One of al-Shabaab’s main objectives during and after Westgate was to divide Muslims and non-Muslims and tempt Kenyans into divisiveness. One week after the crisis, Kenyans look to defy falling into this trap.
After al-Shabaab’s 4-day siege of the Westgate mall in Nairobi killed over 70 people and injured over 200, many Kenyans showed solidarity through inter-faith prayer services and blood donation drives.
The #WeAreOne hashtags popular among #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) were a hopeful sign of unity.
Many Kenyans of Somali descent, rather than being blamed altogether for the attack, were proclaimed as some of the many heroes of Westgate.
Somalia’s Ambassador to Kenya even tweeted a photo of himself giving blood with many others to support Westgate victims.
Still, al-Shabaab has looked to exploit differences between Muslims and non-Muslims during and after the attack.
During the siege, several witnesses stated al-Shabaab militants targeted civilians based on answers to questions only Muslims would prospectively know. But overall reports made it clear that Muslims were among the many innocent civilians that died during the indiscriminate fire of assault rifles and use of grenades.
After the attack, Puntland-based al-Shabaab cleric Sheikh Abdulqadir Mumin urged Muslims not to give blood in an audio statement, stating:
“It is totally forbidden under the Islamic edict to donate blood or provide assistance to the disbelievers…Because their acts reflect…helping infidels over the Muslims.”
Mumin’s statements were a clear attempt to disrupt the solidarity among Kenyans and redirect the “we are one” narrative back to one framing tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in Kenya.
Clerics from the Salafi group al-I’tisam—whose members have been targeted by al-Shabaab for speaking out against the group—slammed Mumin for these statements.
In separate statements, Nairobi-based Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Umal and Mogadishu-based Sheikh Bashir Ahmed Salad said the attack was “un-Islamic,” condemned their murder of civilians, and praised Muslims for helping victims of the attack.
The unity among everyday Kenyans has not changed the nature of post-Westgate profiling, scapegoating, and troubling security tactics that are being spotlighted again in the media.
- Kenyan MPs called for refugees camps–resident to almost 475,000 Somalis—to close, regardless of the legal and practical obstacles. (Note: Conditions in refugee camps are terrible, but the presence of NGOs and interactions between host communities and refugees has changed the socioeconomic environment of northeastern Kenya in ways that should not go unnoticed. [PDF])
- Residents of Eastleigh, Nairobi (aka “Little Mogadishu”) fear a backlash.
- Migrants have been arrested en masse on “terrorism” charges.
- Anti-terror police units appear to be singling out Somalis in the crackdowns following the attack, including an American and a Somali MP.
It is this kind of treatment that al-Shabaab features in online propaganda and uses in face-to-face recruitment efforts.
While it is an exaggeration to say that anyone mistreated by Kenyan police would be open to joining al-Shabaab, all the above factors are a threat to the country’s fundamental ability to provide security and justice and to aspirations of a Kenya in which patriotism trumps tribe.
Proving that things can change for the better, ordinary Kenyans have shown much more resilience and tolerance compared to the mob violence that resulted from the 2007-2008 election crisis and spate of alleged al-Shabaab/sympathizer attacks that gripped the capital particularly in 2012.
But the key to countering the spread of al-Shabaab’s influence in Kenya will involve a difficult effort to address corruption, marginalization, and the country’s foreign and domestic security strategy.
That said, much good can be done by the simple exhibition of solidarity and the resistance to easily accessible phobias and scapegoating that are all too common after traumatic events such as Westgate.