Clan Conflict and Violent Extremism in the North-Eastern Counties of Kenya

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Main Image Credit A street in Garissa, Kenya, 2016. Courtesy of Adam H T Geelle/Wikimedia

The Conference on Clan Conflict and Violent Extremism in the North-Eastern Counties of Kenya, held by RUSI in January 2019, shared research on the connections between clan conflicts and violent extremism and produced recommendations for policy and programming.

On 22 January 2019, RUSI’s office in Nairobi held a conference on Clan Conflict and Violent Extremism in the North-Eastern Counties of Kenya. The conference aimed to share findings of studies that had been supported by RUSI under its Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism programme (STRIVE-II), funded by the EU. The concern with exploring this specific area of research was encouraged by the emerging dynamics in the North-East region. 

Since 2012, the NE region of Kenya, which borders Somalia, has suffered a number of devastating terrorist attacks. Many of the most major incidents have been orchestrated by Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based terror group which has emerged as one of the deadliest terrorist organisations in sub-Saharan Africa. While reports of Al-Shabaab’s activities were noted prior to 2012, it was not until Kenya launched its military offensive in Somalia (Operation Linda Nchi) that more consistent news of the group extending its operations to Kenya’s North-East region began to emerge. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, at least 25 attacks targeting security officers, civilians and government officials were reported.

In expanding its operations to Kenya’s North-East region, Al-Shabaab has co-opted the narrative of marginalisation and victimisation of the ethnic Somali population. Within such a narrative (often communicated via official communiques and in speeches), ethnic Somalis are portrayed as victims of a strategic campaign led by the Kenyan government and its Western allies to keep Somalis oppressed and poor. In particular, Al-Shabaab has made efforts to exploit what it presents as the alienation of the ethnic Somali population from mainstream Kenyan society, highlighting the treatment of ethnic Somalis by Kenyan security forces, most notably during Operation Usalama Watch when more than 4,000 ethnic Somalis were arbitrarily arrested, and the region’s relative economic and political underdevelopment.

Added to the use of a victimisation narrative, reports of Al-Shabaab exploiting existing conflicts and rivalries among clans and sub-clans in the North-East region of Kenya have also emerged. For instance, the increase in political competition following the introduction of devolution in 2010, which in some areas took on a violent overtone, has opened up the space for groups such as AS to expand their operations and activities in the region. Similarly, Ngala Chome concluded that cross-border conflict spillovers due to close clan ties across the Kenya–Somalia border have provided AS with an opportunity to establish their presence in the region.

Despite emergent findings, robust evidence of Al-Shabaab’s involvement or opportunism in clan-based conflicts for recruitment remains limited. To address this gap in research, RUSI, in partnership with Garissa University College, supported the development of three academic papers to examine the evolving nature of clan conflicts in NE Kenya and analyse the extent to which violent extremist (VE) groups such as Al-Shabaab exploit such conflicts. The findings from these papers were then presented at the conference on Clan Conflict and Violent Extremism in the North-Eastern Counties of Kenya.

Following a qualitative approach, each of the papers focused on one of the three counties that constitute the North-East region. The first paper, by Dean Abdulrahman Hamo Mohamed, focused on the role of Al-Shabaab in inter-clan conflicts and the proximate causes and triggers for clan conflicts in Mandera County. The second paper, by Professor Stephen Rotich, also investigated the relationship between the drivers of clan-based conflicts and the role of Al-Shabaab, but in Garissa County. Similarly, the third paper, by Professor David Karienye, explored the relationship between clan-based conflicts and the role of external actors such as Al-Shabaab in Wajir County. Professor Ahmed Osman Warfa (Vice Chancellor, Garissa University) co-authored all three research papers.

Funded by the European Union


Gayatri Sahgal

Associate Fellow

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