Shabab terrorism threat casts wider shadow over Kenya

Kenyan police arrest a demonstrator Dec. 18 who was protesting an anti-terrorism law that places restrictions on journalists and broadly targets Somali refugees.
(Simon Maina / AFP/Getty Images)

When quarry miners in northern Kenya packed up their few belongings and fled last month after a terrorist attack, they left behind their jobs and back pay. They returned to their families in this central Kenya city with stories of survival and horror, but no money for Christmas and no job prospects for the new year.

They face a gnawing uncertainty: Will poverty force them back to the quarries close to the Somali border, where fighters from the militant group Shabab roam, hijacking cars and carrying out brutal revenge attacks?

Shabab, the Somali group that killed 36 miners last month, has created a visceral insecurity in the lives of Kenyans. For some, it’s a mere twinge of nerves that comes when entering a mall after gunmen seized a Nairobi shopping center in 2013 and killed 67 people, or when attending a conference where bomb-sniffing dogs check everyone’s bags before the opening prayers. But terrorism is daily presence on the coast and in the far north, where the worst attacks of 2014 occurred.

Last year was the most deadly since 2011, when Kenya began its military intervention in Somalia, taking the fight to Shabab’s homeland. More than 90 people were killed in several terrorist attacks near Lamu on the Kenyan coast; 64 were executed in the two attacks near the northeastern town of Mandera. Kenya’s crucial tourist industry — hit by trauma every few years — was devastated by the violence, which included the shootings of several tourists in Mombasa.


Shabab has suffered setbacks in Somalia, with the killings of its secretive commander, Ahmed Abdi Godane, its intelligence chief, Tahlil Abdishakur, and other top figures in recent U.S. airstrikes. But in Kenya, the security crisis has only deepened as local terrorist cells take root and harsh government reactions cause a backlash. In a sign that the group’s weakening position in Somalia may not end the threat to Kenya, militants attributed their recent attacks to revenge for Kenyan security operations at home rather than in Somalia.

The quarry attack underscores the stepped-up cycle of violence. It came after Kenyan airstrikes on Shabab camps near the border in November, which followed the militant group’s attack on a bus near Mandera that left 28 Christian passengers dead. The bus attack was launched in revenge for raids by security forces on mosques in Mombasa and elsewhere along the coast, with scores of young men arrested, and for a spate of mysterious assassinations of extremist Islamic preachers and terrorism suspects since 2012.

Last May, after massive police raids in a Somali neighborhood near the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, a Shabab leader, Sheik Fuad Mohamed Khalaf Shongole, announced the group was launching war inside Kenya and called on all the country’s Muslims to join the fight.

Quarry worker Stanley Kibuchi, 39, was awake in his tent early last month when the militants attacked miners sleeping at Koromei quarry near Mandera shortly after midnight. Hearing gunfire, he fled with three fellow workers. But others, deep in slumber, were dragged from their sleep by the killers.

“We’d heard about Al Shabab, and we never thought they’d attack ordinary workers,” he said. “I ran and escaped with three colleagues. We hid in the forest. Then we just heard gunshots, gunshots, gunshots.”

When they returned the next morning, they found three co-workers beheaded and 33 shot.

“There was blood all over the place,” he said, speaking fast and breathing quickly in recalling the horror.

The miners, Christian workers from central Kenya, were forced to lie on the cold ground, and those who resisted were beheaded. One man waited until a gunman lowered his rifle to shoot his next victim, then jumped up and ran into the bush. He took a bullet in his chest but escaped, the only surviving victim of the shootings.


The assault mirrored a November attack on a bus, during which 28 passengers were forced to lie down and were shot in the head.

Michael Kimondo, 34, had to identify the body of his brother, Gilbert Mwangi, 41, after the quarry attack.

“The Sunday before, we’d spent the day together. We were planning for Christmas. He told me he’d send money to me to give to his family,” Kimondo said. “He died with his nephew. I really felt so very painful.”

The men of Nyeri have worked in the harsh quarries of the north for years, breaking rock, camping out in tents, sending money home to their families. Their bosses and neighbors were Kenyans of Somali ancestry.


Everyone in the area knew that Shabab gunmen were hidden in the Kenyan hills along the border, Kibuchi said. The militants would stop cars and steal phones, money and IDs — useful for handing out cellphones to new recruits and smuggling killers across borders.

“The Kenyan military has been fighting them, but they just keep coming back secretly,” Kibuchi said. “I can’t really trust the government will improve things. There’s no guarantee of security there.”

Quarry worker James Maina, 39, said Somalis can easily cross the border with Kenya.

“Those people go to and fro,” he said, acknowledging he finds it difficult to differentiate between Somalis and Somali Kenyans. “Those people are the same people who employ us. We never suspected anything like [last month’s attack] would happen because we had lived with them like brothers for years.”


The recent attacks followed an established pattern: Victims were forced to recite a Koranic verse, and those who couldn’t were killed. Shabab recently gloated that its attacks had frayed the trust between Kenya’s Christians and Muslims.

Critics say the government is only feeding those animosities and perpetuating the circle of violence with its harsh reaction to terrorism.

On Kenya’s coast, where communities have long chafed over government neglect and past land seizures, human rights groups have documented assassinations and disappearances of terrorism suspects and radical Islamic preachers by counter-terrorism units. The killings of several imams sparked riots and alienated local Muslims.

The government denies the existence of death squads, but members of anti-terrorism police units confessed to slaying dozens of people in reports by Al Jazeera and the BBC, saying Kenya’s legal system was so weak and corrupt that the government preferred to kill suspects.


“Kenyan counter-terrorism forces appear to be killing and disappearing people right under the noses of top government officials, major embassies and the United Nations,” Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Africa, said in an August report. “This horrendous conduct does not protect Kenyans from terrorism — it simply undermines the rule of law.”

Cedric Barnes, an International Crisis Group analyst, argued that Kenyan police actions, including a raid by 6,000 officers on a Somali neighborhood near Nairobi, “are a primary driver toward extremism.” The raids, he said, resonate in the sermons of radical Islamic preachers and help Shabab find recruits among alienated young men.

“The government’s recent action threatens to create a greater constituency for Al Shabab, uniting grievances that are specific to the Somali community with those of the wider Muslim population,” Barnes wrote in a report last April.

In addition, a tough new security bill rushed through parliament last month targets Somali refugees, as well as the media and protesters.


The law slashed the number of Somali refugees allowed in the country from 500,000 to 150,000 and restricted them to two sprawling refugee camps, moves that Human Rights Watch says violate international law.

The new rules allow authorities to revoke ID cards and force the media to get prior police permission to publish any article relating to counter-terrorism investigations and operations. Anyone planning a protest rally must get permission from the Cabinet secretary in charge of security.

The opposition has launched a legal challenge against the law, claiming it breaches Kenya’s constitution. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last month the new provisions “appear to limit freedom of assembly and media and access to asylum for refugees,” calling on Kenya to respect its international obligations and its constitution.

“Laws that violate fundamental rights and are open to abuse by security forces aren’t the right solution to Kenya’s security crisis,” Lefkow, of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday.


Twitter: @robyndixonLAT