chronic poverty, massive youth unemployment, high population growth, insecurity, poor infrastructure and lack of basic services, have combined to produce some of the country’s bleakest socio-economic and political conditions.

Two decades of conflict in neighbouring Somalia have also had a largely negative effect on the province and Kenyan Somalis. The long and porous border is impossible to police effectively. Small arms flow across unchecked, creating a cycle of demand that fuels armed criminality and encourages clans to rearm. Somali clan-identity politics, animosities and jingoism frequently spill over into the province, poisoning its politics, undermining cohesion and triggering bloody clashes. The massive stream of refugees into overflowing camps creates an additional strain on locals and the country. Many are now also moving to major urban centres, competing with other Kenyans for jobs and business opportunities triggering a strong official and public backlash against Somalis, both from Somalia and Kenya.

At the same time, ethnic Somalis have become a politically significant minority. Reflecting their growing clout, Somali professionals are increasingly appointed to impor­tant government positions. The coalition government has created a ministry to spearhead development in the region. A modest affirmative action policy is opening opportunities in higher education and state employment. To most Somalis this is improvement, if halting, over past neglect. But the deployment of troops to Somalia may jeopardise much of this modest progress. Al-Shabaab or sympathisers have launched small but deadly attacks against government and civilian targets in the province; there is credible fear a larger terror attack may be tried elsewhere to undermine Kenyan resolve and trigger a security crackdown that could drive more Somalis, and perhaps other Muslims, into the movement’s arms. Accordingly, the government should:

    * recognise that a blanket or draconian crackdown on Kenyan Somalis, or Kenyan Muslims in general, would radicalise more individuals and add to the threat of domestic terrorism. The security forces have increased ethnic profiling but otherwise appear relatively restrained – especially given past behaviour; still, counter-terrorism operations need to be carefully implemented and monitored, also by neutral observers;

    * develop effective, long-term counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation strategies. A link exists between radicalisation and terrorism, but counter-terrorism tactics aimed only at stopping Al-Shabaab and other militant groups should not become the only official response. Counter-radicalisation – reducing the appeal of radicalism – and de-radicalisation – persuading people who are already in radical organisations to leave them – are long-term processes that require tact and patience.

    * allocate, along with donors, additional state and development resources to North Eastern Province and elsewhere to rectify decades of neglect and end some of the social problems that drive radicalisation;

    * study madrasas, perhaps through a local university, to learn which are most radical and influential, both to better understand the problem of their radicalisation and to moderate extremist teachings; create a Muslim Advisory Council of respected leaders, open to hardliners, but representing all Kenyan Muslims, that is responsive to the community’s concerns and aspirations, able to articulate its message to those in power and competent in formulating the reform measures needed to improve its well-being; and

    *develop a process, with community input, for selection of a Grand Mufti: Kenya, unlike many African countries, has no supreme Muslim spiritual leader whose primary function is to provide spiritual guidance, and when necessary, make binding pronouncements on vexed issues by issuing edicts (fatwa). It would be difficult, of course, to find a unifying figure, given the sectarian and regional tensions, but it should be feasible.

Because of the policy immediacy relating to Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, this briefing focuses on Kenyan Somali radicalisation. The growth of Islamic extremism among Kenyan and Tanzanian Muslims on the coast will be the subject of a future study. The recommendations, nonetheless, apply to all of Kenya.

Nairobi/Brussels, 25 January 2012


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