Monday, April 13, 2015

The Failures of Hashtag-tivism: #NousNeSommesPasGarissa?

Less than two weeks have passed since an Al-Shabaab attack on Garissa University in Kenya claimed 148 lives, largely students of the university, and already Kenya has faded from the headlines faster than you can say “Je Suis Garissa.” The attack raised fears of further strikes in Kenya, however, and a power transformer explosion mistaken for a terrorist attack at the University of Nairobi over the weekend caused a stampede that killed one and injured more than 100.
Kenyans mourn the victims of the Garissa attack.

This is the second major Al-Shabaab attack in the last two years, and the worst since the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 claimed 67 lives. A smaller Al-Shabaab attack on a quarry near the border last December also killed at least 36 people. Al-Shabaab is an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group operating out of Somalia that grew out of the Islamic Courts Union, a relatively stable central government that was kicked out of Mogadishu by an international intervention in 2011. Al-Shabaab has been targeting Kenya ever since the country joined the African Union peacekeeping force in 2011, and transformed from a governing body into a terrorist group.

Kenya is particularly vulnerable to Al-Shabaab attacks due to its long border with Somalia, the forests on the border between the two countries, and its large Somali refugee population from which Al-Shabaab recruits. Some of the Al-Shabaab militants who are alleged to have taken part in the Garissa attacks are also Kenyan, including a government minister’s son, reflecting the increasingly “home grown” nature of Al-Shabaab in Kenya.

The Garissa attack horrified Kenyans, as young students were terrorized for 13 hours, Christians were separated from Muslims and specifically targeted, and some students were on the phone with loved ones at the time of their deaths. A rapid response team was delayed in responding to the attack by transportation issues, fueling frustrations that the government is unable to protect its own people. Kenya launched several air strikes in Somalia throughout the next week, shut down bank transfers to Somalia, and has stated that the Somali Dadaab refugee camp would be shut down within three months. It also plans to build a wall between the two countries, although other experiments in wall-building reveal that such projects are usually to appease public opinion, and do not effectively improve security. The only bank in the US still transferring money to Somalia was forced to shut down transfers to Somalia in February by the government, so with the Kenya line also closed many Somalis are cut off from the vital lifeline of remissions from family members abroad.
Students at Makarere Univ. in Uganda protest in solidarity.

A US drone strike killed Al-Shabaab leader Adnan Garar in March 2015, and the current attack may reveal the group’s weakness as much as its strength. Al-Shabaab lost Mogadishu in 2011, and Kismayo in 2012, and has been struggling to keep control of its foothold in southern Somalia on the Kenyan border ever since. Kenya’s civilian targets are the easiest ones for Al-Shabaab to attack, since border security is porous and Kenya’s military is the weakest and least disciplined of Somalia’s neighbors. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic Courts Union was once a (brutal but relatively effective) governing body that morphed into a global jihadi terrorist group due to an external intervention forcing it from power. In the words of one observer, “by succeeding as a regional jihadist movement, they fail as a local guerrilla one.” Also like the Taliban, external interventions have crippled Al-Shabaab militarily, and it is now targeting civilians within Kenya to try to tip the balance of power by forcing Kenya to withdraw its troops. Although it has a vested interest in keeping the smuggling trade with Kenya open, Al-Shabaab’s only opportunity to regain some of the territory it has lost is by taking actions that will lead to heightened border security in the hopes that Kenya will be forced to withdraw.

Kenya’s best option now is to avoid common mistakes made by countries that have suffered terrorist attacks, such as arbitrarily arresting Somalis, shutting down the Dadaab camp, and building a meaningless wall on the border. While these actions are attractive since they give Pres. Kenyatta’s government the appearance of “doing something,” they do little to improve (and may actually harm) security in the long run. Focusing on the creation of a coherent security policy in the border regions, the inclusion of local leadership in decision-making, and the reform of the security services would enable the Kenyan government to continue its participation in the AU peacekeeping force as well as to make meaningful improvements in its security situation as Al-Shabaab slowly dies out. As the International Crisis Group pointed out in a report last summer, these may be the last gasps of a dying group, but Al-Shabaab’s death rattle is likely to be a long one given its local sources of support and the security vacuum in Somalia, and thus Kenya needs to prepare for a long haul if it truly wants to see a stable government gain legitimacy in Mogadishu.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world the attack has already faded from the headlines as well as the public consciousness, calling into question the value of an African life versus a French or Bostonian one. The hashtag #JeSuisKenyan popped up in the days following the attack, but even its life was a short one on social media, and less than two weeks later it is almost as if the attack did not happen at all. Although Kenyans surely wish that the attack was simply a bad dream, unfortunately the nightmare of Al-Shabaab is all too real in the region, and international support and solidarity would be a welcome sign that the world has not forgotten that Kenyans bear many of the costs of Somalia's failed state every day.

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