DAYS after Islamists killed 148 people at Garissa University College, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta held out an olive branch to Muslims and urged them to join Nairobi in the struggle against militant Islam by informing on sympathizers.
But as Kenyatta launches a battle for Muslim hearts and minds, his security forces must first reckon with the deep mistrust among ethnic Somali Muslims in the country’s northeast regions bordering Somalia.
Urging Muslims to do more to root out jihadi sympathizers within their community, Kenyatta said the attacks by the Somali militants threaten economic progress in their heartlands.
“I urge all my brothers and sisters in the affected regions, and across the country, to not allow those who hide and abet the terrorists to compromise and even destroy the development that is fast growing in your area,” said Kenyatta, who replaced his intelligence and police chief following attacks.
Kenyatta also faces an uphill task in reforming the violent ways of troops on the ground. A day before the president spoke, a Reuters reporter saw a soldier in Garissa lashing at a crowd of Muslim women with a long stick.
“We live in fear,” said Barey Bare, one of a dozen veiled Somali-Kenyan women targeted by the soldier. “The military are a threat and al-Shabab are a threat. We are in between.”
Without the cooperation of local people like Bare, experts say, Kenya will struggle to glean vital, on-the-ground intelligence to stop crude but lethal assaults by Somalia’s al-Shabab militants.
Winning favor with Muslim communities near Somalia has been made more urgent by al-Shabab’s switch in tactics to target Kenya’s frontier regions near the porous 700-kilometer border. Al-Shabab has killed more than 400 people in two years, including 67 during an assault on Nairobi’s Westgate mall in 2013.
“Kenyans can’t afford to build a wall with Somalia, so intelligence from local sources is the best approach,” a Western diplomat said. “But people in villages won’t inform if Kenyan soldiers steal or hit women.”