What’s happening? Five years after an attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, Al-Shabaab appears committed to striking targets across East Africa. Security crackdowns have blunted its capacity to stage regular assaults, but complacency could roll back those gains, as could failure to engage with communities in which the group recruits.
Why did it happen? Al-Shabaab aims to pressure regional governments to withdraw troops from Somalia, where an African Union mission has been battling the militants since 2007. The group also uses its attacks in East Africa to raise its profile, seek new recruits and solicit funding.
Why does it matter? Despite losing territory in Somalia and cutting back recruitment in Kenya under pressure from authorities, Al-Shabaab has adapted by finding new areas of operation, including by building relationships with militants in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique.
What should be done? Authorities should avoid blanket arrests and extrajudicial killings, involve local leaders in efforts to tackle recruitment, while taking steps to address broader grievances that Al-Shabaab taps into in its narrative, including the political and economic exclusion of Muslim minorities in East Africa.
Five years ago, on 21 September 2013, four Al-Shabaab militants stormed the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 during the ensuing four-day siege and demonstrating the movement’s reach outside Somalia. Kenyan authorities’ subsequent indiscriminate crackdowns fuelled Muslim anger and accelerated militant recruitment. In 2015, however, top officials switched approaches, better involving community leaders in efforts against Al-Shabaab. The movement reacted by relocating operations, including by forging closer ties with militants in Tanzania, parts of which saw more attacks. Tanzanian authorities launched their own campaign, replicating some of Kenya’s mistakes. Both countries’ track records suggest that blanket arrests and police brutality consistently backfire. More effective is to combine steps that disrupt militant recruitment with policies aimed at addressing the grievances their propaganda exploits, notably Muslims’ political and economic marginalisation. In Uganda, too, though Al-Shabaab has made no major inroads, security forces’ mistreatment of Muslims risks creating problems where thus far few exist.
While Al-Shabaab remains focused on recapturing power and enforcing its variant of Islamic law in Somalia, it has long operated elsewhere in East Africa. At first it built networks to generate funds and recruits, largely refraining from attacks. That changed in March 2007, after the deployment of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), a regional force sent to prop up the body then recognised as the Somali government. The group has repeatedly struck countries that had dispatched troops to AMISOM.
After the highest-profile of these attacks, the Westgate siege, Kenyan authorities squeezed militant networks, forcing some to relocate and adapt tactics. But by casting a wide net, they also deepened frustration among Muslims at the state and aided Al-Shabaab recruitment. Militant attacks escalated between 2013 and 2015, often threatening to tip into wider ethnic or religious clashes. In mid-2015, a major attack on Garissa University College prompted a shake-up in the security forces and a rethink. Along Kenya’s coast, local officials spearheaded efforts against militancy, involving communities in security provision. In the north east, another hotspot, locals assumed prominent security sector slots. At the same time, Nairobi devolved power and resources to local governments under the terms of a constitution adopted in 2010, partly redressing the inequality and resentment of central government that militants played on. Intelligence gathering improved, and though some police abuses continue, the tempo of militant attacks slowed.
Al-Shabaab has, however, deepened its ties to Tanzanian militants. As early as 2011, parts of Tanzania had suffered sporadic killings of Christians, Muslim clerics, police officers and ruling-party cadres. Officials at first blamed criminals, denying Islamist militants were responsible. But stepped-up assaults since 2015 forced the authorities to acknowledge the growing challenge. They, too, launched crackdowns. Religious and political leaders in Tanzania contend that heavy-handed policing, including extrajudicial killings, risks driving young people into militants’ arms and fuelling intercommunal tension. Zanzibar’s protracted crisis, involving successive contested elections, also has pushed youths toward militancy, as traditional leaders who for years pursued reform peacefully lose credibility.
In Uganda, on the other hand, Al-Shabaab has struggled to gain traction – in large part due to better integration of Somalis, and Muslims overall, into society. No obvious ally for Al-Shabaab exists. This relatively good news story may not last, however. Over recent years, Ugandan security forces have rounded up large numbers of Muslims, creating a potential constituency. A new police chief pledges to end abuses but is still unproven. If the authorities do not change course, they could prompt disaffected youth to turn to militancy.
Al-Shabaab has not pulled off a major strike outside Somalia since Garissa. In Kenya, its influence has waned even as the threat of attacks lingers; competition among ethnic elites around elections poses a far graver threat to stability. In Tanzania, where militant violence has been on the rise, it seems unlikely to expand into a full-blown insurgency. But as regional and Western officials, as well as Al-Shabaab’s own propaganda, suggest, the group is still plotting major attacks abroad. While its precise links to local groups, which revolve mostly around personal ties among militants, remain unclear, those links allow Al-Shabaab to project an image of regional potency. In turn, local groups burnish their credentials by claiming affiliation with the Somali movement and tying parochial struggles to a wider cause.
Given the diversity among the countries themselves, the fortunes of Muslims in each and the different states’ varied experiences with Islamist militancy, there is no one prescription for tackling the threat. Nor, in East Africa as elsewhere, does a single, linear pathway toward militancy exist: recruits have ranged from law graduates to recent converts to Islam to poor Muslim youths in rural and urban peripheries. But there are lessons in Kenya’s shift in tack, however imperfect, after 2015. Put simply, indiscriminate crackdowns make things worse. More effective policies include giving local officials the lead, consulting with communities whose youth militants attempt to lure into their ranks and appointing Muslims to top positions in the security forces, while also taking steps to tackle underlying grievances. That lesson is a valuable one for Tanzania. It also shows the dangers for Uganda of abusing its Muslim population.
Al-Shabaab will likely remain a formidable force inside Somalia and a menace outside it. Even were that to change, militancy in Kenya and Tanzania, which in places predates Al Shabaab’s involvement, can be expected to endure as long as grievances linger; indeed, it already possesses its own dynamics, as groups respond to local conditions more than instruction from abroad. Al-Shabaab itself has proven adaptable, slipping away as dragnets close in. East African states need to be equally quick on their feet, fine-tuning security measures while crafting political and economic policies that weaken militancy’s allure.