Violent extremism in East Africa since 2013 – (and what we can be doing to understand it better) 

Research on violent extremism (and countering violent extremism) is necessarily somewhat secretive; the high risk nature of the research, to both the researchers and research participants, and the sensitivity of the subject matter, means that institutions undertaking such research rarely share their work publicly.

The unfortunate flip-side though is that research and discussion can become heavily siloed. Varied perspectives and granularity can sometimes be restricted or lost in an effort to protect those directly involved in the process. Indeed, at Wasafiri, where we are leading a number of different research processes on preventing and countering violent extremism in East Africa, the emphasis on confidentiality of our research means that even within our own team, we often struggle to share our findings and learning from across our portfolio of projects.

A notable exception to this tendency is International Crisis Group, who on 21st September 2018 published an in-depth report Al Shabaab Five Years After Westgate: Still a Menace in East Africa. ICG also held a launch event to invite discussion on the report’s findings. The report explored the trajectory and developments associated with Al Shabaab across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, since its infamous attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in 2013.

Commendably, the report fills a critical gap in information on the reach of Al Shabaab across the region and introduces a wider audience to some of the nuances of the group’s presence within, and impact upon East African communities, and the ways that the respective governments’ have engaged with these dynamics. Al Shabaab Five Years After Westgate broadly concludes that violent incidents involving Al Shabaab have gone down across East Africa since 2015 with a significant factor in this being the ‘softer’ approach of the Kenyan government and security forces in engaging with communities associated with violent extremism, and the parallel efforts, with varying degrees of effectiveness, by other governments in the region. Through this research, ICG has made important steps in helping to open up conversations around violent extremism in the region.

In an attempt to contribute towards the conversation and to support greater depth within the analyses of the types of issues raised by the ICG report, Wasafiri invited some of the key specialists on violence extremism in East Africa to have an informal conversation on this topic. The commentary that emerged focused on Kenya, where Wasafiri and most of our specialists are more closely engaged. We hope that this will at least make a small contribution to discussion and encourage wider learning within the research community working on these issues.

Our team begun by discussing the ways in which violent extremism in East Africa is constantly evolving month by month. Recent shifts include new geographies and tribes/communities being targeted by recruiters, a growing involvement of women in a variety of roles, and an increasing regional interconnectedness across Al Shabaab and other violent extremist networks. The ICG report, in focusing on the 2015/2016 period, has not discussed these more recent progressions in depth, but these shifts in tactics do urgently need to be explored.

The consensus among our team was that violent extremist recruitment trends are extremely difficult to quantify, but should nonetheless be treated with equal weight as violent incident rates, when making assessments on the activities and influence of a violent extremist group like Al Shabaab. Likewise, we need to be able to look beyond the typical demographic of ‘young Muslim males’, because as mentioned, Al Shabaab and other groups increasingly target women, and a diverse set of tribes, communities and religious backgrounds. Moreover, the recruitment drivers and pathways are multifaceted, which should push us to look beyond just ‘ideology’, or ‘economic incentives’, and to avoid treating these as binary. The intersectionality of identity means that potential recruits may hold a variety of different entry points that recruiters can leverage. Therefore, other factors such as socio-economic class, gender, occupation, drug use, educational attainment and social networks need to be further unpacked when examining recruitment patterns.

On the subject of government engagement with violent extremism, particularly in Kenya, the ICG report posits that the government and security forces have ‘softened’ their approach since 2015, which has had a positive effect on countering violent extremism in the country. Our conversations generally pushed back against this assertion. Whilst the ICG report claims that extra-judicial executions have reduced since 2015, our specialists felt that this was for the most part overly generous, with unlawful killings by security services even increasing in some places. The notion posed by the report that, because the Kenyan government is now apparently using ‘softer’ approaches to tackling violent extremism, this automatically means that the corresponding ‘harder’ (more abusive) approaches have necessarily reduced, was seen as highly tenuous.

Meanwhile, government engagement at the political level in Kenya has shown signs of improvement. Particularly at the lower levels of administration where officials are publicly elected by constituencies. However, this tends to occur on a highly personalised basis, or maybe through a fleeting attempt to curry political favour and election votes, rather than reflecting a concerted and broad based shift in government attitudes to violent extremism and at-risk communities. The national devolution process since 2013 was praised by the report, for having alleviated feelings of disenfranchisement among marginalised and typically at-risk communities. However, as our team pointed out this assumption should be heavily caveated, as in places like Wajir, devolution has served to further marginalise already marginalised communities and clan groups, deepening their resentment of the state (and therefore their at-risk status).

Engagement by non-government groups or actors has also been an extremely mixed bag. Certain Muslim clerics, as highlighted by the ICG report, are indeed doing a good job at engaging with at-risk communities and have considerable positive influence over them. NGO initiatives on the other hand have had less tangible impact, with much room for improvement.

Most importantly, we need to push our conversations further, to seriously consider what comes next, if Al Shabaab’s reach does recede. With ISIS recently gaining a small foothold in Somalia, and other forms of political violence and gang criminality being a pervasive problem across the region, we cannot assume that Al Shabaab’s decline will mean a decline in extremist violence more widely – in fact, it could be quite the opposite, as we’ve seen in the past decade in the Middle East.

In any case, while we do not hold the answers to many of these difficult problems, this does still raise the need to take a more innovate approach to our research and community engagement with violent extremism, in order to gain the level of nuance and insight that is necessary. Moreover, as researchers and other institutions engaged in these issues, we should share and invite debate more consistently; this will build greater rigour and insights into our own work, as well as the national and international dialogues on violent extremism. With the Al Shabaab Five Years After Westgate report, ICG has already made a valuable contribution to this conversation.