Africa, Islamic Terrorism, and the West: An Interview with Evans Gumbe

While focusing on terrorism and the rise of the “Islamic State” over the last 18 months, I have spent a lot of time talking with a variety of interesting people with unique perspectives on the issue, including academic, military, and law enforcement experts. Yet one of the more interesting people I have come across is Evans Gumbe, who is particularly noteworthy for his life experiences.

Evans is a budding scholar, fluent in English, German, Luo, Abagusii, and Kiswahili. He also has a basic knowledge of Spanish and French and his goal is to become a history professor. To this end, he has completed a M.A. in history from Egerton University in Kenya (2011) and then completed a second master’s degree in Leadership and Management (2014) at York St John University in England, where he also worked as a Researcher and teaching assistant. His research to this point focuses on ethnicity and sex and its role in the peace making process in Kenya. His most recent publication, reflecting these interests, is “The Role of Women in Inter ethnic Peace Building in South Nyanza, Kenya, 1850-2008,” in The International Journal of Humanities and Social Studies (2015). While at York, Evans met his German wife Johanna and in 2015 they moved to her home country where he is now enrolled as a Ph.D. student in history at Bielefeld University, Germany. By all appearances he will have a great career as an academic, but it is what he has lived through up to this point that provides his greatest insights.

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Picture: Evans, Johanna, and their child, August, 2015.

Originally from Kenya, Evans developed an interest in conflict and terrorism studies due to what he describes as “the Al Shaabab problem.” He was born in a self-described “Kenyan slum,” which resulted in a difficult childhood as he grew up in the midst of the extraordinary ethnic rivalries and conflicts of the last few decades and witnessed firsthand the consequences of repeated terrorism in both Kenya and broader Africa. Consider, for example, how Somalia has been a failed state for decades due to the impact of the terrorist group Al-Shaabab, Al Qaeda, and even recently even Islamic State affiliates. As Evans pointed out, not just Somalia, but also Eritrea, Algeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Niger, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and other states have also suffered from Islamist terrorism at the hands of a variety of competing groups. But of course Evan’s particular interest has been in the effects of terrorism on his homeland in Kenya.

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Yet even as a very young man, witnessing such often terrifying events that may have paralyzed other youths, Evans was not passive and worked to improve his country. Indeed, while still in high-school, he become the president of his school’s journalism club and boldly oversaw the launch of a magazine titled Hotline. The magazine criticized and exposed the corruption of local government officials and helped organized public demonstrations against corruption and that sought to highlight the violence of local officials in inciting hatred among the local tribes.

For his efforts as a human rights campaigner and student journalist, he was arrested no fewer than three times before he graduated from high school. Evans’ human-rights activism in Kenya was inspired by his father. In 2001, Evan’s final year of high school, his father had retired to a quiet village, looking after his cattle and tilling the land, where Evans believed he was poisoned and killed by local government officials.

With Evans’ long willingness to fight for justice, and sacrifice so much in its pursuit, it is not surprising that he now hopes to find ways to reduce the impact of terrorism in Kenya through his studies and his future research as a professor.

By responding to the following questions, Evans has kindly agreed to provide his insights on the unique troubles facing Kenya, and Africa more broadly, as they relate to Islamic extremism.

What do you see as the major future terrorism threat to Kenya, specifically, and Africa more broadly? What are the terrorists’ goals?

I think that the main terrorist threat to Africa in general and Kenya in particular is rise and spread of Islamic State in the region and the ease with which ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates are able to radicalize and recruit fighters in Africa. Terrorism has been a common problem in Kenya since 1980 when Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi CBD was bombed, killing 20 people and leaving 87 people wounded. This would later be followed by other serious attacks for instance The 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi (67 killed), 2014 Mpeketoni attack (60 killed), 2015 Garissa University attack (150 students killed) as well as 23 other attacks in various locations in which a total of 542 people were killed.

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Above Images: Survivors attempting to flee during the Westgate Mall attack (L) and some of the 150 victims of the Garissa University attack in which the attackers freed Muslims and killed those identifying as Christians (R).

Since early 2015 when the Somali terror group Al-Shaabab announced its allegiance to ISIS, the group seems to have increased its capacity to attack not only the villages but also to confront the 22,000 AMISOM military operation in Somalia. The latest successful attack was on January 15 2016 in which they killed 61 Kenya Defence Force KDF soldiers and confiscated 30 Lorries, tanks and armored vehicles.

Although earlier studies have shown the long existence of Africa’s revolutionary sub-national and state terror, contemporary writings in the last decade have shown a significant activity of ISIS in Africa that can be said to have given African terrorism an international outlook. African terrorist groups such as Al-Shaabab (Somalia), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb AQIM (Niger, Mauritania and Mali), The Al-Mourabitoun Battalion (Mali and Burkina Faso), Boko Haram (Nigeria), Ansar al-Sharia and Muammar Gaddafi’s Quadhadhfa tribe (Libya, Tunisia and Algeria) have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakhr al-Bahgdadi, the ISIS leader, and carried out attacks for ISIS, both in Africa and in the west.

ISIS currently has an estimated 4000- 5000 operatives in Libya (The NY Times November 29, 2015), drawn from Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria and Sudan. The execution of Libyan leader, Muhammar Gaddafi in 2011 created a power vacuum which made it easy for ISIS to set up their capital at Sirte, from where they have been able to coordinate terrorist attacks both in Africa and in Europe. The main goals of these terrorist groups are not only economic domination but also to create an Islamic state based on the Islamic Sharia Law. With the huge unsolicited support from the African-based terror groups coupled with the lack of capacity by the African governments to contain radicalization, ISIS future presence in Africa could be both long term and devastating.

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Why should be the west be concerned about the threats you describe above and what can the west do to help Africans minimize them?

The west should definitely be concerned about ISIS because of the groups’ capability to carry out deadly attacks in the developed world. Since the summer of 2006 when ISIS came into prominence, the group has evolved into one of the most sophisticated of all its predecessors. Its effective use of the social media as a propaganda machine as well as a recruitment tool is concerning. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris in which 130 people died and 368 were injured and the fact that French authorities could not manage to determine all the masterminds is also concerning.

Can the west help Africa minimize the threat by ISIS? I think not.

Most Africans view the west as the source of the problem due to its colonial and neo-colonial policies on the continent. The main motivation of African terrorism can be attributed to the many years of Africa’s colonial subjugation by the west. The colonial physical oppression, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, corruption, destruction of traditional African political structures and social values laid the foundation for the appeal of the first organized terror groups in Africa. These oppressive colonial policies have since been furthered by most of the current corrupt and authoritarian African governments, thereby making a vast majority of unemployed and dissatisfied population an easy target for terrorist recruiters.

In Algeria for instance, 132 years of French colonial rule and the subsequent Front de Liberation Nationale (FNL) oppressive militaristic policies (from 1962) which banned Islamic groups such as Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), created a brand of radical Algerian Muslim groups to fight for equality and justice. The main goal of groups such as the – Al-Qaeda trained but later ISIS affiliated – Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) is to create an Islamic state through blood and martyrdom.

The neoliberal western economic policies imposed by financial institutions such as IMF and World Bank, have pushed many African governments further into debt and poverty. These economic hardships have pushed more young people towards extremism. For instance, in Nigeria, neoliberal reforms were not concerned with social issues but with market efficiency, which worked against the basic tenets of human rights and constitutional safeguards for Nigerian citizens. A substantial number of people have resorted to criminal organizations such as Boko Haram. This also explains in part why arson, kidnapping, and other criminal activities and social vices are thriving in the Niger Delta region and other parts of the Nigerian state (Olumide, 2014). If terrorism is to be defeated in Africa, then we need to see a return to the more socialist policies that many countries followed after independence in the 1960s and 70s, policies that produced higher levels of employment and greater social justice.

The focus of your studies is sex, ethnicity and peace. How do sex, gender and ethnicity relate to modern terrorism in Africa?

Africa has experienced interethnic conflicts since pre-colonial times. These resource-based conflicts have however intensified in the post-Cold War era due to unequitable distribution of resources by the tribal corrupt governments. For instance, in Kenya and Uganda, appointment to a public office is not based on merit but on which tribe one belongs. Tribes that belong to the opposition party are often denied access to public opportunities despite the fact that they pay taxes equal to the tribes in power. The Somali tribe in Kenya which comprises approximately 2% of the total population has been denied access to economic opportunities since independence in 1963. These minority groups inhabit North Eastern part of Kenya where the Al-Shaabab terrorist group often recruits young dissatisfied fighters. It is in the same area where the militant group attacked Garissa University in 2015, killing more than 150 students in cold blood.

African society can be said to be highly patriarchal. Gender equality between men and women has not been achieved in almost all African nations with women viewed as incapable victims of conflicts rather than actors. Among the Somali for instance, political decisions are purely a men’s affair and women are usually not consulted neither are they viewed as security threat. However, over the past decade, African terrorist groups such as Al-Shaabab have been recruiting more women and girls to act as spies, to transport weapons through military checkpoints as well as to carry out suicide attacks. During my recent study on the role of women in conflicts, one of my female informants described how a woman carrying a baby on her back and a number of AK47 rifles tied together with firewood on her head, would pass through AMISOM security checkpoints unsuspected. Therefore, ethnicity and gender seems to play a significant role in African modern terrorism studies.

As a well-travelled man, deeply familiar with both European and African societies, what do you see as the primary weaknesses of these societies in their ability to prevent terrorism? What are their strengths?

The primary weakness of the African society with regards to terrorism is the lack of an efficient counter-terrorism strategy. This includes lack of capacity to deal with radicalization, poor intelligence collection mechanisms and corrupt judicial systems. However, there exists a strong sense of national unity and pride among the African people.The European society on the other hand boasts of advanced level of technology and ultramodern intelligence collection mechanisms. Nevertheless, European counterterrorism laws, in my opinion, seem to be too lenient. Freedom of Speech for example, is one of those laws which give terrorists a lot of freedom to radicalize a lot of young people.

What is the most important thing westerners do not understand about the issue of terrorism in Africa? If you could make them aware of one important thing, what would it be and why?

The westerners do not understand that they are a part of the African terrorism problem and cannot directly be part of its solution. This is important because the general perception about the west in Africa is that of a neocolonialist whose main aim is to keep the African person economically and politically subdued. As a result, there are significant levels of distrust. Since 2013 for instance, there has been a concerted effort by most African countries to pull out of the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court, with allegations that the court is has only tried Africans and not a single European.

While the main motivation of most African terrorism is economic, as I described above, terrorist attacks in the west seem to be more socially or culturally inspired. In as much as Africa needs more time to sort out its economic and ethnic problems, an increase in terrorist activity in the continent is likely to affect the west.

Evans welcomes you to friend him on Facebook, where you can follow his research and experienceshttps://www.facebook.com/evagumbe

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