During May and June of 2014, Kenya appeared in the international media on a regular basis. Significant incidents, including protests in Nairobi, grenade attacks in Mombasa, and communal violence in the north of the country, highlighted the variability in the countrywide security situation. While these incidents demonstrated the level of unrest and general lawlessness in some areas of the country, four detonations in Nairobi and one in Mombasa during May emphasised the threat of local insurgent groups.
This spate of insurgent activity resulted in two international travel companies withdrawing all their holiday makers from Mombasa and cancelling future flights to the city until the end of October.
Insurgent organisations in Kenya
Following the May attacks, focus turned to two local insurgent groups known to be conducting attacks in Kenya - Al Hijra and Al-Shabaab.
Al Hijra, also known as the Muslim Youth Council, is a Kenyan Islamic insurgent organisation. The group conducts attacks in Kenya, but its primary role is to provide al-Shabaab with a network of potential insurgents and to recruit dissident youths to fight alongside Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia.
Al-Shabaab is a Somali-based Islamic insurgent organisation with a number of strongholds throughout Somalia. Al-Shabaab originally formed as the militant wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts, an administration that challenged the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. The group regularly conducts attacks throughout Somalia, including frequent attacks in the capital, Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab, with cooperation from their Al-Hijra networks, has claimed a number of attacks in Kenya.
Why target Kenya?
Three main reasons explain Al-Shabaab’s direct targeting of Kenya.
First, Al-Shabaab’si international approach. During 2013, the supporters of a prominent Al-Shabaab leader, Ahmed Godane, assassinated a number of his rival commanders, cementing his position as the leader of the organisation. Godane called for a hard-line, international approach for Al-Shabaab, with the aim of implementing Sharia law worldwide. This resulted in the organisation directly attacking targets in Kenya.
Second, the mistreatment of ethnic Somalis within Kenya. In 1925, current day Jubaland in Somalia was divided in two - the British colonial administration took control over the area of Jubaland that is now within Kenya and the Italian government took control of the area that rests in Somalia. The British renamed the Kenyan area the Northern Frontier District, which was later re-named the North Eastern Province. Today, the majority of the province’s population are ethnic Somalis. The ethnic Somali population in the North Eastern Province and the Somalis based in enclaves throughout Kenya have been repeatedly mistreated by the Kenyan government. For instance, in April 2014, a Kenyan security force operation in a Nairobi suburb led to the detention of roughly 1000 ethnic Somalis. Following this, reports emerged of Kenyan security forces beating and raping the ethnic Somalis. In response, Al-Shabaab released a video stating that it would protect the ethnic Somali population from the Kenyan government and security forces.
The third reason for Al-Shabaab’s direct targeting of Kenya is the presence of Kenyan soldiers in Somalia as part of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The AMISOM is an African Union supported mission made up of military personnel from countries that include Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Burundi and Kenya. This mission has driven Al-Shabaab militants out of a number of their strongholds in southern Somalia. In response, Al-Shabaab has directly targeted Kenya in order to diminish support for the mission. The tactic appears to be working – in July 2014 The Coalition for Reforms of Democracy, a group of Kenyan political parties, called for all Kenyan military personnel to be withdrawn from Somalia due to the growing insecurity in Kenya.
What are we likely to see from these groups in the future?
Al-Hijra and Al-Shabaab is expected to continue showing intent to target Kenya. Along with the May attacks, a detonation at a Nairobi police station in April, as well as a foiled insurgent attack in Mombasa in March, highlights the on-going risk to Kenya.
The continued pressure being applied by AMISIOM in Somalia is expected to force Al-Shabaab to increasingly utilise its al-Hijra networks in Kenya. This will allow Al-Shabaab militants to focus on holding their territory in Somalia, while conducting attacks in Kenya.
What does this mean for development work in Kenya?
Despite the threat of insurgent attacks, there remains a positive outlook for Kenya. The majority of economic sectors remain resilient and the economy is still the largest in East Africa. Continued growth during 2014 shows that brief increases in insurgent activity are unlikely to deter investment. While the tourism industry has suffered due to a large fall in travellers to areas such as the Coastal Region, in the main, Kenya remains safe.
Insurgent attacks will always draw vast media attention, due to their size and often deadly nature. However, it is important to remember that crime is the primary risk to residents, tourists and international workers (including development staff) in Kenya. The significant level of both petty and violent criminality is compounded by a lack of security force capability, which means that criminal activity often goes unpunished.
What are the implications of this security situation for implementers of development projects in Kenya?
Despite the need to be aware of insurgent activity, development organisations must also continue to highlight the risk that crime poses to their project teams. Organisations must consider all of the potential risks when preparing to work in-country – not just deal with those issues that gain the most attention. It’s therefore essential to consider an organisation’s risk management approach when considering who to partner with on your international development project.
Coffey has standard operating procedures to mitigate the risks associated with crime as well as any local events causing instability as much as possible. All staff travelling to Kenya are provided with a risk assessment that highlights the major risks and possible mitigation measures available to them.
If an incident does occur, staff affected by, or in the vicinity of an incident, are supported by our crisis management team, which works to quickly make staff safe and provides logistical, medical and psychological support and information to individuals involved and affected by the incident.
Insurgent activity is likely to continue in Kenya in the near future. Development agencies must take intelligent risks when working in this environment. They must monitor the situation closely, be ready to respond to insurgent attacks and support their teams on the ground. However, despite the media’s focus on groups like al-Shabaab, crime—not insurgency—remains the greatest threat to those in Kenya, and must not be taken for granted, neither by first time travellers nor by seasoned development professionals.
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