By Charles Onyango-Obbo
Somalilandsun – In societies already divided by ethnic and regional rivalries, Shabaab is deliberately trying to insert another And Perhaps we misunderstand and underrate Al Shabaab.
Before the scale of the massacre at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya where masked militants staged a dawn raid on Thursday emerged, many analysts had been saying the Shabaab was on the ropes or on the run.
This, they said, was because it had been beaten out of its strongholds in Somalia by African Union peacekeeping forces over the past three years, and American airstrikes and defections had taken out many of its top leaders.
By the time Kenyan security forces took back control of Garissa University, 147 people were dead. That was the most deadly terror attack in Kenya since the 1998 US Nairobi embassy bombings, and more than double the 67 people who were killed in the September 2013 Westgate Mall attack.
Yes, all these things have happened. I think the mistake has been to think that it necessarily left Shabaab in a weaker position.
When Shabaab controlled large parts of Somalia, and the lucrative Kismayo port, it had its hands full, and a smaller appetite to wreak havoc outside the country because it was distracted by having to keep control of the areas it held, and these in turn provided it with enough money.
This stage of insurgencies usually attracts many people, including the half-committed looking for easy excitement, or in the case of Shabaab — and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — those looking to dabble in “jihad lite.”
When the going gets tough, however, the half-committed usually flee and it is only the hardliners and true believers who remain.
The second thing that seems to have happened with Shabaab is that, shorn of the burden of having to administer territory, it can now singlehandedly focus on its original mission — jihad and, as emerged for the first time from its statements about the Garissa attack — a pan-Somali agenda it never talked about in the past.
In that sense, the defeats Shabaab has suffered at the hands of Amisom could actually have made it a more disciplined and focused and, therefore, deadly organisation.
What is the evidence of this? Inside Somalia, Shabaab now concentrates more closely on political and military targets — the presidential palace, parliament, the Amisom base, and hotels where government officials hang out — and less on civilian targets like markets.
Second, and in a clear distinction from Boko Haram and ISIS, it doesn’t discriminate among Islamic sects in its activities outside Somalia. There is no good or bad Muslim, all Muslims are good.
In the Westgate attack, it killed “bad” Muslims. In the Mpeketoni attacks in Coastal Kenya it simply separated Muslims and Christians. In Mandera, Al Shabaab fighters sorted the victims according to their religion and “mercilessly executed the Christians,” Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage stated.
In societies already divided by ethnic rivalries, regional rivalries, and inter-Christian rivalries, Shabaab is deliberately trying to insert another lethal one — Christians vs Muslims.
Shabaab can still be defeated, but doing that requires that celebrations about its impending demise be tempered. Amisom handed Shabaab a bitter lemon, and the militants seem to have somehow made grapefruit juice with it.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa.