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world wide wednesdays :: we need to talk about kenya

typical landscape of the kenyan savannah
to a lot of westerners, kenya seems like a fantasy land. it's like all of our dreams of africa come to life: the incredible wildlife, the lush forests with rushing rivers and waterfalls contrasted by the expansive savannahs, millennia of traditions juxtaposed with one of africa's most modern economies. although kenya has faced the same troubles as many of her continental neighbours following independence from colonial britain, it's hard to avoid feeling like somehow, kenya has come through them better. there are considerable [and increasing] problems with poverty, especially outside the cities], there are racial tensions among the country's myriad racial groups and there has been a history of repression and corruption in post-colonial governments, but there is also a solid education system with a high literacy rate, a greater commitment to environmentally responsible growth and the largest gdp in south-eastern and central africa. so a terrorist attack in kenya, against a school in kenya no less, also seems like an attack on everything that is beautiful, hopeful, and successful in the face of adversity.

all terrorist attacks beg the question "why" [without implying that explanation = justification], but those in kenya seem particularly irrational, especially when filtered through western media. perhaps it's because the attacks- killing the poor, children and civilians while assiduously avoiding political or military targets- are so vile that even asking "why did this happen?" borders on offensive. it's also possible that people don't want to talk about these attacks because even scratching the surface gets into some very scary territory, scarier than a lot of people are prepared to deal with.

nairobi by night
kenya has been viewed with suspicion by much of the islamic population of eastern africa and the middle east for some time. forty years ago, the government allowed israeli planes to refuel during operation entebbe, the idf response to the taking of an airplane with a large number of israeli passengers by a palestinian-affiliated terrorist group, who hoped to trade their hostages for the freedom of jailed comrades. [i just had a really grotesque moment of nostalgia for a time when terrorists were kidnappers more often than murderers of civilians.] clearly, linking arms, even discreetly, with israel was taken as an affront by some islamist groups and it enraged neighbouring uganda, who had supported and protected the hijackers. [side note :: although three hostages died in the rescue and one was killed in hospital in uganda, operation entebbe was considered a great success for the israeli defense forces. that they were able to execute such a delicate operation with no notice, in a hostile country and save the lives of almost everyone involved showed the incredible precision and discipline of which the military was capable. the leader of the assault on the airport, a decorated veteran of both the six day war and the yom kippur war, was killed by ugandan fire as the israelis and the freed hostages retreated from the airport. barely thirty years old, american born and educated and ruggedly handsome, yonatan netanhayu took on near-mythical stature in israel after his death. his passionate dedication to the preservation, without compromise, of his adopted state was inspirational to many israelis, no one more so than his younger brother benjamin.]

clearly, kenya was not afraid to stand alone and against some of its closest neighbours, however the feelings stirred up by operation entebbe- as much as they might have planted a seed- are ancient history in today's conflict between kenya and al-shabaab. unlike a lot of things we've looked at here on world wide wednesdays, you don't have to look much further back than 2011 to find out why things have come to a head in kenya. that was when the kenyan government decided to intervene in what had to that point been a purely somali fight.

the aims of the al-shabaab [or "youth party"] movement were much more traditional than groups like al-qaeda or islamic state: they sought to take control of somalia and nothing else. in fact, if you'd come up with a list of places al-shabaab was likely to attack, kenya would have come near the bottom, because a significant amount of al-shabaab funding came through the ex-patriot somali community around nairobi. but between 2011 and 2013 a couple of odd things happened that threw the al-shabaab playbook out the window.

eastleigh, the somali district of nairobi
first, a militant affiliated with the group killed a tourist at a high end resort in northern kenya. it wasn't the first time that violence had strayed across the border, but it was the first time that the government in nairobi perceived that its crucial tourist industry might be put under attack. so kenya decided that the time had come to wade into the conflict that had engulfed somalia for years. [somalia will probably need its own world wide wednesdays, possibly a two-parter.] this didn't sit well with a lot of western powers at first, especially since it was the 2006 military incursion by ethiopia that had set off the chain of events that had brought al-shabaab into being in the first place. but it was ultimately obvious that the somali government were never going to be able to fight off the militants on their own, and so international sanction [not required, but always appreciated] was given to kenya's plans to put boots on the ground and over the border. [side note :: lest you think that invading a country is a bit of an overreaction to the killing of one tourist, it's important to note that there's a little more to it than that. the kenyan government was concerned about keeping tourists and foreigners safe, yes, but they were also concerned about the mathematics of over half a million somali refugees who had poured over the northern border when added to a wealthy somali ex-pat community, some of whom had shadowy financial links to al-shabaab and combined with a significant muslim minority in some areas of kenya who felt- not wrongly- that the government had neglected problems in their region in order to curry favour with more vote-rich areas. not liking the possibility that they could end up fighting a fast-growing, well-funded insurgency within their own borders and that even hints of such a fight might drive out lucrative investment, kenya decided that the best defense was a good offense.]

the joint kenyan-somali mission was more successful than most had predicted. al-shabaab was chased out of a lot of their strongholds and cut off from a great deal of their financial backing. but in their success, the kenyans made themselves a very big target. this wasn't helped by the fact that the kenyans got a bit grabby with the somali port of kismayo, formerly an al-shabaab base of operations. having driven out the terrorists, the kenyan army took control of the port operations and revenues, which one could argue wasn't really necessary since even they acknowledged that the enemy were gone. there were also accusations that kenyan forces were killing a lot of people who weren't terrorists and who had no affiliation with terrorists and no affiliation with a military group of any kind.

in the wake of their defeat, al-shabaab split into two distinct entities. the original, nationalist movement continues to exist, however another group, more interested in waging international religious warfare and who aligned themselves with al-qaeda. it's affiliates of the latter group who are responsible for the attacks in kenya.

the largest refugee camp in the world, kenyan-somali border
the kenyan government's response to an internal terrorist threat turned out to be quite nearly as frightening as the terrorist threat. the kenyan version of the patriot act gave the government sweeping powers to detain terrorist suspects without trial, to tap phones and otherwise survey personal and business communication and the ability to seize bank accounts and other assets of those suspected of funding al-shabaab. [something they put into action, not for the first time, this week.] if those measures sound familiar, it's because they are very similar to those put in place in the united states. and if you think that the arguments against them are more of the same from people [including human rights watch] who don't understand the seriousness of the situation, i have some bad news: it looks like their concerns about government overreach are very well-founded.

for starters, massive numbers of arrests of somalis- including a lot of people of somali descent who were born in kenya- indicate that the government is targeting an entire community, not just the terrorists who might be within it. similarly, some of the bank account seizures seem to have been focused on laying hands on any somali money, rather money intended for terrorist groups. one could argue that some innocent people will unfortunately get caught in the security net, but such things are necessary in the name of maintaining the greater good. just keep in mind: it's a lot of arrests and a lot of seized assets. [side note :: in a strange and ironic twist, some observers have said that the kenyan military may inadvertently have strengthened one source of al-shabaab funding. when they took control of kismayo, the military made the area safe for charcoal merchants who had been disrupted by the war. aside from being a nightmare for the local environment, the charcoal trade was reputedly a source of money for the terrorists, because the local charcoal merchants were sympathetic to at least the nationalist part of their cause. the kenyan military has been able to reap the benefits of selling somali charcoal, however the money they pay to acquire it may be going into the pockets of some of the people they invaded the country to defeat.]

aftermath of a riot in eastleigh, nairobi
the kenyan government also drastically reduced the number of somali refugees it admits which, given their culpability in turning many of these people into refugees in the last few years, is pretty shitty. again, the government's defense comes down to not being able to tell the terrorists from the legitimate refugees, with the unspoken understanding that it's acceptable to cause misery to a large group in the name of guarding against a small number of bad guys.

what should be very, very scary, however, is not how the laws have been enforced, but the extra-legal activities in which the kenyan government is rumoured to have engaged. a string of kenyan imams have been assassinated in the last few years. rumours of significant police violence against somalis are rampant and there is even talk of government death squads. there is no question that the kenyan government is catching a lot of al-shabaab members. however, by taking a heavy-handed approach to the entire somali community, and the entire muslim community, they may be creating even more enemies in the process.

the images of the terrorist attacks in kenya are profoundly disturbing, as are the stories of somalis murdered by kenyan police, or somali refugees left to die out of fear that they may be [or become] sympathetic to al-shabaab after they are admitted to kenya. what is most disturbing, however, is that kenya's escalating war of state versus terrorist violence may be giving us the best look we've had at what it means to attack extremist groups with full force. 


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