Who’s Behind Kenya’s Latest Wave of Terror?

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June 17 2014 2:14 PM

Who’s Behind Kenya’s Latest Wave of Terror?

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Locals block the road with a barricade as they protest the rising insecurity following the killings in Mpeketoni on June 17, 2014.

Photo by Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Kenya is undergoing its worst wave of terrorist violence since the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that left 67 people dead last September.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

On Monday night gunmen killed at least 50 people in attacks on the coastal city of Mpeketoni, where crowds were gathered to watch a World Cup game. About 24 hours later, 15 more people were killed and at least 12 women were abducted in the coastal village of Poromoko.

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Al-Shabab, the Somali Islamist rebel group that also carried out the Westgate attack, has claimed responsibility for both attacks, demanding that Nairobi pull its troops out of Somalia.

Oddly, though, despite Shabab’s claim of responsibility, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta denies that it is responsible, blaming "local political networks" for the violence.

Kenyatta, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, has been publicly clashing in recent days with opposition leader Raila Odinga, an ethnic Luo. Tension between the groups was at the center of the wave of violence that followed the disputed election of 2007. Kenyatta is currently under indictment at the International Criminal Court for his role in the postelection violence.

The presidents didn’t name any suspects or say which groups were targeted by the attacks, but there is a recent history of brutal ethnic violence in Kenya’s coastal region.

The BBC suggests that it’s possible that “local ethnic Somalis or Oromos may have targeted members of the president's Kikuyu community and tried to divert the blame by waving al-Shabab flags.” The target fits with Shabab’s MO—during the last World Cup, in 2010, the group bombed a crowd watching the finals in Uganda, another country that had send troops to Somalia—but the tactics, which involved killing only men while abducting women, would be new for the group.

Of course, it’s also possible that it was Shabab and the president is attempting to deflect blame onto his political rivals.

The fact that these both seem like plausible scenarios is itself pretty telling.