Lessons from Garissa

Terrible as it was, al Shabaab’s murderous attack on Garissa University in Kenya was not completely a surprise. The Somali Islamist terrorist group has lost much territory in Somalia in recent years to an African Union military force. Driven from strongholds it once planned to use as the basis of its caliphate, al Shabaab has fallen back on small-unit terrorist attacks in both Somalia and Kenya. Garissa is the latest and deadliest example.

Al Shabaab’s terror has multiple objectives. It is first of all meant to drive Kenyan forces out of Somalia. There is no sign thus far that this gambit is working. Some Kenyans question the wisdom of the Somali intervention back in 2011, but terror attacks have stiffened public support for President Kenyatta’s determination to stay in Somalia until the job there is done.

Another al Shabaab goal is to divide and pit Kenyan religious and ethnic communities against each other. Separating Muslims from Christians, as was done in Garissa, has been an al Sha-baab tactic since at least the Westgate Mall siege in 2013.  After Westgate, al Shabaab targeted non-Muslims and certain ethnic groups (specifically Kikuyus) in a wave of bus hijackings and at-tacks on villages and worksites across northeast Kenya. The al Shabaab massacre of 47 people at Mpeketoni near the Kenyan coast in 2014 focused on a Kikuyu community that had been settled generations ago on land taken from local, non-Kikuyu populations.  

Thus far, this strategy of driving wedges has also largely failed. Following the Garissa massacre, Kenyans of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, to their great credit, again closed ranks to denounce al Shabaab’s terror.

A third al Shabaab goal is to provoke harsh overreactions by the Kenyan government and its security services. If Kenya’s margin-alized Muslim communities bear the brunt of this overreaction, as al Shabaab no doubt calculates, sympathy and new recruits for the terror group could materialize. Recent trends suggest this initiative may prove more successful.

A glaring weakness in Kenya’s defense against Islamist terror is the persistent gap between Kenyan’s security forces and the civilian populations that rely on their protection, particularly along the Kenyan coast and border with Somalia. In these predominately Muslim areas, distrust of the government in Nairobi runs deep. Security crackdowns following the Westgate Mall massacre have led many Muslim communities to conclude that they are being targeted for collective punishment. In early 2014, thousands of ethnic Somalis, many of them Kenyan citizens, were rounded up in Nairobi and threatened with prosecution, transfer to refugee camps, or deportation. Many detainees reported police demanded cash in exchange for their release.

Over the past two years, multiple sources have reported a series of disappearances and assassinations of imams and young Muslim men suspected of being al Shabaab operatives or sympathizers. None of these crimes have been explained or credibly investigated. Nor is it clear how many, if any, of these victims were actually linked to al Shabaab. 

Apart from targeting Muslim communities, the Kenyatta administration has also struck back at opposition political figures, media, and civil society groups that have questioned its counterterrorism policies. Recently introduced legislation would restrict media coverage of terrorist events, shut down many non-governmental organizations that track and report on human rights, and expand police powers in ways not subject to ade-quate public oversight.  Political and judicial resistance have forced the Kenyatta government to pause on some fronts, but many observers fear that Kenya’s strong tradition of a free press and a vibrant civil society are now under threat.  Also of concern is a social media campaign vilifying non-governmental organizations that have questioned the Kenyatta government’s commitment the rule of law. The attacks appear to emanate from close to the Kenyatta administration.

These developments are doubtless good news for al Shabaab. A government crackdown on journalists or human rights defenders will do little to reduce the terror threat in Kenya. It may, however, create new fissures in Kenyan society and weaken the overall credibility of the Kenyatta government’s anti-terror cam-paign. 

Nor does giving more leeway to police or intelligence services strengthen Kenya’s defenses.   Reforms of Kenya’s entire security sector are long overdue. But thoroughgoing reform in a time of crisis is probably too much to ask for at this juncture.

What President Kenyatta might consider instead is a change of tactics that prioritizes improved police-community relations and faster, surer processing of terrorism cases in Kenyan courts.  By reaching out to civil society organizations, especially in Muslim majority regions, Kenya’s security forces can learn much about how communities are vulnerable to youth radicalization and terrorist recruitment. They will also be able to start winning back public confidence and gathering the ground-level intelligence they need to be more selective and effective in their counter-terror operations. Such steps require, of course, that sensitive areas are adequately garrisoned by mobile security forces to begin with. Slow reactions both to intelligence warnings and to actual attacks have further undermined popular confidence in the Kenyan government.

A much better resourced Kenyan judiciary—more prosecutors, more judges, better equipped courts—is also urgently needed to provide an alternative to extrajudicial activities by frustrated se-curity agencies. Improved coordination between police and the courts—long a problem in Kenya—should also be fast tracked by the Kenyatta government. This is an area where U.S. assis-tance could be put to good use.

These are not quick fixes, nor however do they require deep re-form of the entire security apparatus. These should be the first steps in a long term process of security sector reform, one that must inevitably include the complete overhaul of a Kenya police force widely regarded as inadequately trained and equipped and almost irredeemably corrupt. In the meantime, Kenyan leaders need to accept that they are well and truly involved in a “war amongst the people.” Winning it requires gaining the confidence and support of communities victimized by the security forces whose job it is to protect them.

Ambassador William Mark Bellamy is a senior adviser in the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Kenya from 2003 to 2006.

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