More than a month after attackers stormed into a Kenyan town and executed dozens of residents, lingering uncertainty over exactly who was responsible has left the coastal region nervous and divided.
The Shebab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked insurgents, were quick to claim responsibility for the string of gruesome massacres near the tourist island of Lamu, saying the 87 murdered by knives and gunfire were retaliation for Kenya’s military presence in their country.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, however, insisted the Shebab had nothing to do with it and instead blamed “local political networks” and ethnic hatred.
The differing scenarios have only served to underscore the wide range and potentially explosive array of challenges faced by Kenya: an external Islamist threat, homegrown terrorism, religious, ethnic and tribal tensions, and bitter, long-running land disputes.
“People here still live in fear and others have fled,” said Anne Gathigi, a 38-year-old mother of five whose husband was killed when the attackers stormed into their house in June.
According to witnesses and survivors of the assault, the gunmen were spoke several languages, including Somali, and carried Shebab flags. They also deliberately singled out non-Muslims.
The attackers appeared to target the mainland close to Lamu island because it is home to Christian settlements in the Muslim-majority coastal region.
Towns such as Mpeketoni, the scene of the first killings, were settled decades ago by the Kikuyu, the same ethnic community as President Kenyatta.
Foreign intelligence sources say all the evidence points to some Shebab involvement.
“For us it’s clear the Shebab were involved in some capacity, through manpower, planning and logistics, and are working with local sympathisers,” a Western diplomatic source who sought anonymity told AFP.
“This is actually more worrying than if it was just a 100 percent Shebab operation. It shows they have expanded their franchise, that the threat has morphed into something new,” he said.
– The usual suspects? –
Among those arrested in the wake of the attacks were alleged separatists from the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a group that campaigns for independence of the coastal region.
Lamu’s governor, an opposition politician, was also arrested and is currently under investigation. He has protested that the arrests were carried out with intimidation in mind, not evidence.
Hussein Khalid, executive director of HAKI Africa, a Kenyan Coast-based civil rights group, said the attacks may have in part been linked to age-old land disputes, something he said were a ticking time bomb.
“The land issue in Lamu has been an issue waiting to explode,” he said, explaining that most coastal communities felt that land distribution after Kenya’s independence 50 years ago was done unfairly.