The dynamics of religious violence in Kenya have evolved significantly in the last few years, in part because of changes in the security environment that have followed the Kenyan army's incursion into Somalia in 2011, but also due to the catalysis of tensions that have existed for decades.
Older disputes about the treatment of ethnic Somalis and Kenyan Muslims or the way in which religious rights between Christians and Muslims should be enshrined in the Kenyan constitution have increasingly given way to a context in which Kenyan security forces and extremist groups like al-Shabaab are operating with much more serious consequences, thus raising the spectre of religious violence in the country.
"Homegrown and foreign extremist elements have established a presence in Kenya."”
Al-Shabaab and its broad base of Kenyan recruits and sympathisers have increased attacks in Kenya substantially, with the siege at the Westgate Mall in September 2013 standing out as the most spectacular incident of violence to hit Kenya since post-election clashes in 2007-2008. Extremists have also increasingly singled out Christian civilians for execution in raids in Mandera and Lamu counties and have targeted pro-government Muslim leaders. The Kenyan government has responded to these attacks primarily through a counter-terrorism strategy involving mass arrests of ethnic Somalis and Muslims and alleged extrajudicial killings of radical religious leaders by the country's Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU). These tactics have isolated key segments of the country's population while failing to stop attacks or address root causes of the violence.
In propaganda videos and public statements, al-Shabaab has framed the conflict in terms of religious, ethnic, and territorial grievances. The group argues that for decades the Kenyan government has marginalised and abused ethnic Somalis and other Muslim communities in everyday injustices cited by human rights organisations, as well as in flashpoint incidents like the 1984 Wagalla Massacre in which ethnic Somali communities in dispute were summarily executed by Kenyan security forces.
Al-Shabaab has also strategically adopted the same narratives expressed by predominantly Muslim communities on Kenya's coast who have long protested that the Kenyan government has allowed up-country communities – including members of President Uhuru Kenyatta's Kikuyu tribe, Christians, and others – to usurp land from indigenous communities in the decades after the country gained independence.
Kenyans themselves have formed their own perceptions about who has been responsible for insecurity, often with fatal consequences. After al-Shabaab claimed attacks in the Mpeketoni area of Lamu County that killed over 60 people in June 2014, two gunmen in the Likoni area of Mombasa retaliated by killing four people and distributed leaflets threatening former Prime Minister of Kenya Raila Odinga and other members of his Luo tribe which they blamed for the Mpeketoni deaths. The incident was one of many cases in which citizens retaliated in some form against individuals from a certain community in response to insecurity.
Another important element of the security environment in Kenya is the declining capacity of religious leaders to address extremism and violence effectively. In the last two years, moderate Kenyan Muslim leaders have been losing influence in key mosques – especially in Mombasa – due to their diminishing credibility among certain factions of their congregations who are increasingly susceptible to extremist recruitment.
Many imams have been seen as failing to defend Muslim communities adequately against longstanding economic and political marginalisation, as well as against the government-led security operation known as Usalama Watch which has been marred by accusations of extortion, ethnic and religious profiling, and physical abuses. Notably, the Kenyan government has often not made it easy for Muslim leaders to represent their constituents credibly. For example, after Kenyan police killed one man and arrested at least 250 people in November 2014 during several raids at Swafaa, Musa, Sakina, and Minaa mosques in Mombasa, Deputy President William Ruto said any Muslim leaders who criticised the operations would be questioned by authorities. By equating any criticism of security operations with sympathy for extremists, the Kenyan government put Muslim leaders between a rock and a hard place and made it more difficult for them to regain any credibility among factions of their constituency who have felt unfairly targeted.
In a related development, homegrown and foreign extremist elements have slowly been establishing a more influential presence in Kenya over the last few years, and have appeared to exploit unaddressed grievances in order to radicalise and likely arm new batches of extremists. Newly radicalised youth have subsequently kicked out moderate preachers – some of whom fled the country – through the use of threats or force in order to install imams who preach similarly radical ideologies.
Given the current dynamics, it is very possible that insecurity and religious violence in Kenya could get worse before it gets better in the short-term if there is not a decisive shift in approaches to addressing communal grievances and the threat of terror in the country.
First, Kenya police and security forces will need to improve their criminal investigations and security operations to focus on the ringleaders of violent groups rather than choosing to carry out arbitrary and mass arrests – especially in sensitive places such as mosques. This is important because Kenyan police often bring weak cases against scores of people caught up in police raids, but in most cases the majority are released due to insufficient evidence to connect them with criminal or terrorist activity.
"The Kenyan government made it difficult for Muslim leaders to credibly represent constituents."”
Additionally, the Kenyan government needs to turn the recommendations of moderate religious and community leaders into tangible policies and programmes to help re-legitimise their authority and to address some of the root causes of radicalisation in the country. Suggested reforms, including the cessation of the alleged extrajudicial killings and the development of solutions for economic and land-based grievances, could go a long way in productively expanding the Kenyan government's options for responding to insecurity beyond a police or military response. However, there appears to be a lack of political will by the current administration to enact serious reforms. However, a change here must be accompanied by changes in policy if Kenya seeks to genuinely reduce the scale of religious violence and insecurity.
Lastly, dialogue with radicalised youth and other vulnerable audiences can only be productive if there is tangible evidence that grievances – religious, economic and otherwise – are being legitimately addressed. Therefore, the biggest and most unfortunate question moving forward may be how seriously insecurity will have to deteriorate for political leaders to facilitate change that Kenyans can see, feel, and believe in.