University massacre – Who is al-Shabaab?

This week saw yet another horrific attack by extremist Islamist militants. 148 students at Garissa university in Northern Kenya were slaughtered by four men from the Somalian jihadist group al-Shabab. The men broke into the campus before killing students in their classrooms and dorm rooms, separating Muslims from Christians as they went. It took hours for the Kenyan army to regain control of the situation, and parents are still faced with the task of identifying the victims. It was as brutal, personal, and on the same mass scale as an attack that left me similarly lost for words five months ago. So who is al-Shabaab, and why are they fighting a war in Kenya?  

African Union troops training for Somalia (Photo: USMC)

Al-Shabaab (simply meaning ‘youth’ in Arabic, it reflects their use of child soldiers) is a product of one of the most long running civil wars in Africa. Even since the fall of a dictator in 1991, Somalia has lacked any real government, and been torn apart by civil war. While the internationally recognised government has made progress in recent years thanks to the help of the African Union, the country is still dominated by warlords and tribal groups. Two regions in the north have broken away (and are actually doing a lot better for it), and the government still struggles to combat both pirates and Islamist groups. Al-Shabaab is one of these groups.

Originally supported by parts of the population because of the order they brought (similar to the Taliban and even Islamic State), al-Shabaab managed to take over a large chunk of the country, including the capital, in 2009. They were also seen as resisting ‘foreign occupiers‘ – the African Union troops mentioned above, which included Kenyans. However, the group also forced their own incredibly intolerant and extreme version of Islam on the population, forbidding anything ‘Western’ and stoning young victims of rape. Their support waned, and a Kenyan invasion helped the government to push the group out of most of their strongholds.

Since then al-Shabaab have been reduced to more of a ‘terrorist’ group, launching regular suicide bombings on both military and civilian targets. At the same time though, their focus on Kenya as the foreign enemy has sharpened. The fact that Kenya is a majority Christian state has only helped this. Al-Shabaab is finding recruits among some local Muslims disaffected by strong state surveillence, and their attacks have taken on a very sectarian nature. During the Westgate shopping mall attack and a recent massacre on a bus, Christians have been singled out to be executed. The danger is that this will only increase distrust of the Muslim minority.

This latest attack seems to have failed to do that, with protesters in Nairobi saying that al-Shabaab will never divide Muslims and Christians. However, the chance that the security forces will succeed in combating the threat isn’t great. It seems all too easy for Islamist groups to continue to find angry young men willing to kill. Al-Shabaab’s transition from semi-government to extremist jihadist group will continue to torment Kenya for a time to come.

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