Al-Shabaab's Kenya terror attack rooted in Somali violence, Western intervention

April 12, 2015
Al-Shabaab fighters.

Terrorists from Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab massacred 142 students at Garissa University in northern Kenya on April 2. In response, the Kenyan airforce bombed what they said were al-Shabaab camps in Somalia on April 5 and 6.

Kenyan forces have been occupying Somalia since October 2011, under African Union (AU) auspices, along with troops from Uganda and Burundi.

On April 7, students protested in Garissa and the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, against the seven-hour delay in security forces reaching the university during the attack.

A protester in Nairobi told Deutsche Welle: “Instead of [security forces] being in Somalia, they should be guarding us.”

An April 4 statement by al-Shabaab said the attack was to “avenge the deaths of thousands of Muslims killed at the hands of the Kenyan security forces” in Somalia and the ethnically Somali parts of Kenya, AFP reported.

Accusing Kenya of “unspeakable atrocities against the Muslims of East Africa”, the statement said that until Somali lands were liberated from Kenyan occupation, “Kenyan cities will run red with blood”.

Somali nationalism

The terrorists decided who, among the innocent students they took hostage, should be killed. This has made it easy for the world’s media to cover the atrocity within the framework of a global Islamist terrorist threat. This narrative downplays the role of Somali nationalism.

Al-Shabaab is affiliated to al-Qaeda and its actions reflect the ideology followed by armed Islamist groups worldwide. In the parts of Somalia it controls, popular entertainment such as cinema is banned and violence is perpetrated against women under the pretext of religious law.

However, unlike the self-styled Islamic State group in the Middle East, whose immediate aim is creating a transnational Caliphate as a state for all the world’s Muslims, al-Shabaab has largely nationalist aspirations. It seeks to create a viable Somali nation state, something prevented by repeated Western interventions.

Somalia was colonised in the 19th century by Italy, Britain and neighbouring Ethiopia. Arbitrary borders drawn up by colonial powers meant that when Somalia became independent in 1960, a large part of ethnically Somali territory was lost to Ethiopia and Kenya.

Impoverished by a century of colonial exploitation, the independent Somali state was ruled by military dictator Siad Barre, who was little more than a mercenary for hire to the Cold War superpowers. Barre first served the Soviet Union, then the US.

Western intervention

Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991 and civil war broke out. Between 1992 and 1995, a US-led international force, including Australian soldiers, occupied Somalia under the guise of “humanitarian intervention”.

Thousands of Somalis were killed by the occupying forces. On October 3, 1993, more than 1000 Somalis were killed by US helicopter assaults in one afternoon.

But resistance by Somali militias forced the occupiers to withdraw before they were able to install a client regime. Civil war between various clan militias, warlords and gangs became permanent.

In coastal villages, foreign ships took advantage of the collapse of the Somali state to overfish Somali waters and dump toxic waste. Fishing villagers turned to piracy in response.

In the north, de facto independent states were set up in Somaliland and Puntland. These created better functioning administrations than in the rest of the country, but they remain unrecognised internationally.

Instead, the West has recognised a series of coalition governments that have been unable to assert real authority.

These Western-created coalition governments have either been based outside Somalia or in small areas of the capital, Mogadishu, secured by foreign troops. Divisions on clan lines have become more entrenched as the clan militias provide security in conditions of permanent war and a lack of state authority.

The West’s interventions have been consistently opposed to the organic emergence of a Somali state independent of Western control.

In 2005, a movement emerged that united most of the clans and created the basis of a state with nationwide legitimacy. This movement, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), was led by Islamic clerics from different clans.

The US responded in December 2006 by sponsoring a violent and unpopular Ethiopian invasion. Al-Shabaab emerged as the strongest militia resisting Ethiopian occupation.

The Salafi interpretation of Islam followed by al-Shabaab is antagonistic to the traditional Islam followed by most Somalis and the religious establishment that created the UIC. When Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia in January 2009, a section of the UIC joined the latest Western-backed attempt to create a coalition government.

However, like its predecessors, this coalition has been unable to unite the forces supposedly represented by it or establish authority. US drones and the Kenyan-led AU forces were deployed to attack al-Shabaab-controlled areas in southern Somalia.


Unlike Somalia, Kenya has a functioning state, but it too is beset by political violence.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto face charges in the International Criminal Court for leading opposing sides in ethnic violence that followed disputed elections in 2007. This violence killed 1500 people and left 600,000 homeless.

Kenya's Somali minority has been subjected to national oppression since before Kenyan independence. This has increased with Kenyan involvement in the occupation of Somalia and al-Shabaab's retaliatory terrorist attacks. This, in turn, has fuelled al-Shabaab's violence.

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