Counter-terrorism architecture as a pillar of regional security

An armoured Kenya Defence Forces vehicle in Hindi, Lamu on April 21, 2016. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kenya’s has a bold experiment to balance imperatives of security with those of deepening democracy.

As the third anniversary of the Westgate terrorist attack in September 2013 approaches, the spotlight is turning on Kenya’s emerging counter-terrorism system. Kenya’s changes in the counter-terrorism edifice were the focus of a high-profile forum on “Developing a regional strategy for countering violent extremism in Eastern and Horn of Africa region” convened by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) (supported by UNDP and funded by the Government of Japan) in Nairobi from August 8-10, 2016.

Two diametrically opposed narratives dominate the ensuing debate. The first, largely triumphalist, casts Kenya’s post-Westgate counter-terrorism architecture as a new model of success and sturdy pillar of regional security. Aspects of this narrative featured during the IGAD forum.

The other, more hostile and virulent, casts the country’s counter-terrorism approach as failed. The most recent example of this narrative is a prickly article by US-based Ethiopian activist Peter Kerichu that appeared in the The National Interest magazine and sensationally titled “Kenya’s counter-terrorism approach is floundering” on August 4, 2016.

newsisnideA more sober perspective is that Kenya’s post-Westgate counter-terrorism architecture is a bold experiment in balancing the imperatives of security with those of deepening democracy – still work in progress with serious challenges and vital lessons for the African region.

Part of the reason Westgate happened is that Kenya’s counter-terrorism system was weak, uncoordinated and with no strategy. Prior to 2010, the country had no incentive to focus on a strong strategy because it did not see itself as a target of terrorism but as “collateral damage” in such terrorist attacks such as the bombing of the American Embassy in August 1998.

After Kenya adopted a new democratic constitution in 2010, this position has radically changed. President Uhuru Kenyatta has characterised terrorism as an “existential threat” to the nation. Similarly, a recently released annual report of the National Intelligence Service has described terrorism as “the biggest and most persistent threat to Kenya’s national security in 2015”.

As a result, after Westgate, Kenya’s securocrats view their role as that of securing the country’s budding democracy from terror. “The terrorists are determined to change us, to destroy our way of life, our new democracy and freedoms,” said a senior government official during the IGAD forum.

Westgate’s most enduring lesson is the need for coordination of the various actors in combating terrorism. Since then, the country’s security strategists have embarked on weaving a multi-pronged, better-coordinated and intelligence-led counter-terrorism strategy under a multi-agency unit.

In July, last year, the country hosted the African regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism. Early this year, Kenya pioneered in launching Africa’s first National Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism in line with the recommendations of the UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action on Countering Violent Extremism (2016), which calls on member states to develop national strategies to guide the fight against extremism.


The new strategy shifts from military-led counter-terrorism to a more holistic approach, which demands a fine balance between the use of the “hard power” and the technologies of “soft power” to win hearts and minds and drain the swamps of radicalisation.

Driving its thinking are three poignant interpretations of the phenomenon of terrorism.

First, terrorism is a war that borrows heavily from earlier waves of insurgent movements, and which cannot be won without the use of the military. Kenya’s war against al-Shabaab is underpinned by this logic.

Second, terrorism is an intellectual enterprise. An intellectual approach to counter-terrorism demands understanding the ideologies, agendas and strategies of terrorists. This is necessary to prevent them from using family units, religious centres such as mosques, learning institutions like madrasas, prisons, correctional facilities, refugee camps and community structures to recruit, radicalise and launch attacks. Closing all avenues and spaces of radicalisation, including refugee camps, is key to draining the swamps of terrorism.

In this regard, Kenya is partnering with civil society to redefine the way the country is fighting violent extremism and working to strengthen community resilience to extremism.

Third, terrorism is a financial enterprise. Terrorists seek to capture, control and exploit such resources as oil and gas, illegal trade in ivory and other fauna and flora, criminal networks of pirates, bandits as well as money laundering to fund their operations. In this regard, Kenya is targeting channels such as money remittance providers operating outside the Central Bank of Kenya.

The new strategy is working. Kenya’s security agencies have foiled numerous attacks and saved many lives. Attacks, casualties and fatalities have gone down. al-Shabaab attacks fell from 72 in 2014 to 28 by the end of 2015. By August 2016, they were less than 10. Similarly, fatalities dropped from 218 in 2014 to 179 in 2015 while no major attack has occurred so far.

An intelligence-led campaign is recording success in de-radicalisation. The 2015 NIS Annual Report reveals that Kenya has intercepted several radicalised Kenyan youth on their way to Somalia to join al-Shabaab. It also rescued over 100 children who were undergoing indoctrination and radical teaching.

Over 100 returnees defected from al-Shabaab in Somalia and surrendered to Kenya in 2015. Establishing a viable system of rehabilitating returnees and ensuring their security from Al-shabaab reprisals remains a critical issue.

Similarly, more than 50 al-Shabaab terrorists were arrested and brought to court, while nearly 100 are reportedly on a terror watch list.

Largely because of these measures, security has dropped from the list of election issues on the road to the 2017 General Election.

But terrorism is fighting back in subtle ways. Unwittingly, Peter Kerichu’s article is an example of “independent security analysts” whose frightful forays into counter-terrorism studies are playing straight into al-Shabaab’s on-line campaign to exploit community-based grievances to divide-and-win the population of northern Kenya as a new frontier of radicalising, recruiting and launching attacks across the region.


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