Al Shabaab Exploits Kenya’s Divisions to Wage War

Kenya is the U.S.’s primary ally in the fight against east Africa’s deadliest terror group. Its long war against Al Shabaab has taken a heavy toll and there are fears that reprisals from Kenyan security forces against ethnic Somalis are only breeding more enemies. This is the first report in a three-part series by PBS NewsHour special correspondent Nick Schifrin and producer Zach Fannin.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, tonight we begin a series, Inside Kenya.

The East African nation is the United States’ primary ally in the region, and in the fight against the deadly terror group Al-Shabaab, based in Somalia. Al-Shabaab attacks government and military institutions in Somalia, but it has also launched major attacks in neighboring Kenya.

Special correspondent Nick Schifrin and producer Zach Fannin traveled extensively throughout Northeastern Kenya, along the Somali border.

Tonight, with the help of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, we start our series with a look at how Al-Shabaab is targeting Kenya, and how Kenya is fighting back.

And a warning: The story contains images some viewers may find disturbing.

NICK SCHIFRIN: On Kenya’s front line against Al-Shabaab, police on patrol are armed like soldiers. They search traditional straw houses, checking I.D.s at the barrel of a gun.

JULIUS KIRAGU, Kenyan Army (through interpreter): The main threat here is the Al-Shabaab. That is terrorism, because they are associated with al-Qaida, and you know what al-Qaidas are.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Officer Julius Kiragu heads Kenya’s administrative police in Wajir, only 70 miles from the Somali border. Every night, they search for smuggled weapons and hiding fighters.

JULIUS KIRAGU: They pretend they are selling milk and all these things, but they are waiting for the appropriate time to strike.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Most of his officers are ethnic Somali, like the majority of the local population. Some officers wear civilian clothing and ride around in unmarked cars. They work with local tribal chiefs, like Zein Abdulla.

What kinds of weapons have you found here?

ZEIN ABDULLA, Tribal Chief: There were guns. There were grenades. There were ammunitions and such things.

NICK SCHIFRIN: So, Shabaab has supporters even here?

ZEIN ABDULLA: So, they have representatives at least in every district.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Al-Shabaab has waged a decade-long war in Somalia. In 2011, Kenya invaded Somalia, in a campaign called Protect the Country.

Emmanuel Chirchir was the face of the campaign in Somalia, and on Twitter.

EMMANUEL CHIRCHIR, Kenya Army: This gives an opportunity to tell the rest of the world what is true and what is happening in the battle space.

NICK SCHIFRIN: At first, Kenyan and other African troops pushed Shabaab out of its strongholds, and raised the Somali flag. But after an operational pause, Shabaab is strengthening.

In January, Shabaab fighters took over a Kenyan base. It was Kenya’s worst ever military disaster. More than 100 soldiers died, including Chirchir’s brother.

EMMANUEL CHIRCHIR: My brother died immediately, instantly. This is what he loved most. I am happy that he actually died doing what he loved most.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Twenty-nine-year-old Dan Chirchir had only been in Somalia for three weeks. His funeral, with full military honors, was held at the family’s estate in Western Kenya.

The explosion that killed him was unprecedented. Al-Shabaab got inside the El Adde base to detonate a car bomb, or VBIED.

EMMANUEL CHIRCHIR: The penetration of that VBIED changed the game.

NICK SCHIFRIN: What can you tell me about the El Adde attack?

MAN (through interpreter): The attack was carried out by one of our brigades. They were trained commandos.

NICK SCHIFRIN: This 40-year-old Somali says he’s a member of Al-Shabaab. He says the El Adde attack took eight months to plan. He threatened to kill me if we didn’t keep him anonymous.

What’s the main motivation for you and your men to have joined Al-Shabaab?

MAN (through interpreter): I joined thee group to get a job. Somalia is a place where there is no government and no work.

NICK SCHIFRIN: What is the main goal for you and your men in al-Shabaab?

MAN (through interpreter): We want to have an Islamic State in Somalia, where Sharia law is practiced.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Why you have launched attacks inside Kenya?

MAN (through interpreter): Kenya has invaded our land.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Shabaab claims to be fighting for Kenyan Muslims. It recruits Kenyans to carry out attacks in Kenya. The worst in 20 years was on Garissa University.

How bad was the scene here when you arrived?

HAMO MOHAMED, Garissa University: It was terrible.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Hamo Mohamed is Garissa’s dean of students. This classroom is still scarred from last year’s attack. Shabaab murdered 19 students in this room for singing Christian prayers.

HAMO MOHAMED: Bodies of the students that you know them by names, the young, aspiring, and you’re seeing their body lying down, you know, their blood all over.

SOFIE GATRIWIRI, Student: They came when I was here, and then I would be no more too. So I’m just lucky.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Sofie Gatriwiri is a junior.

SOFIE GATRIWIRI: I’m going to finish my education and get a better job.

NICK SCHIFRIN: She was a member of the Christian prayer group that was attacked.

How many friends did you lose?

SOFIE GATRIWIRI: I lost like 15. I don’t like this discussing that story about those people, those students who passed. I don’t like at all.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The gunmen lured the students down into this courtyard, right?

That courtyard is in Garissa’s largest dorm, with students’ rooms upstairs. This was the gunmen’s final stop.

HAMO MOHAMED: It was ugly, what had happened here. And you see, you could find the bodies. You know what the manner, the way they arranged, they put them so close.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Side by side.

HAMO MOHAMED: Yes, side by side, so that they were just lying all over.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Shabaab gunmen locked the doors and killed everyone. This photo was taken a few hours later and posted online.

This is the same spot today; 120 bodies filled this atrium. The gunmen had gone from bedroom to bedroom, claiming they just wanted to talk to the students. So, many students willingly came down here. But when they were all lined up, they were all shot in the head, execution-style.

Today, police patrol the campus. Kenya says the school represents resistance to terror. But, for this community, it’s a reminder of decades of neglect.

HAMO MOHAMED: Fifty years of independence, and yet you don’t have even a single university in the whole of the northern region, Northern Kenya. That’s marginalization.

NICK SCHIFRIN: When Kenya became independent in 1963, the Northern Frontier District covered nearly half the country’s land mass. But it had no higher education.

Today, Garissa is the region’s only university. And for 50 years, northeastern cities and the ethnic Somali residents have received barely any development funds from the central government.

Has Wajir and the northeastern region been neglected?

HASHIM ELMOGE, Community Organizer: Yes. It was terribly neglected. For 50 years since independence, we never knew roads. We never had good health facilities. We have no good education. We’re still drinking from dried-up wells.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Hashim Elmoge is a former police officer turned community organizer.

Today, roads are being built, and local governance established. But this is the first new road in Wajir in half-a-century. That neglect becomes toxic, when combined with accusations that security services abuse ethnic Somalis.

Were you proud of your son?

ADOW ABDULLAHI (through interpreter): I loved him so much.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Adow Abdullahi’s son was picked up by police and disappeared. And then Abdullahi got a call from a town 40 miles away. Local media covered how his son’s body had been found in a river.

Was your son’s body tortured?

ADOW ABDULLAHI (through interpreter): He was strangled. He had marks on his genitals. He was tortured. He had marks.

NICK SCHIFRIN: How shocked were you when you saw your son’s body?

ADOW ABDULLAHI (through interpreter): I am a Muslim. I have faith in God. What a father could feel is what I felt.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Can you point where they hit you?

OMAR FAISAL BASHIR (through interpreter): They hit me here, all the way up, and also below here.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Omar Bashir is 19 years old. He says security services stopped him on the street, took him away, and tortured him for four days.

Do you feel pain?

OMAR FAISAL BASHIR (through interpreter): Yes.

NICK SCHIFRIN: What was your son like before this happened

MASHIR ULMAK, Omar’s Father (through interpreter): He was sharp. He was healthy and he went to school.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Mashir Ulmak is Bashir’s father. He is worried about his son. These days, Bashir skips school and is depressed.

Does the government single out Somali Kenyans?

MASHIR ULMAK (through interpreter): They single out ethnic Somalis. They are not doing this to other communities in Kenya.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And when a community feels like prey, they want to become the hunter.

OMAR FAISAL BASHIR (through interpreter): I know what I have gone through. I was innocent. I will treat people the same way I was treated.

HASHIM ELMOGE: Because of the seething discontent, Kenyan ethnic Somalis are feeling that Kenya is not their home. So, some are joining terrorist organizations in Somalia.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The police deny wrongdoing. They say everything they do is to fight Al-Shabaab.

JULIUS KIRAGU: The people, they may not like the operation, but we have to do it.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Why did you have to do those operations.

JULIUS KIRAGU: The operations?


JULIUS KIRAGU: Wipe out the criminals. These are the Al-Shabaab.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The relationship between national security services and local ethnic Somalis has always been strained. Today, human rights activists say it’s close to breaking.

HASHIM ELMOGE: The war against terror is valid. It is legitimate. As Muslims, and as ethnic Somalis, we support it. Overwhelmingly. That said, our government is using terror to suppress terror. And the people are more angry. And that is why Al-Shabaab is tapping into that anger, to radicalize and use bitter young men against our security agents.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Until Kenya stops breeding its own enemies, the country will remain divided, and Al-Shabaab will continue to exploit those divisions to wage war.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Nick Schifrin in Garissa, Kenya.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our reporting from Kenya continues on Saturday, when the “NewsHour Weekend” looks at why young men join Al-Shabaab and the efforts by some to get them out.

Then on Monday, we examine the epidemic of corruption in Kenya and the people fighting back.