Why al-Shabab is trying to inspire Muslim backlash against Kenya

Al-Shabab, a Somali-based terror group, claimed responsibility for today’s siege on a Kenyan university. The militants began cross-border strikes after Kenya sent its military into Somalia four years ago. Gwen Ifill talks to Kenneth Menkhaus of Davidson College about the group’s motivations for attacking Kenya.

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    We take a closer look now at Al-Shabab and its activities in Kenya with Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College who has done extensive research and consulted with the United Nations on the Somali group's activities.

    Thank you for joining us, Professor.

    Assuming that this is Al-Shabab's work, as they say, what is their goal here? What is their mission in this kind of attack?

  • KENNETH MENKHAUS, Davidson College:

    Well, their publicly stated goal is retribution for the Kenyan military intervention in Southern Somalia as part of the African Union peacekeeping forces there. They're trying to drive the Kenyan forces out of Somalia.

    But, in reality, they have other goals. The fact they have consistently separated Christians and Muslims in their attacks and then massacred the Christians suggests that what they're trying to do is drive a wedge between Kenya's Muslim population, and the Kenyan government and the rest of Kenyan society.

    They also are trying to grab some media attention. They have been completely eclipsed by ISIS over the past year and have lost recruits and interest. And this one way to regain that very quickly.


    For an American audience that is not familiar with the geography of Kenya, why this area? Why Northern Kenya? Why Garissa?


    Northern Kenya is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Somalis of Kenyan citizenship.

    And that means that Al-Shabaab, which is a predominantly Somali movement, can move freely in and out of that area largely undetected by the Kenyan government. Kenya also has, across Northern Kenya, as in the rest of the country, thousands of soft targets. It's an open society.

    So, it makes it easier for Shabaab to attack there than, say, in Nairobi, where they would be more closely monitored. They could still pull it off, but it would be more difficult in Nairobi.


    How does — aside from the horrificness of it, how does this attack compare to the Westgate Mall attack, which we paid such close attention to not so long ago?


    Westgate was more earth-shaking for Kenyans, I think, because it occurred right in the heart of the capital and because it lasted for four days.

    This one is actual more lethal, but because it's occurring out in a peripheral zone of the country in Northern Kenya, it might not have as much impact on the Kenyan psyche as did Westgate. But it's still going to have a major effect on tourism, on business investments.

    This area was slated and still is slated to be part of a major infrastructure development project of $26 billion, the LAPSSET project. Those kinds of investments could be thrown into question if this kind of violence continues there.


    There are some reports that there were some advanced — there was some advanced warning, flyers around the college campus, that sort of thing. Was that really a warning or was that intimidation?


    Well, that's part of the problem is separating signal to noise in Kenya, because Shabab often issues death threats against non-Muslims in predominantly Muslim areas. And it's difficult to know when the threats are credible and when they're not.

    In this particular case, though, there were a number of embassies that sounded alerts that there was actionable intelligence apparently that something was afoot. But even so, it's very difficult to know which soft target they are going to hit and when and where.


    How does the Kenyan government or the world at large mobilize against Al-Shabab? And is there a concern that they will inspire others to act?


    The concern that they inspire others has been there some time. And they have actively sought to recruit Somalis from around the very large diaspora around the world to join them. That has been less successful in recent years than in previous years.

    How to stop them, it's not going to be enough to engage in security operations. This is a network. They are engaging an asymmetrical war against soft civilian targets. This is going to be a long, drawn-out affair, I'm afraid. They have now got roots in Kenya, so this is increasingly a homegrown problem for Kenya, not just a cross-border one.

    And it's going to ultimately involve Somali-Kenyans and Somalis having enough of this group, because they are shouldering huge costs for the violence that this group has meted out in Kenya.


    Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College, thank you very much for your insights.


    Thank you.