In a BBC news online article of May 20, 2015 published under the caption "Somali defector: Why I left Al-Shabaab,” BBC Africa correspondent, Andrew Harding,

points out that as much as military operations by Amisom Forces and Somali national Army are putting pressure on Al- Shabaab and diminishing their capability to carry out attacks inside Somalia, the militant group is slowly but steadily changing tack by seeking new operational capabilities in Kenya.

“There is growing concern about  the extent to which al-Shabaab has now infiltrated Kenya, as well as real fears of escalating violence in Jubaland, the border area inside Somalia where Kenya’s military has sought to carve out a buffer zone,” says Harding in his article. There are good reasons for Kenyans to take seriously what the BBC reporter has said about Al-Shabaab’s infiltration in Kenya. The deadly April 2 attack on Garissa University College and the unsuccessful but audacious raid on a military base in Lamu is enough proof that Al-Shabaab has a significant presence in Kenya which it can use to launch attacks. Amid these concerns of infiltration,  the uncomfortable question is—has Kenya fallen into Al-Shabaab’s trap and ended up creating the right conditions for the militant group to thrive? The answer, heavy with consequences, is in the affirmative.

There is one big blunder that Kenyans often commit—ignoring or taking for  granted Al-Shabaab’s announcements made through various media platforms, especially social media. In most cases, Al-Shabaab means what they say in these postings. One such announcement is that they will bring the war to Kenya’s doorsteps—the militant group has vowed to make Kenya unsafe so long as the group does not feel safe because of Kenya’s military operations in Somalia. This is a threat that Kenyans must take seriously and remain vigilant about.

But how is Al-Shabaab bringing the war to Kenya’s doorsteps? Many analysts will predictably cite ‘hard power’ attacks such Westgate, Garissa University, Mandera,
and Mpeketoni as a fulfillment of this of threat. However, aware that Kenyans rarely learn from their past mistakes, Al-Shabaab are now changing tack and adopting the soft-power approach to infiltrate Kenya and eventually bring the war to our doorsteps. But what is soft power? Harvard professor Joseph nye coined the term “soft power” in the late 1980s. It is now used frequently by political leaders, editorial writers, and academics around the world. Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power—the ability to coerce—grows out of a country’s military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. In 2007, for example, then U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates spoke of the need to enhance America’s soft power by “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security— diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development.” Soft power is, therefore, a concept developed to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force  or give money as a means of changing behavior. In this regard, Al-Shabaab, with their extensive networks and ability to plan for the future, are slowly employing their soft-power machinery to attract and co-opt vulnerable groups in Kenya into their ranks.

Through soft power, Al-Shabaab seeks to demonstrate that they can provide an alternative society rather than just endless jihad and martyrdom, and that’s why we are now seeing young Kenyan women taking every available opportunity to cross the border to join Al-Shabaab as “jihadi” brides in a manifestation of the group’s ability to attract and co-opt. And how is Al-Shabaab achieving this? The answer may sound far-fetched but it is real and simple— the militant group seems to be establishing its own enclaves in Kenya by, first, creating a vacuum and then tactfully moving in to fill the vacuum, hence gaining some significant foothold. A good example is the vacuum that has just been created in the education system in the north eastern counties of Garissa, Mandera and Wajir. On face value, the Mandera and Garissa attacks which resulted in hundreds of teachers and other professionals fleeing these regions may look like Al-Shabaab’s normal campaign of terror against soft targets. However, a close analysis of these attacks reveals a meticulous plan aimed at creating a vacuum to be filled by the group and, thereafter, deploy its soft power strategy.

In view of the foregoing, it looks like Al- Shabaab has just boxed Kenya into the right corner safe in the knowledge that we will commit the blunders that allow the group  to thrive. How is this so? After qualified teachers fled the north eastern region, we Kenyans engaged our predictable knee-jerk gear by deploying any politically correct Tom, Dick and Harry to teach in the schools as we sort out the security issue. As we speak today, all manner of “volunteers” are in charge of schools in Garissa, Mandera and Wajir. The government of Kenya, in a desperate attempt to prove that Kenya is unbowed by Al-Shabaab’s threat, has not made any effort to vet these ‘volunteer’ teachers to establish their ability and suitability to teach the right content. even if the volunteers are qualified and able to teach, there are no dependable inspectors of schools (education Officers) to oversight what content is being taught in the schools. Hence, we cannot rule out the possibility that A-Shabaab is filling the vacuum it created by deploying its own rank and file in the name of teachers.  And if, God forbid, Al-Shabaab succeeds to infiltrate and take over the education system in the north eastern region, then there are no prizes for guessing where the next generation of violent extremists will come from.

The foregoing analysis is not meant to cause panic or disparage the government. Instead it is meant to prick our collective conscience as Kenyans and shock us into action with regard to the worrying education situation in north eastern. This analysis is also meant to cause us to think outside the box about what Al-Shabaab really means when they say they will bring the war to our doorsteps. If Al-Shabaab succeeds to infiltrate and takeover the school system in north eastern, then the group will be is a perfect position to pull a ‘Boko Haram’ on Kenya. It must be kept in mind that the historical factors that brought about the prevailing situation in north eastern Kenya are a carbon copy of those that facilitated the rise of Boko Haram in north eastern Nigeria. Before embarking on its campaign of violence, Boko Haram deployed a soft power strategy—the group, first and foremost, took advantage of the historical fact that before colonization and subsequent annexation  into the British empire in 1900 as Colonial Nigeria, the Bornu empire ruled the territory where Boko Haram is currently active. It
was a sovereign sultanate run according to the principles of the Constitution of Medina, with a majority Kanuri Muslim population. In 1903, both the Bornu Sultanate and Sokoto Caliphate came under the control of the British, who used educational institutions to help spread Christianity in the region. In this regard, Boko Haram, whose ideology considers Western education anti-Islam and therefore forbidden, started persuading and co-opting local Muslim populations in north eastern nigeria into the belief that the British colonialists used Western education to enslave them, destroy their thriving Islam-based Bornu empire and then allow ‘evil’ Christians to come and dominate them.

With this kind of ideology, Boko Haram took advantage of real historical grievances to hold a vulnerable society hostage and then embark on a campaign of violent extremism. Many young ethnic Kanuri men and women would be persuaded to join Boko Haram in droves and, as they say, the rest is history. The same conditions that prevail in north eastern nigeria to enable Boko Haram to thrive manifest themselves in many ways in north eastern Kenya for Al-Shabaab to thrive. The Kanuri ethnic group that dominates north eastern nigeria straddles regional boundaries to be found in neighboring niger, Chad and Cameroon, and this is why Boko Haram  is able to spread their violent campaign in these three countries. Similarly, the ethnic Somali in north eastern Kenya straddle across regional boundaries to be found in neighbouring ethiopia and Somalia. Like the Kanuri, the Somali too have historical grievances and have aspirations for a greater Somalia nation-state. Be that as it may, Kenyan authorities now need to rethink their counter violent extremism strategy because the current hard-power strategy alone in which we  use military means to target Al-Shabaab and their sympathisers may no longer be useful in a situation where Al-Shabaab has changed tack and gone the soft power way. As we speak today, hundreds of Standard eight and Form Four students in north eastern may not sit for their national KCPe and KCSe examinations respectively because, as education Minister Jacob Kaimenyi has pointed out, these candidates have not been taught the full syllabus to qualify them to sit for the national examination. If this happens, then we are likely to end up with a frustrated generation of young people in north eastern who find no value in Western education. In fact, these students will feel so much betrayed by the system and with Al-Shabaab soft power looming large in the region, there are no prizes for guessing how Al-Shabaab can pull a Boko Haram on Kenya.

So what should we do? We must not allow frustration to take over the thousands of young school-going children in north eastern lest Al-Shabaab becomes a better option for them. In this regard, we can begin by creating corridors of tranquility through some kind of “air-lifts” so that children in north eastern Kenya continue getting quality education in any other part of the country with minimal disruption to their family life while we sort out the security situation. Secondly, the government must vet thoroughly the volunteer teachers who  are now in charge of schools in this region to ensure that violent extremists do not take advantage of the desperate situation to infiltrate the school system. Lastly, we should be embarking on some kind of “Marshal Plan” for north eastern because this region is so important to Kenya’s national security for us to abandon it. The jury is still out there.

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