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Getting Counter-Terrorism Wrong in Kenya – Professor Hussein Solomon

December 1, 2014

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Getting Counter-Terrorism Wrong in Kenya

by Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 2 (2014), Number 13 (December 2014)

Since 2011, when Kenya sent its troops into Somalia, now a part of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), terror attacks have escalated on this East African nation. Indeed, since 2011 more than 130 attacks occurred on Kenyan soil, resulting in more than 300 killed and over 1000 injured[1]. In this week’s recent massacre Al Shabaab militants attacked a bus executing 28 people. Under the circumstances hundreds of Kenyans are fleeing from the town of Mandera which is on the Kenyan border with Somalia[2].

The Kenyan government’s response to these terrorism atrocities have merely served to exacerbate the situation – thereby assisting Al Shabaab’s own recruitment.  The ethnic and religious profiling of Kenyan Somalis and their subsequent harassment by authorities as well as the extra-judicial killing of radical Muslim scholars[3] merely serve to reinforce the Al Shabaab narrative that Christian Kenya is engaged in a war against Islam. Such counter-terrorism initiatives on the part of Nairobi will merely serve to stimulate further polarisation. In such a polarized atmosphere it will be difficult for the Kenyan authorities to acquire human intelligence assets within the Somali Kenyan community. What Nairobi needs to do is to articulate a common and inclusive notion of Kenyan citizenship irrespective of ethnic, religious or regional affiliation. In addition, ethnically Somali-inhabited areas should be targeted for additional economic development in order to bridge the socio-economic divide between ethnic Somali Kenyans and other citizens. In so doing, Kenyan Somalis will develop a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

In addition for a more holistic counter-terrorism strategy, there is also a pressing need for a more nuanced approach. As Anneli Botha has cogently argued, Kenya is confronted with two distinct threats – Al Shabaab’s violent Islamist terrorism and the non-violent campaign for secession by the Mombasa Republican Council[4]. Various statements emanating from Nairobi suggest that the Kenyan authorities are conflating the two threats – viewing the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) as an extension of Al Shabaab. This is erroneous. While it is certainly true that Al Shabaab is attempting to penetrate the MRC with a view to creating an independent Islamic emirate; these remain two distinct entities. More importantly, by treating it as one collective threat it would merely encourage elements of the MRC to work with Al Shabaab. A more nuanced strategy would be where one embarks on a robust intelligence-driven counter-terrorism operation against Al Shabaab cells within Kenya but at the same time engage with the MRC towards a political settlement – possibly offering greater autonomy as opposed to independence.

There is also the regional dimension of Kenya’s war against the militants. In the immediate aftermath of the Mandera bus attack, Kenya responded with airstrikes against various Al Shabaab camps in Somalia where the bus attacks were orchestrated. According to Kenyan authorities, scores of Al Shabaab fighters were killed and four of their so-called “technicals” (pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns) were destroyed[5]. Whilst Kenyan reaction was swift in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocity, as was also witnessed following last year’s Westgate siege, the reality is that prevention is better than cure. It is far better to have intelligence before an attack than intelligence after an attack. In other words, had Kenyan intelligence been better, whilst the attacks were being orchestrated in those Somali camps, the Kenyan Air Force, should have engaged in a pre-emptive strike thereby saving innocent lives.

In this Kenya needs to coordinate their actions with the Mogadishu government, AMISOM and regional structures like the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the East African Community. The scourge of Al Shabaab terrorism is a regional one and coordinated regional action is urgently needed.

[1] Paul Wafula, Kenyans flee after bus executions,” Mail and Guardian, 28 November to 4 December 2014, p. 24.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Anneli Botha, “Radicalization in Kenya: Recuirtment to al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council,” ISS Paper No. 265, September 2014. Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, p. 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wafula, op. cit.

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