Africa

Terror raids fuel Kenyan conflict fears

Daniel Howden

Tension runs high as country's president blames al-Shabab attacks on 'local political networks'.

Outrage: Kenyan residents chant slogans as they protest in the streets after unidentified gunmen attacked the town of Mpeketoni. (Reuters)

Two nights of terror attacks on Kenya’s coast left dozens dead and exposed bitter political divisions that raise serious questions about the stability of East Africa’s biggest economy. As damaging as the killing sprees that began on June 15 and left 65 people dead in and around the quiet seaside town of Mpeketoni has been the political row that has followed.

Somali militants al-Shabab said the gunmen who hunted down and murdered panicked residents, many of whom had gathered to watch the Fifa Football World Cup on television, were their fighters. Witnesses described open vehicles flying the banner of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group, while local men were forced to recite sections of the Qu’ran to prove they were Muslim.

A statement purported to come from an al-Shabab spokesperson in the wake of the attacks warned tourists that they visit Kenya “at their own peril” because the country was now “officially a war zone”.

While Red Cross workers were still collecting the bodies from a second attack on June 16, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta sent shock waves through the country when he claimed that the attacks were not the work of Somali militants but “local political networks”.

Tensions have been rising between Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee coalition and the Cord grouping led by Raila Odinga, the man he defeated in contentious elections last year.

Insurgency
Western diplomats and security officials are baffled by the president’s attempt to blame the attacks on the political opposition. The coastal killing spree marked a change of gear, analysts said, from what had been sporadic acts of cross-border terror into something that more closely resembles a domestic insurgency.

The first attack on Sunday night saw dozens of gunmen attack Mpeketoni, a town near the popular tourist destination of Lamu, slaughtering 50 people. As Kenyan authorities scrambled to respond a second night of attacks followed, adding a further 15 to the death toll. Unconfirmed reports suggest a dozen women were also kidnapped.

The methods deployed echo those of Nigerian Islamic insurgents Boko Haram, which has used large-scale raids and abductions to grab international headlines and humiliate the Nigerian government.

The aftermath of the assaults near Mpeketoni has achieved both of these objectives.

Kenya’s tourism industry, which historically contributed 15% of gross domestic product, has been decimated. The hotels and lodges that dot the archipelago of Lamu have been struggling to recover from the 2011 kidnapping of Briton Judith Tebbutt, whose husband was murdered when she was taken by Somali gunmen from her beach front lodge. A retired French journalist, Marie Dedieu, died in Somalia after being taken hostage less than a month later.

Local hoteliers have responded to the latest incidents by stressing that Mpeketoni is 48km from Lamu, but in private they admit defeat. “You would have to be crazy to choose Kenya at the moment. Why wouldn’t you go somewhere else?” said the manager of a once popular lodge, who asked not to be named.

Following travel advice from Britain and other governments last month, flustered European tour companies evacuate clients from Mombasa, Kenya’s tourist hub.

Kenyatta’s seeking to deflect mounting criticism of national security failings by criticising “hate-mongering” opponents has sparked fears that the country will return to the violent ethnic divisions that took it to the brink of a civil war in the wake of a disputed election in 2007.

Large minority
Residents on the stretch of coast where the attacks took place come predominantly from Kenya’s Muslim Swahili population but there is also a large minority from Kenya’s predominantly Christian Kikuyu ethnic group, who were relocated there after independence by Kenyatta’s father and Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta. Police have not revealed the ethnic background of the victims of this week’s attack.

The presideny’s allegations against political networks come as tensions run high between the ruling coalition and its opponents. Huge crowds thronged the capital, Nairobi, to greet opposition leader Odinga when he returned recently from a long stay in the United States.

The president has so far ignored the demands of the opposition, the Law Society of Kenya and influential diaspora figures to fire Joseph Ole Lenku, his much-maligned interior minister. No high-level officials have been sacked, despite the disastrous handling of September’s assault by al-Shabab militants on Westgate, an upscale shopping mall in the capital. 

The Somali militants have since switched to softer targets such as Kenya’s crowded commuter buses and open-air markets. The bloody results have opened the government to accusations that it does not care about ordinary Kenyans. It is a claim that wins a sympathetic audience among Kenya’s impoverished coastal Muslim communities.

The Somali militants claim their campaign, which has included bus bombings and grenade attacks, is a response to the continued presence of Kenyan troops in southern Somalia, where they have occupied the port city of Kismayo and its environs since 2011.

An al-Shabab spokesperson also linked the Mpeketoni attacks to the drive-by shootings of three high-profile radical preachers in Mombasa. Local human rights groups have alleged that the imams were victims of a campaign of extrajudicial killings, a charge the Kenyan government has denied.

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