There is no doubt 2015 will go down in Kenya’s history as horrible because of the unpleasant security incidents that characterised it. The April terrorist attack on Garissa University College that claimed the lives of 149 people, mostly students, left a permanent scar on the psyche of all Kenyans.
However, the December 21 act of bravery in which Muslim passengers threw a human shield around their Christian compatriots when their on a Mandera-bound bus came under attack from suspected al Shabaab gunmen gave Kenyans a gift beyond Christmas and New Year— a potential bloodbath was averted, thus marking a relatively happy ending to an otherwise horrible 2015.
As we usher in 2016, we pray that there will be more acts of solidarity, courage and unity so that the narrative of tolerance and harmonious coexistence is stronger than that of division, violence and hatred. There is need for Kenyans to pay close attention to the counter violent extremism efforts being undertaken by both government and civil society organisations. Given the armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan where the appeal of extremists groups seems to be growing instead, this year is likely to be worse for Kenya than 2015 as far as terrorism is concerned
Recent events in Somalia where an al Shabaab splinter group declared allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a pointer to the emergence of new challenges. We must keep in mind that when it comes to fighting terrorism and violent extremism, al Shabaab is the hyphen that joins Kenya and Somalia. Kenyans must be very concerned about the ripple effects of al Shabaab's bond with ISIS.
First and foremost, it is not in doubt that hundreds of al Shabaab fighters radicalised Kenyan youth. Secondly, unlike al Qaeda, which al Shabaab has been affiliated to all along, ISIS is more vicious and extreme in its acts of violence. If a splinter of al Shabaab has joined ISIS, we are likely to have hundreds of Kenyan youth being part of the most vicious and most violent extremist group in the world today. This is a very disturbing reality.
However, there is still room for Kenyans to find ways of mitigating this new threat — after all, to be fore-warned is to be fore-armed. We can now telegraph the intentions of such elements and put in place appropriate counter violent extremism measures so that we are not caught flat-footed.
Al Shabaab is now in the process of re-inventing itself after its fighting capacity was significantly diminished by Amisom. We must keep in mind that four of the eight provinces or wilayat of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate are located in Africa — Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Nigeria. It now looks like al Shabaab is seeking to create a fifth province for ISIS in Africa. This will likely involve enhanced military campaigns to capture territory lost to Amisom and the expansion of spheres of influence. The militant group will be seeking to recruit more fighters and acquire more powerful weapons to launch an even more vicious campaign.
But while there are questions about ISIS’s ability to direct affiliates in a unified and coordinated campaign, we in Kenya must acknowledge that those who have declared loyalty to ISIS have always adopted its signature brutality. Kenyans should be prepared for more brutal attacks by Somalia-based militant groups, with the possibility that our own sons and daughters could be the perpetrators of these attacks.
Meanwhile, we can take pride in the fact that efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE) in Kenya long predate ISIS. However, we should improve on existing CVE programmes by strengthening our efforts in addressing the push and pull factors that make violent extremism appealing the vulnerable — marginalised groups, particularly youth, with social and economic grievances.
In 2016, CVE programmes should be accompanied by efforts to address local grievances and draw vulnerable populations back into society by fostering inclusion through equal employment and business opportunities.
Experts agree that recent terrorist attacks in Tunisia, for example, brought the problem of marginalised youth into sharp focus. Studies show that many of the youth who have left Tunisia to join ISIS in Syria and other countries are well-educated. Since they have modern education and are sophisticated but are faced with unemployment and poverty, such youths lack self-worth and are thus susceptible to extremism. Violence gives them a sense of power.
The year 2016 should be one of enhanced CVE programmes for Kenya, with genuine efforts directed towards addressing problems affecting the youth, focused and well-coordinated rehabilitation and reintegration of violent extremist defectors and positive responses from state security machinery. These efforts might help in mitigating the effects of a likely ISIS presence in the Horn of Africa.
The writer is the deputy secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (Supkem).