SIX years ago, al-Shabaab was at its strongest – at least in the conventional sense – in the war for the control of Somalia.
The group controlled most of southern Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, the port of Kismayo, and the town of Baidoa, and was eagerly implementing its version of sharia law.
The Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was weak and ineffectual, no match for the al-Shabaab in a military contest.
Across the border, the Kenyan government was getting nervous at the prospect of al-Shabaab becoming a bigger threat close to its borders – particularly in the group’s pan-Somali vision to reunite all ethnic Somalis under one contiguous territory, that could see Kenya lose 21% of its landmass in the northeast.
Recruiting from Dadaab
So a plan was devised to bolster the TFG’s fighting capacity and create a pro-Kenyan buffer zone in the territory just across the Kenya-Somali border by recruiting Somalis in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, giving them military training, and them deploying them to fight for the TFG and groups allied to it against al-Shabaab.
It goes against international convention to recruit fighters from refugee camps; camps are supposed to be entirely civilian and humanitarian in character, so in October 2009, Human Rights Watch (HRW) put out a strongly worded statement that the Kenyan government should “immediately stop the recruitment of Somalis in refugee camps to fight for an armed force in Somalia.”
The recruitment drive also targeted Kenyans around the towns of Dadaab and Garissa, and it is unclear whether this was by design – some reports indicate that local (non-refugee) Somali leaders in Kenya deliberately “hijacked” the recruitment process for their own financial gain – or by accident, perhaps because the authorities assumed that a “Kenyan-Somali” was as good as a “Somali-Somali” in fighting al-Shabaab.
The HRW statement from said that Kenyan authorities had directly supported the drive, promising to pay the recruits $400-$600 for the military training itself, “followed by a generous monthly salary upon deployment to Somalia.”
Although the Kenyan government denied any official involvement in such a plan, a parliamentary committee investigated the matter and tabled a report in mid-October 2010 confirming that such a drive had indeed taken place, in which 2,000-4,000 youths were rounded up in and around Dadaab and taken to government paramilitary training camps in Manyani and Archer’s Post in Kenya.
The youths were deployed into Somalia, but incredibly, it appears that the government somehow lost track of them, particularly after it started its own direct military operation in Somalia in October 2011.
Some of the Kenyan-trained militias joined Kenya-friendly armed groups in Somalia, others are suspected to have crossed over and joined al-Shabaab, then returned to the country and are now the ‘gangs-for-hire’ behind the spate of attacks that has hit Kenya’s northeast and coast provinces, including the Mpeketoni, Wajir and Mandera attacks that left nearly 100 people dead last year.
The line between who is “Kenyan”, who is “Somali” and who is “al-Shabaab” are decidedly blurred, complicated in no small terms by this proxy militia strategy.
It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that the recent Garissa massacre in which al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, all four gunmen were said to be Kenyan, according to reports. After the attack, President Uhuru Kenyatta admitted that terrorists were “deeply embedded” inside Kenya, not just Somalia.
Now, there are calls for the government to urgently track down its former recruits, as well as all missing youth in the region.
Speaking earlier in the week, former Member of Parliament Eugene Wamalwa, who was in the initial parliamentary committee that investigated the matter, said “Where are [the recruits] today and have they gone to bed with the enemy? If four could slaughter hundreds as seen in Garissa, what damage could 400 such people, with deadly military skills, inflict?”
Failed time and time again
It’s an ill-advised strategy that has failed time and time again around the world, most infamously by the CIA’s training and support of al-Qaeda in the 1980s.
Al-Qaeda has its roots as a resistance force against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The US trained, armed and funded al-Qaeda to the tune of $3billion; Osama bin Laden who would later turn into America’s Public Enemy #1, he and other top al-Qaeda leaders received military and intelligence training by the CIA itself.
The same Cold War strategy would see the US supporting Islamist and jihadi groups around the world; in the battle against communism, the US figured that religion was a force that they could make use of—the Soviet Union was atheist, while the United States supported religious freedom.
The US supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against the influence of Marxism, with the CIA openly backing then-leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Said Ramadan, in the 1950s and 60s.
In the end, the US didn’t reap much for its efforts, as Ramadan was more interested in spreading the jihadi agenda than fighting communism.
The most notorious group of them all today is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and despite its virulently anti-Western, anti-American stance, it also traces its umbilical cord back to Washington.
In the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the American administration replaced Saddam Hussein’s Sunni administration with a Shia one, led by Nuri al-Maliki. It led to the rise of radical Sunni groups around the country including ISIS (then in its nascent form); in 2010 the group decided to shift its focus to neighbouring Syria.
The trigger was in 2011 when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (a Shia, and ally of Iran and Russia) began his fall from grace in 2011. The US then backed Sunni groups in Syria– including ISIS - arming them against the Assad regime.
It almost always backfires
But inevitably, the ISIS rebels had their own ideas, much bigger and grander, involving gruesome beheadings, mass enslavement and a worldwide caliphate.
Closer home, well-meaning anti-crime measures have been known to take on a life of their own, too. In 1990s Cape Town, residents of the Cape Flats formed the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), which was a neighbourhood watch group created to put pressure on the government to deal with the drug trade and crime in their area.
But the group soon began taking matters into their own hands, when they perceived that the police were not acting fast enough.
Initially the community and police were hesitant to act against PAGAD activities, recognising the need for community action against crime in the gang-ridden communities of the Cape Flats. But the vigilantes soon ran out of control, setting fire to suspected drug dealers and lynching gangsters, and was eventually proscribed as a terrorist group.
In Nigeria, the now notorious Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has its origins as a number of local vigilante groups, who set out to pressurise the government to give Niger Delta communities a greater share of the country’s oil wealth. Initially, the government supported some militias, switching sides often, and played off groups against each other.
But it backfired badly, with MEND growing far beyond its sponsor’s control; the group is thought to be behind the recent spikes of piracy off the Nigerian coast.
It’s a lesson Kenya should know by now. Proxy militias never stick to the script.