Will counter-radicalisation policies take the heat off Somalis in Kenya?

If Kenya’s new counter-radicalisation policies are to be successful, the first step must be in creating decent lives for Somalis living in the country.

Lucy James
4 August 2015
President Obama arrives in Kenya. Boniface Muthoni/Demotix. All rights reserved.

President Obama arrives in Kenya. Demotix/Boniface Muthoni. All rights reserved.During President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Kenya, internal and regional security has been high on the agenda (albeit behind closed doors). The United States delegation announced that it was ready to work more closely in the fight against Somali Islamist group Al Shabaab, which has been responsible for a number of high-profile attacks in the east African country in recent years. The announcement is hugely significant for President Uhuru Kenyatta, given the damage done by terrorism not only to important sections of Kenya’s economy such as tourism, but also to the credibility of the government itself. In a joint news conference with Obama, Kenyatta underlined the need for robust security policies in Kenya, describing the threat of Al Shabaab to the country as “existential”.

The strength of the government’s language around security belies the heavy criticism showered on Kenyatta for the inadequate and delayed security responses to attacks in Garissa and Mandera earlier this year. But at the same time, Kenya’s administration has also been castigated for the severity of its crackdown on Kenya’s Somali community, which has been subject to arbitrary arrest, harassment, extortion and expulsion by police and counter-terrorism forces. In light of the US visit, can Kenya develop a watertight security that avoids heavy-handed and reactive (rather than proactive) responses by security services?

Maybe so. Last month, Kenyatta announced a new direction in national security policy that aims to focus on ‘counter-radicalisation’, couched in terms of community engagement, working with civil society and faith leaders. But with details on the programme still scant, how might such an approach work in practice? And what might be the effects on groups that have had to bear the brunt of counter-terrorism tactics thus far?

A timeline of terrorism in Kenya

Westgate shopping centre has just reopened after 2013's shooting. Boniface Muthoni/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Westgate shopping centre has just reopened after 2013's shooting. Demotix/Boniface Muthoni. All rights reserved. In July of this year Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall opened for the first time since it was stormed by Al Shabaab militants in the still-raw attack of September 2013, which resulted in the deaths of 67 people. The reopening was symbolic, coinciding with Obama’s visit and, according to the city’s mayor, an indication of Nairobi’s safety. For many outside of the capital, safety remains wishful thinking. In April of this year, Kenya suffered its worst terrorist incident in 17 years in its more vulnerable northern regions, when Swahili-speaking gunmen stormed Garissa University and killed 148 people after identifying them as Christian. Al Shabaab later claimed responsibility for the attack saying that the university, which is situated 150km from the Somali border in Kenya’s northern province, “is on Muslim land colonised by non-Muslims”.

The evident security failings in Garissa immediately prompted a flurry of criticism from a broad spectrum of Kenyan civil society, the diaspora and international rights groups. If social media provides any kind of barometer of the feelings of the man on the street, Twitter demonstrated the complete lack of trust by ordinary Kenyans in the state services designed to protect them. Twin protests in Garissa and Nairobi were staged by students in response to the attack, claiming that they were no longer prepared to be left to “the mercy of Al Shabaab”.

Elsewhere, Kenya’s wider struggle with corruption in the upper echelons of government was singled out as a contributory factor in the attacks. John Githongo, the ex-Secretary for Governance and Ethics in the Kibaki era, described Kenya’s security sector as “the last refuge of the corrupt”. Years of government mismanagement combined with a culture of petty corruption among police, immigration forces and the military, according to Githongo, have come to represent the juncture at which corruption translates to national insecurity. For prominent Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi, the level of entrenched corruption in Kenya’s security apparatus allows Al Shabaab militants to move easily between the Kenyan and Somali borders, raising the possibility of attacks of the kind seen in Garissa, Mandera and elsewhere. 

Security responses

Memorials have been held to honour the victims of the attack at Garissa University. Anthony Kigondu/Demotix. All rights reserved

Memorials have been held to honour the victims of the attack at Garissa University. Demotix/Anthony Kigondu. All rights reservedIn response to these concerns, the government initially pledged to respond in “the severest way possible” to strengthen national security and protect the lives of its citizens. After claiming to have destroyed two Al Shabaab training camps in the Gedo region of Somalia days after Garisssa, it announced its intentions to further bolster internal security, first by building a wall across the porous border with Somalia and second by dismantling Dadaab refugee camp, described by party officials as a “nursery for Al Shabaab”.

These efforts, unfortunately, have gone hand in hand with the deliberate targeting and collective punishment of particular groups within Kenyan society singled out as supporters and conspirators with Al Shabaab. This was especially felt during ‘Operation Usalama Watch’, in which Kenyan authorities began mass round-ups, arrests, detentions and relocation of Somalis and Kenyan Somalis following a spate of attacks in March 2014. The constant fear of arrest and abuse at the hands of state security forces is illustrated poignantly in This American Life’s story of Abdi Nor, a Somali refugee who experienced first hand the brutality and relentlessness of police raids in Nairobi’s Eastleigh district in 2014. Kenya’s counterterrorism unit has also been accused of extrajudicial killings and targeting of ‘Muslim radicals’, sanctioned by the government as part of an attempt to counter radicalization.

As Kenya reeled from the fallout of Garissa and tried to come to terms with the idea that the attackers were home-grown (one having been identified as the son of a government official in Mandera county), heavy-handed tactics looked set to continue. On 8 April, the government suspended the licenses of 13 Somali remittance firms, a move which hurt the many Kenyan Somalis who rely on relatives who send money from abroad. The move was criticised by numerous rights groups and NGOs as counter-productive, and one which unfairly targeted civil society groups rather than stifling funding sources for militants.

Kenya’s uncertain future

Dada is the largest refugee complex in the world. Alex Kamweru/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Dada is the largest refugee complex in the world. Demotix/Alex Kamweru. All rights reserved.The announcement of a new approach to counter-radicalization in Kenya is likely to be a response to the issues thrown up by Garissa, and a reflection on developments since 2013. Garissa was a stark illustration that the threat of Al Shabaab is not solely an external reaction to Kenya’s military operation in Somalia. Terrorism is now recognized as a Kenyan problem, and one that (as in many other parts of the world grappling with radicalisation) strikes at the heart of identity and belonging, particularly among the young. If Kenyatta truly intends to change tack, and concentrate more on the roots of extremism by working with communities on issues of unemployment and political representation, real progress could be made.

Many recent initiatives in this vein are targeting young Kenyans who may be vulnerable to radicalization in a climate of high unemployment and feelings of disenfranchisement. In Wajir county, an ‘anti-radicalisation counsellor’ (who doubles as the Imam of Masjidul Jamia) has been appointed to prevent youths from joining extremist organisations. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission has started training secondary school teachers on how to fight radicalisation in schools. Some measures have even gone so far as to attract controversy, as was the case in the Church’s protestations against the government’s proposal to grant a blanket amnesty to youths defecting from Al Shabaab.

But where does this leave Somali communities that might still feel vulnerable to government crackdowns, particularly in the case of (likely) further strikes by Al Shabaab on Kenyan soil? On the one hand, Kenyatta’s government clearly recognizes the damage that ethnic profiling has done to Kenya’s reputation internationally; after significant pressure, the Central Bank lifted the suspension on the 13 Somali money transfer agencies. Working with communities and religious leaders may also be a sign of a willingness to cooperate with Somali groups, rather than eyeing them with suspicion.

But attitudes and behaviours are unlikely to change overnight, particularly given the history of human rights abuse by Kenyan forces against ethnic Somalis from 1984 to the present. Somali communities are likely to remain the subject of intense scrutiny by government agencies, and the closure of Dadaab camp raises new problems for relations between the government and refugees in the story of terrorism. Somali elders in Dadaab have warned, for example, that if the camp is moved across the border, young people will have no option but to join the militants. Kenyatta’s announcement may therefore be the beginning of a more effective and understanding approach to tackling the threat of Al Shabaab, but it remains to be seen whether this will also translate in to better protection of rights for Somalis living in Kenya.

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