The September 21, 2013, attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, brought to the fore once again the escalating and persistent threats posed by violent extremist groups in East Africa and the Horn of Africa.
Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based insurgency movement, which has so far claimed responsibility for the attack, is amongst several Islamic fundamentalist movements emerging in the region. The group poses a regional and international threat particularly through its affiliates in Kenya, Tanzania, as well as transnational networks such as al-Qaeda.
To achieve its goal of fronting a fundamentalist and Islamist-nationalist ideology in Somalia, while also mounting an insurgency against foreign peacekeeping troops under the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Al-Shabaab has mobilized support by adeptly taking advantage of political and socio-economic vulnerabilities of the youth in neighboring countries. This reflects two ominous trends with security implications especially for states directly involved in peace operations in the country.
First and most important, radical elements have penetrated potential hotbeds for youth radicalization in rapidly urbanizing areas of Kenya as well as ungoverned regions in Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. These are areas currently experiencing a youth bulge in a context where the state hardly meets their basic and social needs. The socio-economic marginalization of youth and their alienation from their states provide a fertile ground for the spread of radical ideologies and violence against symbols of authority and other “soft” targets.
Second, Al-Shabaab sympathizers have infiltrated regions already facing ethno-religious insurgencies. Grievances from decades of political and socioeconomic exclusion especially of Somali-Muslims and other ethnic minority communities in Ethiopia, Sudan, Northern, Coastal and slum areas in Kenya, have produced vulnerable youth with parochial goals and who in turn are easily conscripted into extreme Jihadism.
The threats posed by these unwholesome trends require responses that go beyond the traditional defense and security strategies when dealing with violent militancy and extremist groups. Two and a half decades of intervention in Somalia have shown that exclusionary peacebuilding processes and military campaigns that overlook social and generational groups, particularly the youth, do not necessarily guarantee security and socio-political order. Regional and international organizations therefore need to rethink their interventionist state and peacebuilding efforts in the country.
Armed approaches are not a panacea. While AMISOM may in the short-term triumph against Al-Shabaab, the military victory will be counterproductive in the long-term. The experience of Somalia shows that such military interventions could actually exacerbate conflict. It could also reinforce divisive politics and create an environment conducive to extremists going underground, emerging sporadically to wreak havoc on society and neighboring countries. A lasting solution to Somalia’s post-transition conflict may lie in facilitating a process that is genuinely owned and led by the Somali people.
Surely impetuous counterinsurgency and counterterrorism responses that emphasize the use of force and targeted operations will be unsustainable, especially in areas where the marginalization of youth remains a chronic challenge. More often than not such operations further alienate the youth and foment vengeance. To help in the short-term these neighboring states could urgently engage the “hearts and minds” of non-state actors, particularly religious groups, non-governmental organizations, and other youth groups that are actively involved in youth-related activities across all vulnerable communities. Lasting solutions may lie in strategies that focus on inclusive ideas directed toward tackling youth exclusion at political, socio-economic, and cultural levels. Above all, neighboring states need to rethink their long-term state security strategies.