Analysis: Why does Kenya’s counter-terrorism strategy keep failing?

Analysis: Why does Kenya’s counter-terrorism strategy keep failing?

In the aftermath of the attack on Garissa University, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta seems to be receiving just as much blame as the gunmen themselves – even though he didn’t pull the trigger, or behead students in cold blood. But is his administration doing enough to protect its citizens from terrorism? By SIMON ALLISON.

The siege of Garissa University hadn’t even ended before the questions began. Where were the security forces? Why had authorities ignored intelligence warnings? Was Kenya’s counter-terrorism strategy doing more harm than good?

In the wake of the Al Shabaab attack, which left 148 students dead, these questions haven’t gone away. They’ve only got louder, with President Uhuru Kenyatta and his administration on the receiving end of some harsh criticism.

“The danger posed by the al Shabaab terrorists – their methods, their most likely targets, and what must be done to counter their campaign of terror – all this has long been established. What was needed all this time was a security strategy which could effectively check-mate al Shabaab. And yet, if we are to face the facts, we must admit that all this time the al Shabaab have been running rings round our security and intelligence establishment…The government failed those 149 Kenyans whose bodies now await burial. This must never happen again,” wrote local paper The Star in an editorial.

Kenyan analyst and political cartoonist Patrick Gathara, writing on Al Jazeera, echoed these comments: “…while on the surface it may have seemed that the Kenyan government had learnt some lessons [from previous attacks], a closer inspection reveals that this is little more than window dressing. Fundamentally, nothing has changed except the government’s ability to project change. It is still treating security primarily as a public relations issue,” he said.

Gathara outlined the multiple governance failures that led to and exacerbated the Garissa attack – failures familiar from several other incidents prior to this, such as the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 and the Mpeketoni massacre last year. These include: downplaying intelligence warnings; the failure of rapid response units to deploy effectively; and the casual disregard for laws and constitutional protections in both the build-up and the aftermath of the attack (such as the collective punishment of ethnic Somalis both in Nairobi and in the border areas, and Kenyatta’s recent decision to defy the Constitutional Court and fast-track the training of 10,000 police recruits selected in a corrupt recruitment process).

The government is having none of it, however. “This incident… is one of those incidents which can surprise any country,” said interior minister Joseph Nkaissery, who has barely had time to settle into the job he took over, with some reluctance, in December.

To be fair to Nkaissery, Kenyatta and Kenya’s security establishment, he has a point: the nature of these kinds of attacks is almost impossible to defend against. The country is just too large, and potential targets too numerous, to guard it all. Moreover, these is something perverse about blaming the government for the actions of a radical terrorist organisation. It’s a bit like blaming a rape victim for wearing a short skirt. Sure, Kenya has its problems, but these don’t invite or justify brutality on this scale – in an ideal world, at least.

But this is far from an ideal world, and the Kenyatta administration must take its fair share of responsibility. Terrorism does not happen in a vacuum, and the country urgently needs to review its counter-terrorism strategy. Not to prevent the next attack, or perhaps even the next – it is too late for that already – but to start dealing with the roots of the problem rather than its manifestations.

Most urgent is to review Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. It’s been three years since Kenyan tanks first rolled over the border in pursuit of Al Shabaab (entirely illegally, although the action has been retroactively legitimised by the African Union), and there’s no sign of a withdrawal. Open-ended military engagements rarely end well, and this one is no exception: while Al Shabaab may have been pushed out of its strongholds and weakened, it remains a potent fighting force with a capacity to strike across borders.

Al Shabaab was never the real target of the Kenyan offensive, however. Kenyan strategists have long dreamed of some kind of buffer state between Kenya and Somalia, to protect Kenya from Somalia’s chronic instability. Al Shabaab was the pretext necessary to create such a state, in the form of the semi-autonomous region of Jubaland. But this was a strategic error. Jubaland has not offered any kind of protection, with the Kenyan intervention having the precisely the opposite of its intended effect by bringing the Somali chaos even closer to home. As a counter-terrorism tool, Jubaland is a failure.

So too has been the victimisation of Kenya’s Somali community (Kenyan citizens included). Operations like Usalama Watch, in which ethnic Somalis were rounded up and detained on the basis of their ethnicity alone, creating an atmosphere of alienation and exclusion – this despite the fact that almost all Kenyan Muslims are moderate and reject the radical militancy of groups such as Al Shabaab. By treating Kenya’s Somali and Muslim populations like terrorists, the government can hardly be surprised when a few individuals become terrorists. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But the most convincing argument that something needs to change comes from the terrorists themselves. In ground-breaking research conducted last year, the Institute for Security Studies’ senior researcher Anneli Botha surveyed Kenyan members of Al Shabaab and the Mombasa Republic Council (another radical group), asking them what motivated them to sign up. The majority blamed injustices at the hands of Kenyan security forces, with many specifically mentioning collective punishment and Kenya’s counter-terrorism strategy.

Far from solving the terrorism problem, Kenya’s response so far has only made things worse. Its failures are repeated and well-documented, and yet its top officials continue to be surprised by attacks. That’s why so many Kenyans are holding Kenyatta and his administration at least partly responsible for the Garissa attack – and why they are right to do so. DM

Photo: Kenyan soldiers take cover as heavy gunfire continues in front of Garissa University in Garissa town, located near the border with Somalia, some 370km northeast of the capital Nairobi, Kenya, 02 April 2015. EPA/DAI KUROKAWA.


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