Max Security Analysis Kenya: President Kenyatta’s government under increased pressure over rising threat of militancy amidst growing ethno-political animosity. June 22, 2014

Kenyan soldier after the explosion
In the aftermath of the June 15-16 militant attacks in Mpeketoni, Lamu County, which left more than 60 people dead, belligerent political and ethnic rhetoric has sharply risen between President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government and the opposition Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD). Moreover, the US State Department issued a travel warning on June 19, alerting US nationals of the risks of travel to Kenya while restricting its staff from all travel to the coastal counties of Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi, Lamu, and the coastal portion of Tana River County. On June 20, Kenya’s Interior Ministry asserted that its security forces killed five suspected militants armed with AK-47 rifles in the Mpeketoni area, although an estimated 50 assailants took part in the attacks on June 15-16, most of whom are presumed to still be at large.
  • The Somali militant group al-Shabaab’s spokesman, Sheikh Abdulaziz Abu Musab, reportedly claimed responsibility for the Mpeketoni attacks through the group’s Somali radio channel, Andalus FM. The man alleging to be Abdulaziz Abu Musab stated that the “Mujahideen who carried out the Mpeketoni attack are all safe,” and that they killed 70 “enemies” while denying previous rumors of abductions.
  • Witness statements indicate that the Mpeketoni assaults were conducted by predominantly Somali speaking assailants allegedly carrying al-Shabaab flags. The attackers specifically targeted non-Muslim males, mainly of the Kikuyu tribe, as well as people watching the World Cup. The Kenyan government has subsequently urged citizens to watch the competition at home instead of in “crowded and unprotected open places.”
  • However, President Kenyatta refuted al-Shabaab’s claim of responsibility, and instead implicitly accused opposition leader Raila Odinga and his CORD faction of the attacks, which were allegedly aimed at sparking instability and ethnic tensions. In response, Odinga rejected these allegations, stating that the Mpeketoni attacks are a result of the Jubilee government’s inability to curb growing militancy.
  • On June 19, a pro al-Shabaab social media account that Kenyan police allege claimed responsibility for the attacks was closed down. The account’s owner, Ishmael Omondi, who is a Kenyan national, was arrested in Nairobi, and subsequently released following questioning.
  • The attacks have had deep political ramifications, and the opposition CORD’s rally slated for June 21 in Nakuru County, as part of Odinga’s campaign for national dialogue, was reportedly cancelled following the discovery of hate leaflets. The leaflets urged Odinga’s local Luo tribe to vacate the Rift Valley region or face consequences. Subsequently, the government has banned all political or tribal rallies in the town of Naivasha, Nakuru County, out of fear of ethnically motivated violence.
  • George Aladwa, the former Nairobi Mayor and Nairobi County Chairman for Raila Odinga’s party Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) was reportedly arrested on June 21, allegedly after calling for the swearing in of Odinga as President on July 7 (Saba Saba Day), if the government refuses national dialogue.
  • Additionally, nine Senators and MPs affiliated with CORD were summoned on June 20 by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) over allegations of hate speech. 

Assessments: Mpeketoni attacks’ modus operandi indicative of ethnic as well as religious motivation while high level of sophistication lends credence to al-Shabaab complicity
  1. Despite conflicting allegations of who carries the responsibility for the Mpeketoni attacks, the modus operandi differs from previous attacks attributed to al-Shabaab. During the Westgate Mall attack in September 2013, which left more than 67 people dead, the Somali militants indiscriminately targeted men, women and children, which has also been the tactic used during more low-level attacks allegedly conducted by the group in Nairobi and Mombasa. However, in Mpeketoni, the exclusive targeting of male victims of a certain ethnicity, in this case President Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe, who are mainly farmers living in small villages, is not congruent with the regular tactics used by al-Shabaab and may be indicative of an ethnic motivation behind the assault.
  2. Mpeketoni was originally intended as a settlement scheme by the first Kenyan president and current President Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, following independence in 1963. The population consists mostly of agriculturalist Kikuyus, who originate from the central regions. Consequently, the Mpeketoni area has witnessed long-standing ethnic and political disputes over land and resources, mainly attributed to the introduction of this foreign Christian Kikuyu ethnicity to the local ethnically Somali or Oromo Muslim population. The attackers in Mpeketoni exclusively singled out those who were not Muslim or did not speak Somali, underlining that they were specifically targeting the Kikuyu people. Thus, such a profiling underscores the likelihood that the attack was indeed politically and ethnically motivated, at least to a certain extent, and that the al-Shabaab flags and insignia may have been utilized by the assailants as a means to escape blame.
  3. Having said that, the seemingly high level of coordination and sophistication of the attack, which included dozens of heavily armed militants, who require transportation and logistical solutions to enter and vacate the area carrying heavy arms and ammunition, underlines the low potential for these attacks to have been conducted merely by a local ethnic militia. Instead, the well-planned nature of the assault may be indicative of al-Shabaab’s partial or full complicity in the attacks. Additionally, al-Shabaab’s claim of responsibility and the US attribution of blame to al-Shabaab lend further credence to the likelihood that these attacks were in fact carried out by the Islamist militants, or through the support of their local militant networks in Kenya. Furthermore, al-Shabaab has not previously claimed responsibility for an attack that later turned out to have been conducted by other elements.
  4. Another possible scenario is that al-Shabaab, or its local Kenyan ally al-Hijra, have utilized local land disputes between rival ethnic groups with the intent of either conducting or facilitating an attack against Kenyatta’s own Kikuyu tribe. Such an assault would be primarily aimed at significantly raising political tensions between the government and the opposition, while further inflicting a strategic blow to the Nairobi government and the Kenyan economy. This is further likely since Kenyan politics is primarily based on tribal affiliation rather than ideological conviction, and ethnic animosity is thus often reflected in heightened political tensions, a destabilizing factor that could be exploited by al-Shabaab. 
Assessments: President Kenyatta attempts to delegitimize political opposition in wake of Mpeketoni attacks as ethnic animosity increases
  1. The ethnic mistrust between the dominant Kikuyu tribe and opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Christian Luo community is becoming increasingly elevated in these times of rising political tensions. Odinga’s recent return to Kenya after a more than two month trip to the US has shaken the political landscape and CORD’s ongoing nationwide campaign of rallies to push for national dialogue is viewed by President Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Alliance as a step to undermine the government. In light of the arrest of CORD officials over hate speech and reports of hate leaflets in Nakuru, localized incidents of ethnic violence become increasingly likely, although widespread ethnic violence remains unlikely at this time.
  2. This assessment is supported by CORD’s overall goal to be viewed as a legitimate alternative to the Jubilee government, and large scale ethno-political unrest would instead serve to delegitimize the opposition coalition and decrease its chances ahead of the 2017 elections. Additionally, the peaceful transpiring of the most recent CORD rallies during the ongoing nationwide campaign lends further credence to the low potential for widespread unrest. Nonetheless, amid the spike in political mistrust, animosity along ethnic border lines has the potential to lead to violence between rival communities. Potential flashpoints for ethno-political unrest include areas in Nakuru and other surrounding Rift Valley counties, Eldoret Town, slums of Nairobi, Mombasa and the Coastal Region as a whole, Kisumu County, Nyanza Province as well as Samburu and Turkana County.
  3. Although several political rallies in connection to the opposition following the Mpeketoni attacks have been cancelled over the past days, the likelihood for additional anti- and pro-government protests accompanied by belligerent ethnic and political rhetoric remains elevated. The increased criticism against Kenyatta’s government and its security establishment with regards to rising insecurity and political division may force Kenyatta to fire prominent security chiefs or, as many have called for, demand the resignation of Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku.
  4. This is further enforced by the apparent lax response to the Mpeketoni assault, in which reports state that it took over five hours for security forces to arrive at the scene. However, by blaming the opposition for the Mpeketoni attacks, Kenyatta may be attempting to divert pressure from his administration onto external political elements, in an overall effort to delegitimize the opposition, which could be indicative that his policy of sacking lower-level police chiefs will instead prevail.  
Assessments: US travel warning coupled with growing insecurity in Coastal Region may be detrimental to economy, while additional attacks highly plausible
  1. The updated US travel warning is a result of persistent intelligence reports indicating the likelihood for a militant attack against US, Western and Kenyan government interests throughout Kenya, including in Nairobi and throughout the Coastal Region. There has been a notable increase in militancy in Kenya since the Nairobi Westgate Mall attack, and the Mpeketoni assaults constitute the deadliest militant incidents in the county since Westgate. Although militant attacks are usually attributed to  al-Shabaab or al-Hijra, the Mpeketoni attack underlines the complexity of violence in the country, which is driven by disputes regarding politics, ethnicity as well as religion.
  2. The Kenyatta administration has on numerous occasions criticized Western countries for issuing increasingly frequent travel warnings, citing the extensive damage these alerts have on the critical tourism sector. The tourism industry has in recent years contributed to roughly 10-15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and Westerners are reportedly increasingly choosing other African destinations over Kenya. Thus, the persistent issuing of travel warnings by the US along with other Western governments over the past months should be viewed as having a negative impact on tourism in Kenya in light of the viable and credible threat of militancy in the country.
  3. The threat of militant attacks against foreigners emanates primarily from al-Shabaab and affiliated groups in Kenya such as al-Hijra, while ethnically motivated violence in outlying areas rarely targets tourists or Westerners, but instead surrounds rivalries between tribal groups, often over land disputes. Islamist militants will likely seek to particularly increase their attacks in the Coastal Region over the coming days and weeks, and the inability of Kenyan security forces to curb the threat of militancy underscores the plausible scenario that militant attacks are likely to occur with increased frequency. Thus, we assess that there remains a heightened threat of militancy, especially throughout the coastal counties, against locations frequented by Westerners, government installations, security related targets, transportation hubs as well as viewing centers of the ongoing World Cup.
  4. Furthermore, the economic ramifications of the Mpeketoni attacks could be detrimental to the entire Lamu County, which has already seen a steady decline in tourism revenue due to rising insecurity, particularly following the abduction of a British and French national in 2011 from Lamu Island. Although the Mpeketoni area is not a tourist hub in itself, the heavy casualty attacks discourage Western tourists from visiting Lamu Island as well as the entire Coastal Region, which may have been a further motivation behind the recent attacks.
  5. Moreover, the 25 million USD port and transportation scheme (LAPSSET) proposed to be built and finalized by 2030 next to Lamu town will likely suffer a significant setback in wake of the recent attacks. The proposed project has had difficulties in attracting foreign investors for the mega construction of new port berths and underground pipelines for oil from Turkana in northwest Kenya and Uganda, as well as possibly from Ethiopia and South Sudan. The Lamu Port would also serve as a supplement to the congested and ailing Mombasa Port, aimed to sustain Kenya in its position as East Africa’s main trade and maritime gateway. However, in light of authorities’ inability to thwart attacks along the coast, the Mpeketoni assault will further diminish the Nairobi government’s potential to secure foreign investors, which is further exacerbated by rising insurance premiums and growing costs for private security arrangements.