After Nairobi attack, Somalis in Kenya cautiously hope for unity

Why We Wrote This

In the wake of terror, communities often draw together to mourn and heal. But fear can prompt scapegoating, too. After last week’s brutal attack in Nairobi, can Kenyans pull back from deepening divides?

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
Kenyan police arrived at the scene of an attack at the Dusit hotel compound in Nairobi, Kenya, Jan. 16. The attack, claimed by Somali-based terror group Al Shabab, has again tested relations between Kenyans and Somalis living in Kenya.

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Eastleigh, a neighborhood in Nairobi, is dubbed “Little Mogadishu”: the heart of a Somali community that first began arriving in the 1990s, amid Somalia’s civil war. On a recent morning, Kenyan and Somali vendors hawked goods from football jerseys to knockoff designer bags, as women rushed by grasping the hands of small children, their brightly-colored veils fluttering behind them. One week ago, the terror group Al Shabab, which is based in Somalia, launched a brutal attack on an upscale Nairobi office complex nearby, killing at least 21 people. For many Somalis here, the tragedy brought on an additional worry. After past attacks from Al Shabab, many Somalis in Kenya endured harassment, and thousands were detained in a crackdown that human-rights groups criticized for arbitrary arrests and abuses. “When a Kenyan person saw me,” says Zakaria, a young web designer, “they didn’t see a Somali, they saw Al Shabab.” But in Eastleigh today, some Somalis are hopeful that those perceptions are changing, after years of community leaders’ work to improve relations. “We are mourning together,” says Mohammed Sheikh, a member of parliament. “We are not going to accept anyone to divide Kenyans. We are not going to accept being divided by ethnic lines.”

Abdimalik Anwar was sipping a cup of coffee at the popular Nomad Palace Hotel in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood on January 15 when a friend called to ask if he had heard the news. A few miles away, militants linked to the terror group Al Shabab had stormed 14 Riverside, an upscale hotel and office complex, and the death toll was quickly rising.

Immediately, Mr. Anwar felt a jolt of fear. In 2013, when the Somalia-based Al Shabab had attacked the nearby Westgate Mall, some Kenyans had quickly turned their anger on the country’s large community of Somalis.

A violent police crackdown swept Somali neighborhoods, and many young Somalis like Anwar – who has lived in Kenya since he was an infant – endured bracing street harassment.

So this time, Anwar picked up his phone and began to tweet. It would be a mistake, he wrote, to once again equate Al Shabab with all Somalis, or to blame Somali communities for the group’s indiscriminate violence.

“We need to counter this narrative before it becomes a cliché,” he wrote.

But unknown to Anwar, a different conversation was gathering force on social media this time around.

“Protect Somali people and Muslims in general from the nonsensical harassment that this Riverside thing might cause,” wrote Bryan Ngartia, a Kenyan writer and performing artist, racking up more than 1,200 likes.

“No Somali or Muslim living in Kenya should worry about us Kenyans victimising them. Never. I love them brothers and sisters so much! Literally!” tweeted another user, to 1,500 likes.

For Somali community leaders, such messages of solidarity suggested Kenya was changing, and that their long campaigns to bridge the divides between Kenya and its Somali community were finally paying off.

But the messages were also a reminder that the nature of terrorism in East Africa was changing. Since 2013, Al Shabab’s influence had extended deep into Kenya and other nearby countries, and it was no longer a given that the terror group’s operatives would be young Somalis.

What makes a #Kenyan turn against Kenyans?” another Twitter user asked a few days after the attack, reacting to news that at least two of the attackers had been indigenous Kenyans.

For many Somali Kenyans, however, it was a question they had been thinking about for years.

Khalil Senosi/AP
Kenyan police make a routine patrol in the Eastleigh area of the capital Nairobi, Kenya, Jan. 18, 2019. Extremists stormed a luxury hotel complex in Kenya's capital on Jan. 15, killing at least 21 people, in an attack claimed by militant group Al-Shabaab.

Memories of crackdown

Somalis began arriving in Kenya as immigrants and refugees in the 1990s, during the beginning of a civil war in Somalia. As the war dragged on, many put down roots in Kenya, and today there is a large community of young Somali Kenyans who have never visited their “homeland.”

In Nairobi, the community is centered around Eastleigh, a busy, cosmopolitan neighborhood often dubbed “Little Mogadishu.” On a recent morning, Kenyan and Somali vendors hawked goods ranging from English Premier football jerseys to knockoff designer bags, as women rushed by grasping the hands of small children, their brightly-colored veils fluttering behind them.

The scene is in stark contrast to how Eastleigh looked following a series of terror attacks in 2013 and 2014, residents say. 

Then, as part of a broad counterterrorism mission called “Operation Usalama Watch,” 5,000 Kenyan police and military officers were deployed to Eastleigh, where they carried out raids and arrested thousands, alleging terrorist ties or illegal migration. Human rights groups have criticized the campaign for arbitrary arrests and abuse.

“We saw so many Muslims, young Muslims, being picked up and disappeared, or shot dead around Eastleigh and Majengo area of Nairobi, and parts of the coast region,” says Otsieno Namwaya, an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. 

Many were detained in Kasarani Sports Stadium, where they reported inhumane treatment. “There were so many incidents of violations, including arrests, disappearances, killings, extrajudicial killings,” says Mr. Namwaya.

It sent a message that Somalis specifically and Muslims more generally were collectively to blame for the terrorist attacks, advocates say, and many Kenyans seemed to take the message to heart.

Zakaria, a 30-year-old Somali web designer who asks to use only his first name, remembers that time well. He was a student living in Eastleigh when the crackdown began, and recalls being called a terrorist as he walked down the streets of central Nairobi. “When a Kenyan person saw me,” he says, “they didn’t see a Somali, they saw Al Shabab.”

Zakaria, who was born in Kenya, says he doesn’t blame other Kenyans for their reaction. Instead, he points to the media, the Kenyan government, and Al Shabab for driving suspicion between groups.

He often works from the Awjama Cultural Center, a small office that overlooks the bustling streets of Eastleigh. Inside, dozens of books on Somali culture and history line the shelves, and people of different ages and backgrounds work quietly. 

The center opened a month before the Westgate attack, but is emblematic of the ways that officials and community leaders have tried to bridge the gap between Kenyans and Somalis in recent years – and break the perceived link between Somali culture and Islamic extremism.

“The center has worked in the last seven years on how the Kenyan community can understand Somali culture,” says Mohammed Hassan, an Awjama board member.

Mr. Hassan says that he has seen relations between Somalis and Kenyans warm since the center opened, the product of years of intentional outreach, cultural workshops, and meetings with local religious leaders.

“There are non-Somalis who are visiting here daily,” taking arts and crafts workshops, participating in discussions about youth and gender, or simply looking for a quiet place to study. “There are non-Somalis who are doing activities of (Somali) culture.”

‘We are mourning together’

Another change has contributed to the shifting perception of Kenyans towards Somalis and extremism. In recent years, many of the culprits behind terror attacks have been Kenyan, not Somali.

“Al Shabab has recruited significantly within the last five years from Kenya and East Africa,” says Harun Maruf, a journalist at Voice of America and co-author of “Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally.” He notes how Al Shabab has increasingly been able to exploit local grievances such as lack of infrastructure, unemployment, and land disputes to recruit people who can execute attacks on foreign soil.

According to local media reports, at least two of the suspects in the hotel attack came from Kenya, and are recent converts to Islam. At least 21 people have been confirmed killed, and dozens more injured.

Terrorist attacks in Kenya aren’t “just Somalis attacking people,” says Roseline Atieno, a Kenyan living in Eastleigh. “I’m defending [my Somali neighbors] because all of them are not criminals,” she said. “The Somalis living in Eastleigh are innocent people.”

Somalis say that’s a heartening message, particularly given how long Somalis themselves have suffered under attacks by Al Shabab. In 2017, for instance, a truck bomb in central Mogadishu killed more than 500 people.

While Namwaya appreciates Kenyans’ supportive responses, he remains cautious because of past security campaigns.

“I don’t see [the Riverside attacks] being an exception,” he says. The recent arrests of about 20 suspects, he says, is likely “just the beginning.”

Last week, the district office in which Eastleigh is located held meetings with local Somali leaders, advising them on how to talk with their community members, and warning them to carry their identification cards wherever they went.

Still, for now there’s a cautious optimism that the delicate unity will last.

On the day after the attack, hundred of people gathered at the Chiromo morgue, a short walk from the scene of the attack, where people of many backgrounds had come to confirm the deaths of their loved ones.

“We are mourning together,” says Mohammed Sheikh, who is the member of parliament for Wajir South County. “We are not going to accept anyone to divide Kenyans. We are not going to accept being divided by ethnic lines.”

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