Mareeg.com- A week ago Mpeketoni small, sleepy town near Lamu Island on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline. Today it is at the heart of a loud argument about the changing face of terrorism and extremist violence in Kenya and the wider East African region.
Gunmen swept through Mpeketoni on the night of June 13, took control of the town for several hours, and systematically shot or slaughtered male residents. Women and children were spared, as were boys younger than 12.
A week later, the death toll was at 60 and could go higher as residents continue to stumble over bodies in the surrounding bush. The identity of the gunmen, however, remains unclear and controversial.
Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based extremist group behind last September’s attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi that left at least 67 dead, has claimed responsibility for the attack on Mpeketoni.
The official position of the Kenyan government, however, is that the attack was by unspecified local groups, not Al Shabaab.
“The attack in Lamu was well planned, orchestrated, and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community, with the intention of profiling and evicting them for political reasons,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address this week. “This, therefore, was not an Al Shabaab terrorist attack.”
The identity of the attackers is important. Al Shabaab has carried out several attacks in Kenya since the country sent troops across the border into Somalia in 2011 and has become the face of terror in the region, including in Uganda, where suicide bombers killed 76 people in 2010.
As discomfiting as it is, Al Shabaab is a “known-known” and an externalised problem whose primary demand — the withdrawal of foreign troops from Somalia — is clear and understandable, albeit not acceptable to all.
The possibility of other groups emerging to use terrorism and extreme violence for as-yet-unclear political agendas, as President Kenyatta suggested, would signal the expansion of violent extremist ideology and its realignment with local politics.
The reality probably lies between the two possibilities.
Mpeketoni has a large population of people from upcountry settled in the area in the 1970s. Land disputes between the “native” and “settler” population are not uncommon.
In recent years, these tensions have been heightened by fears that a proposed new port at Lamu, part of the Lamu Port, Southern-Sudan, Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project will take more land away from residents while bringing in a new wave of immigrants.
However, the majority of those killed in the attack on Mpeketoni were people who originated upcountry.
Abubaker Al Almudy, the chairperson of the Save Lamu Coalition, a pressure group that advocates for native land rights in the area, told The EastAfrican that the attack was not fuelled by local land disputes.
“We are indigenous people and we have been welcoming immigrants to Lamu for nine centuries for trade and settlement; that could not have been the reason for the attack,” he said. “The attackers had sophisticated weapons. I don’t think the local population can be organised to carry out such an attack.”
Several terrorism experts say they believe Al Shabaab was involved in the attack.
“When Al Shabaab claims responsibility we have to take it seriously,” a terrorism watcher in the region told this newspaper. The expert noted, however, that the Al Shabaab spokesman said the attack “was ordered” by the group’s high command and that “the Islamic fighters answered to that holy call.”
He said: “It could be a subtle difference or it could point to the emergence of standalone cells of Islamic fighters, including some based in Kenya.” Several anti-terrorism experts interviewed, who agreed to speak freely on condition of anonymity, said there are growing signs of a shift in tactics and strategy by Al Shabaab in the region.
“This is not the same Al Shabaab that African troops are fighting in Somalia,” one counter-terrorism official assigned to watch the group said, noting that a series of grenade attacks across Nairobi in recent months were not its modus operandi.
“We have a very fluid space in which Al Shabaab is changing its face in Kenya from a foreign force to a local problem, a Kenyan problem.
“There are a lot of groups using the real or perceived inequalities at the Coast and among minorities to spark political crises or tie their causes into domestic politics.”
Al Shabaab has been trying to recruit fighters and supporters across the region; some of the Kampala suicide bombers and plotters were Ugandans and in his statement spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab called on “Muslims in Kenya to fight for their dignity as there is no neutral middle ground now,” urged them to use any weapons and even “fight individually.”
This, experts warn, could potentially represent devolution of the Al Shabaab ideology across the region with minorities and other disaffected groups using terrorism and extreme violence to articulate local political and economic grievances.
They already have noted individuals fleeting from one local grouping to another, especially in Kenya’s restive Coast region.
“Somalia is no longer a civil war,” a counter-terrorism official said. “It is now a regional war that has been exported across East Africa, alone which needs a regional response. The weaker al Shabaab gets in Somalia, the more likely we are to see more extremist attacks in the region.”
Al Shabaab’s Somali fighters need never pull the trigger, cross the border south, or blow themselves up if Kenyan or Ugandan recruits can do it themselves in Mpeketoni or Kampala. Winning wars abroad ultimately requires peace and stability at home.
By Hussein Mohamed<