Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has declared that his country is at war with the Islamist terror group al-Shabaab, after the bodies of 36 Christian and non-Muslim workers were discovered at a quarry near the Somali border on Tuesday.
Somalia-based militant Islamist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack — about 10 miles from the town of Mandera — saying that they had targeted "Kenyan crusaders."
"We are uncompromising in our beliefs, relentless in our pursuit, ruthless against the disbelievers and we will do whatever necessary to defend our Muslim brethren suffering from Kenya's aggression," al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage said.
The workers were ambushed at around 1am Kenyan time (10pm GMT) as they slept in their tents.
"The militia separated the Muslims, then ordered the non-Muslims to lie down where they shot them on the head at close range," Hassan Duba, an elder at a nearby village, told Reuters.
Reuters also reported that at least two of the bodies had been beheaded.
This was only latest in a spate of attacks. Last week al-Shabaab stopped a bus in the same region in north-eastern Kenya, murdering 28 non-Somali passengers who were unable to recite passages from the Qur'an.
The Kenyan government claimed to have retaliated immediately, saying they killed as many as 100 militants at their camp in Somalia, though al- Shabaab called this untrue and "absurd."
In a statement responding to Tuesday's tragedy, Kenyatta announced: "Our country and our people are under attack."
Referring to the sustained threat of violence — including 2013's Westgate Mall attack — Kenyatta said that over the past few years terrorism has cost the lives of more than 500 civilians and 300 security officers.
"A war has been waged against all Kenyans by an enemy hiding behind religion, and much innocent blood has been shed. Kenya has been subjected to a long history of murder and violence at the hands of bandits, terrorists and extremists."
Kenyatta stressed that the Kenyan Defence Forces are authorized and willing to pursue the al-Shabaab militia to their base in Somalia. Kenya has been carrying out operations against the al-Qaeda-linked group inside Somalia since 2011, but the government has been heavily criticized for what is seen as its weak response to the Islamist group.
In an apparent attempt to shake things up, Kenyatta on Tuesday fired Interior Minister Ole Lenku, while police chief David Kimaiyo resigned from his position.
EJ Hogendoorn, deputy Africa director of the International Crisis Group, told VICE News that Kenyatta's comments labeling al-Shabaab's attacks part of a war against Kenyans may be too simplistic, and that there are credible allegations that some of those carrying out the attacks are from Kenya rather than Somalia. Hogendoorn said that reports from witnesses show that some of the attackers spoke Swahili and other local languages.
"This is not just an external threat, but this has also become a domestic threat for the Kenyan security forces."
Hogendoorn added that it was difficult to judge whether Kenyatta's comments represented a real change of policy.
"People talk about a border between Kenya and Somalia, but what they need to understand is that that is a border that is very poorly controlled. It is a very remote region of Kenya with very little security presence, and so Somalis, and Kenyan-Somalis move back and forth across that border with almost no control whatsoever."
He said that there is a conceptual battle going on, evident in the way that al-Shabaab are framing the violence and attacks. Al-Shabaab, Hogendoorn said, have been trying to paint the Kenyan military presence in Somalia as a "colonial occupation" by "Christian crusader forces," while the Kenyan government says it is necessary to ensure the safety of its citizens.
Hogendoorn added that al-Shabaab is not in a position to start a civil war, but their aim — along with trying to get the Kenyan military to leave Somalia — is to create more tension between Muslims and Christians in Kenya. "That is of course a very negative development."
Richard Downie, deputy director for the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News that it was clear al-Shabaab was attacking all the countries involved in the African Union Mission to Somalia. "They've also attacked Uganda, Djibouti, they've unsuccessfully tried with Ethiopia, but Kenya has borne the brunt of this."
Rather than focusing on the group's publicized association with al-Qaeda, Downie said the most interesting links that al-Shabaab have now are regional, particularly their ties with al-Hijra, an extremist Islamic group based in Kenya whose members travel to Somalia for training.
He added that the attacks — unrelated to al-Hijra — really demonstrate how al-Shabaab are losing power. "I think al-Shabaab has been degraded as a fighting force in recent years, it's been pushed back and in a way these attacks are manifestations of the group's weaknesses. A few years ago we spoke about them controlling a lot of territory, but no longer, and this is a symptom of that."
Al-Shabaab's leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a US airstrike in September, causing some experts to speculate that the group might quickly lose momentum and begin to fracture.
Responding to this, Hogendoorn told VICE News: "Clearly it was a major setback for the organization, but they very quickly identified a new leader. What is not clear is whether he has as much authority, but that is partially what people suspect is driving (al-Shabaab's) focus on Kenya, the need to demonstrate that they are still relevant and still a threat. However, one has to question how much of a threat they are when the targets they are attacking are unarmed civilians."
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