The Fallacy of Kenyan Counterterrorism Operations

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Strategies for pursuing terrorist cells and insurgent groups in weak African states are still in their infancy. However the shocking disregard for human rights of minority populations by governments’ is a factor that is bound to complicate the search for liberty and security for countries in Africa involved in the Global War on Terror (“GWOT”).

Recent efforts by the Kenyan government to bolster its national security by conducting military operations  throughout Somalia since 2011 and its  harsh use of counterterrorism strategies  have not only failed to achieve their objectives, but have inadvertently exposed the vulnerability of the country’s governance and security institutions and infrastructure. Undoubtedly, Kenya does not have the financial muscle and infrastructural backbone to participate in the GWOT as a partner, unless it chooses to enroll as a proxy of the Western powers – something which it has already done – in order to benefit from funds availed to ‘surrogate’ states.

However, the approach that has been adopted by the Kenyan government to collectively target its minority Muslim population by ignoring its socially-contracted responsibilities and respect for the rule of law have become troubling and counterproductive. Specifically, the path that Kenya has chosen to follow in its counterterrorism operations has not only conflated historical injustices perpetrated by previous regimes on its marginalised minority populations with its current human rights abuses, it has re-opened ethnic and political fractures in Kenya. The strategies adopted by the government indicate that little has been done to counter-act or prepare for the spill-over and consequences likely to stem from the country’s involvement in a brutal asymmetrical war. The false promise that al-Shabaab will be crushed by a battalion of Kenya Defence Forces – infamously implicated in the lucrative Somali charcoal business in Kismayo – and antagonising the Somali and Muslim minorities in Kenya through extrajudicial killings and disappearances of Muslim clerics and faithfuls perceived to be radicals is not only misleading, but dangerously oversimplified strategically. The behaviour of the government in pursuit of its security obligations ought not to mirror the dehumanising excesses of a morally bankrupt terror outfit, but act as a responsible government aware of its mandate.

The recent admission by the United Kingdom’s former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that misrepresented intelligence and planning errors was to blame for the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and a candid statement by the foreign minister of Uganda, Sam Kutesa, that military solutions are not enough to tackle the rising tide of radicalisation and terrorism in Africa should serve as a stark reminder to Kenya about government operations in Somalia.

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When Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011, it had unwittingly entered into an endless cycle conflict which has been misunderstood by nearly all policymakers. By choosing to pursue al-Shabaab in its heartland on the back of a ragtag tribal militia – the Ras Kamboni Brigade spearheaded by Sheikh Ahmed Islam Madobe – without paying attention to the consequences likely to stem from engaging this indistinct enemy in a brutal asymmetrical war, there was every indication that Kenya was punching above its own weight.

What remains unclear is the motives which prompted the country to decisively act and how it envisioned realising this mission after accomplishing its strategic goals. Indisputably though, it was clear from the outset that the Kenyan government could not commit to a long-drawn battle against al-Shabaab’s insurgency on its own terms, given its rudimentary war chest. Since this incursion was based on a unilateral decision without the blessings of either the United Nations or the African Union, there was no doubt that the financial cost of the war on terror was going to burden the country’s fledgling economy, which was still recovering from the aftershocks of the post-election violence of 2007-2008.

Nevertheless, there were multiple factors motivating Kenya’s military campaign. The Kenyan government’s intention to firmly align its interests with those of other states in the GWOT was poised to benefit the country by securing its borders and salvaging its economy – especially its tourism industry – from the reverberations of sporadic attacks by criminal elements from Somalia. Strategically, this undertaking also deliberately aimed at ensuring Kenya’s gains from streams of funds and resources available to proxy states in the fight against terror.

Navigating through Somalia’s clan-based politics, where shifts in dynamics and allegiances are unpredictable and confusing, was never going to be straightforward. Fighting alongside the Ras Kamboni Brigade alone compromises Kenyan credibility as a neutral actor in many quarters in Somalia. Similarly, there is little evidence to suggest any unity of purpose among the various state and non-state actors in Somalia. Somalia, as a theatre of war, is becoming overcrowded with actors out to pursue unilateral interests and in the process undermining each other. This is an extension of a problem that was manifest during the days of Operation Restore Hope – a factor that General Farah Aideed exploited dexterously to neutralise the United States and the UN. Somalia has also developed a concealed but elaborate political economy of war that has become malignant and capable of crushing competing forces out to change the status quo. Almost all contributing countries with forces in Somalia have wrestled with the challenge of their soldiers falling prey to the lucrative imperceptible network of the clandestine war economy.

This partly explains why defeating al-Shabaab in Jubaland has become a tough proposition for the Kenyan Defence Forces. These are some of the bottlenecks and strategic challenges which Kenya has to consider. On the other hand, the insecurity levels in northern Kenya have statistically shown, according to recent studies by the UN, to be claiming more civilian lives than the violence of al-Shabaab. Whether Kenya’s operation in Somalia is an existential threat to the country is debatable because of this.  Although the insecurity in northern Kenya is cumulatively destabilising in the long-term, the violence of al-Shabaab seems to be economically damaging and divisive in the short-term.

Image via The Guardian

Domestically Kenyan policymakers have embarked on an exercise of upgrading their lethal counter-terrorism measures in line with the intrusive expansion of the U.S military footprint and drone wars in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to fight insurgent groups.  These U.S drone wars, predominantly concentrated in Somalia and Yemen, have been conducted by the Obama administration and the CIA to hunt down and kill individuals deemed – through secret processes, without indictment or trial – worthy of elimination. These extra-judicial killings have, according to an internal 2013 Pentagon study, been carried out by secretive military unit Task Force 48-4 which wages a covert war throughout East Africa from outposts in Nairobi, Kenya and Sanaa,Yemen.  Camp Lemonnier, the main hub for these operations in the Horn of Africa, is the U.S military’s most active Predator drone base outside the war zone of Afghanistan.

These drone wars have been conducted in coordination with Kenyan forces providing information, intelligence and ground support to strike Al-Shabaab’s leadership. However, these drones, as with the Kenyan government’s security apparatus, remain a tool, not a strategy to effectively tackle the rising wave of terrorism in the region. It poorly addresses the symptoms of the conflict and neglects its root-causes in Somalia and its appeal to the marginal populations in Kenya. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S drone strikes are raising al-Shabaab’s profile and inflating its importance in Somalia. Similarly, according to Mary Harper, financial inducements used by military personnel to extract information on the whereabouts of al-Shabaab’s leadership is not appealing to the local populations for fear of reprisals from the group.

Equally these targeted killings have had immense limitations as innocent civilians have frequently been accidentally killed alongside specific targets. This was illustrated by the collateral damage of an airstrike in Dinsoor (January, 2015) which killed nine civilians as well as Yusuf Dheeq, al-Shabaab’s head of external operations.  The United States’ covert wars in Somalia has had the multiplying effect of propelling anti-American narratives and the Kenyan government has, inadvertently, fallen prey to the accusations of being a Western pawn. Likewise, the wider regional project of the Obama administration has filtered into Kenyan politics and has given the Kenyan government the impetus to disregard the international law and respect for human rights as exemplified by the abuses perpetrated by its security forces and intelligence operatives.

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These problems have been aggravated the Western-funded Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) which has carried out a string of target killings, abductions and torture (including waterboarding, electric shocks, mock executions, and food or sleep deprivation) of perceived ‘radicals’ and young men (predominantly Muslim) opposed to the government’s treatment of the minority Muslim population and its exclusive knee-jerk reactions to the unfolding events. These actions have been justified under the guise that they support the wider regional and continental war on terror against groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated cells.

Unfortunately, the counterterrorism narrative seems to have overshadowed the Kenyan government’s ability to address the long-standing historical injustices and marginalisation of its minority Muslim population in Kenya. In addition, it has given the state credence to pursue narrow political agendas, defined by tribal and ethnic politics as opposed to broader national interests. This has significantly strengthened al-Shabaab’s propaganda machine, amplified their cause and has appealed to those with short-term and long-term grievances against the Kenyan government to join hands with the insurgent group.

Image via CFR

Centralising terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda as the core military enemy in the Somali borderlands overlooks the positive role that Islam, as a religion, could inject in resolving the problems presented by modern Islamic-related militancy, insurgency and terrorism in the Horn of Africa. These extremist organisations are not monolithic constructs; they are fluid networks with differing methodologies and strategies (both violent and non-violent) to address socio-political problems. The disproportionate focus of the Kenyan administration on al-Shabaab’s operations, prioritising the pursuit of its leadership, shoring up an isolated government in Mogadishu, will not resolve Kenya’s security challenges and does not address the root-causes of problems within its borders.

The Kenyan government need only look at Boko Haram’s insurgency in northern Nigeria as an illustration of the dire consequences of a heavy-handed government crackdown on dissent. While the Nigerian government’s conflict with Boko Haram differs in many ways to the long-term and short-term problems afflicting Kenya, parallels can be drawn, particularly in how government actions could significantly contribute to fanning the flames of war and the process of radicalisation.

As Nigerian Senator, Shehu Sani recently commented: “The root causes of this insurgency was triggered by the killing of leader out the confines of the law and since then we never knew peace.” This extra-judicial killing alluded to by Sani was the murder of Mohammed Yusuf in July 2009. His death was accompanied by Abubakar Shekau assuming command of the organisation who substantially militarised the cause and adopted more brutal tactics to accomplish Boko Haram’s goals which have included kidnappings, mass-killings and suicide bombings which have killed thousands of Nigerian civilians and security forces.

Kenya’s problematic relationship with its North Eastern and Coastal provinces could face a similar bloody outcome should the government continue, as the Nigerian government did, to conduct extra-judicial killings, hollowing out civil society, expending blood and treasure on a prelonged war in Somalia absent a political solution, and economically, politically, and socially marginalising young Muslims and ethnic Somalis in Kenya. The horrifying U.S embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998, the Westgate Mall massacre and the slaughter of university students in Garissa, these events may pale in comparison to the cost of a fully-fledged insurgency and long-term armed conflict in northern Kenya. The Kenyan government and its security apparatus must conduct an comprehensive investigation into the extra-judicial killings of Muslim clerics and youths by bringing the perpetrators of these draconian acts to book. The state should also stop victimising and collectively targeting an entire religion and minority ethnic groups for the criminal action of hell-bent individuals and groups.

Matthew Williams and Mohammud Abdi

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