Hilary Matfess

“The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”
- George Orwell, 1984

The Threat to Kenyan Security

On the evening of March 31, Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood—nicknamed “Little Mogadishu” for its significant Somali population—was rocked by three explosions that left six dead and 18 injured. The characteristics and location of the attack pointed to al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Somalia that had terrorized Nairobi with last September’s Westgate Mall attack, as well as numerous smaller acts of terrorism throughout Kenya. 

The explosions in Eastleigh came a week after assailants stormed a church in the coastal town of Likoni, opening fire and killing six congregants. The discovery of an undetonated car bomb in Mombasa just days before the attack in Likoni raised concerns that extremists in the country are now capable of attacks more destructive than throwing hand grenades or detonating small explosives, both of which have become increasingly common since 2011. These attacks constitute Kenya’s most significant surge in terrorism since Westgate and represent a serious challenge as the country seeks to expand its economy and strengthen its democracy.  

The Kenyan Government’s Response

These attacks have set Kenya on edge and thrown its officials into the international spotlight. Beyond just matters of reputation, mending Kenya’s image as a safe country is also vital to the country’s economic stability. Ten percent of Kenyan GDP comes from tourism—compared to four percent in neighboring Uganda—a sector described by President Uhuru Kenyatta as being “virtually on its knees” since the attack on Westgate Mall. 

Following the Eastleigh attacks, the government conducted sweeping night raids that resulted in the arrest of more than one thousand residents, many of whom were described by officials as “al-Shabaab sympathizers.” During the 3-hour raid, Kenyan police officers went door-to-door in the neighborhood, searching houses and demanding that residents produce identification cards. Reports of police looting homes and attempting to rape women are now emerging. “The government has sent security agencies to Eastleigh and they are killing and robbing residents,” said former deputy speaker of the National Assembly Farah Maalim. These police abuses are compounded by increasing distrust and contempt for Muslims and Somalis. Nazlim Ummar, the chair of the National Muslim Council in Kenya, reports that in Eastleigh, after the Westgate attacks, “women wearing hijabs could not enter matatus [public minibuses], or were being beaten.” While most Kenyans are more understanding of the challenges facing Somali refugees and recognize that few Muslims are extremists, the combination of government harassment and social mistrust has resulted in a culture of fear for Somali refugees, Muslims, and Eastleigh residents. 

The arrests in Eastleigh marked the start of a nationwide campaign of raids that have detained nearly four thousand people. According to Somalis and Muslims in Kenya, these raids are the latest in a pattern of unfair profiling and persecution by the Kenyan government’s counterterrorism policies. A report by the Open Society Justice Initiative documenting abuses since 2007 described counterterrorism operations “during which the unit captured several suspects and beat them prior to bringing them to various police stations,” where they were then released due to lack of evidence. The report also noted that the government had engaged in “extrajudicial killings,” the use of “unlawful lethal force,” and implicated the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit in the disappearances of suspects. Additionally, rights activists have blamed Kenya’s government for murdering three Muslim leaders during the March 31st raid. One of the men killed, Sheikh Abubaker Shariff, designated a terrorist by the United States because of his suspected connections to Somali militants, told the Associated Press in October that he was “living on borrowed time,” alluding to Kenya’s pattern of extrajudicial justice. Shortly before his death, Shariff was awarded damages from a lawsuit filed in 2010, in which he had charged Kenyan police with wrongful arrest and excessive use of force during an allegedly unlawful raid on his home. 

Anticipating public unrest over his death, the government has placed additional forces in Mombasa, where Shariff was shot. The Mombasa Couny Commissioner, Nelson Marwa, stated that the additional forces were necessary since “some youths may try to disrupt peace,” but assured citizens that “our security team is alert [and]… monitoring the situation.” The presence of these troops has raised tensions in these communities because of the lack of investigation into the murders of Muslim clerics. 

According to advocates in Kenya, the persecution of Somalis and Muslims intensified under the 2012 anti-terrorism bill, which gave additional power to the widely-distrusted Kenyan police force. The law came a year after Kenya first sent troops to Somalia to help with that country’s counterinsurgency against al-Shabaab. In retribution for Kenyan intervention, al-Shabaab increased the number of attacks inside Kenya. 

As a result, the terms “Somali,” “Muslim,” and “terrorist” have become conflated in Kenya’s security policy, an attitude that promises even more instability. The government has already ordered Somali refugees to return to their camps near the border with Somalia and South Sudan, citing “emerging security challenges.” This dictate is a huge logistical and legal hurdle, as there are more than one million Somali refugees in Kenya. Such a policy is also ill-advised, as refugee camps have historically been recruitment centers and training grounds for al-Shabaab. Indeed, forced relocation amounts to a gift from the Kenyan government to the extremist group. In 2013, Kenya’s high court deemed an attempt to relocate refugees because of security a threat to the “rights and fundamental freedoms” of those living in urban areas. That proposal also led to street violence between ethnic Kenyans and Somalis, suggesting that the relocation of refugees will result in both short- and long-term instability.

The Broader Significance

Kenya’s response has been criticized by domestic legal scholars, as well as by Somali and Muslim activists. Ken Nyaundi, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and Chairman of the International Commission of Jurists’ Kenya branch, released a statement arguing against the government’s infringement upon civil rights: “We must not vacate our democratic ideals…for in doing so, we shall hand the terrorists their most prized victory: the destruction of our normal way of life.” 

Kenya’s response to terrorism is particularly troubling. Under the 2012 anti-terrorism law, the government would have had the right to investigate suspected terrorists without resorting to sweeping, potentially abusive night raids; however, the government has chosen not to act through the legal provisions it has adopted. The extrajudicial nature of the government’s response threatens to undermine rule of law in the country.  Though courts ruled last year that forced relocation of Somali refugees is unlawful, the government has again issued such an order. Given that the ICC has indicted Uhuru Kenyatta for organizing post-election violence against rival ethno-political groups in 2008 (through the politico-religious group Mungiki), the international community should not underestimate the danger of state-organized, extrajudicial violence against ethnic Somalis in Kenya.

Further, evidence is emerging that the threat of terrorism is being used to stymie dissent domestically and gain legitimacy abroad. After Aden Duale, an MP within Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition, condemned the government raids and targeting of Muslims and Somalis, members of his coalition accused him of being a terrorist sympathizer and demanded his resignation. Another member of the coalition, Jamlek Kamau, stated frankly that “anyone who does not support the government operation is a terrorist.” Kenyan Muslim activists who have spoken out against the government’s profiling have also been targeted. A director of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, a group that has disavowed radicalism and urges young Muslims to avoid “vices that gave Islam a bad name,” was arrested after a police raid of his home. The government’s response to terrorism has created a domestic atmosphere in which dissent is automatically deemed a threat to the nation’s security. 

In addition to reducing freedom of speech in the country, Kenya’s counterterrorism operations concentrate power at the federal level. The Anti-Terrorism Police Unit was described as being “located in the Office of the President.” Since 2007, reports of abuses by the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit have accelerated. The centralization of counterterrorism reduces civilian oversight and reduces the likelihood that the perpetrator of abuses will be held accountable. Jonathon Horowitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative argues that the structure of Kenyan counterterrorism is “not only unlawful but counterproductive,” since “violent extremeists use such abuses to justify violence and to recruit others.” In spite of such criticism, calls to decentralize security functions and institute reforms were dismissed by Deputy President William Ruto as unnecessary. The decentralization of counterterrorism efforts may offer advantages in terms of increased local knowledge but would require cooperation and the redistribution of resources to opposition party politicians. Kenyan counterterrorism efforts are characterized by their intolerance of criticism and pervasive extrajudicial exploits. 

Nonetheless, the international community continues to pledge support to Kenya’s counterterrorism efforts. The American Ambassador to Kenya, The British High Commissioner to Kenya, and the Australian High Commissioner released a joint statement assuring President Uhuru of their “commitment to supporting his government in eliminating terrorists in the country.” The envoys promised support to “build capacity” through aid and training programs designed to combat al-Shabaab, a group whose actions they consider to be “not only a threat to Kenya security but to the whole world.” In pledging that the government would “continuously abide by the constitution, ensuring that basic freedoms of all Kenyans are not violated,” President Kenyatta subtly acknowledged the previous violations committed during anti-terrorism programs.

Such support for Kenyan anti-terrorism initiatives is hardly novel. Since Kenya committed troops to stabilization efforts in Somalia, both Kenya and Kenyatta’s prestige in the international community have been on the rise. Following the establishment of the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit in 2003, the United States pumped $10 million into the project and has continued to provide funding as a part of the broader American counterterrorism strategy for the continent. Though British and American military leaders were cautious about Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, the initiative has strengthened support for Kenyan anti-terrorism programs. Kenya’s counterterrorism efforts have also benefited the country’s controversial President, Uhuru Kenyatta. Western officials have increasingly overlooked charges of human rights violations brought against Kenyatta, and the United States invited him to the Summit of African leaders in January. In April, Kenyatta was also welcomed at the EU-Africa summit in Brussels. Such receptions undermine the ICC’s investigation into the charges against Kenyatta. The trial, in which Kenyatta is charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly orchaestrating the murders and evictions of ethno-political rivals, has already been delayed three times, and there is significant international support behind Kenyatta’s attempt to have the case against him dismissed.   

Some activists in Kenya argue that Kenyatta is using counterterrorism policy to develop relationships with international donors in order to garner more aid. Former deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Farah Maalim, stated that Kenyatta was using terrorism as “a scapegoat to seek Western validation and support.” Maalim and those who agree with his assessment argue that western donors are less likely to criticize Kenyatta if he is a partner in the global war on terror. Realizing this, they argue that Kenyatta inflates the threat of terrorism in order to demonstrate his willingness to cooperate with Western donors.  Certainly, Kenyatta’s reputation as being “tough on terror” has contributed to his popularity abroad, though it is perhaps unfair to suggest that international prestige is his primary concern. 

Al-Shabaab’s threats to Kenya should not be underestimated. Since 2012, at least 76 people have died and more than 220 have been injured by grenades or small explosives. However, the Kenyan government’s approach to terrorism constitutes a serious threat to liberty. Throughout history, nations have struggled to find a balance between guarding the liberty of their citizens and providing them with protection against security threats. It is clear that the Kenyan government has not properly calibrated its response to the threat posed by al-Shabaab. The government’s emphasis on the threat of terrorism to snuff domestic dissent and secure international support makes the targeting of Somalis and Muslims all the more troubling—it hints at a return to the sort of strongman rule common to Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, Kenyatta’s success in earning resources and support from the international community has come at the cost of bypassing the law and persecuting vulnerable communities in Kenya. Recognizing the threats posed by the government’s counterterrorism program, Kenyans have protested the Eastleigh raids with the twitter handle #kasaraniconcentrationcamp, referencing the detention of suspects in the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi. Dr. Qarashad (twitter handle @howartz) coldly summarized the effects of the government’s response: “If terrorism is using violence and fear of violence to achieve political ends then Eastleigh is terrorized.” 

Image via Zegabi, East Africa News

Hilary Matfess is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, pursuing a degree in International Economics and African Regional Studies. Her primary focus is modern African political economies. Follow her on twitter @HilaryMatfess