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.


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.

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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.

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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


The Day of the Rangers: Ghosts of Mogadishu


The bloody events witnessed since the scenes in Kenya’s Westgate Mall re-opened the debates of the well-known but emerging threat of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization and in my mind summed up the problems left behind in Somalia twenty years ago by the United States and the United Nations peacekeeping forces.

Twenty two years of civil war and counting since the ousting of Siad Barre in 1991, descent into inter-clan, famine and political warfare that is at times incomprehensible to understand on the diplomatic table, Somalia is the standardized example of reference to a failed state. It was from this lawlessness that pervaded Somalia, that al-Shabaab emerged, and the chaos that was permitted to continue was allowed by none other than the Western powers in the 1990s who turned their back on Somalia, unable to confront their own incompetence in handling the humanitarian crisis all those years ago.

This can directed in particular at the United States and the Secretariat General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Secretary General of the United Nations) who failed to understand the civil war, Somalian culture and its history which, when allied with the inflexible bureaucratic nature within which the U.N operated at the time, would lead to unparalleled consequences for the continent of Africa.

On the evening of October 4th 1993, the sun set ending a two day battle of intense brutality, blood and death in the streets of Mogadishu. This was nothing new, for several years now Mogadishu had been a battleground fought over by warring gangs, illegitimate governments, militia and clans reducing one of the most beautiful cities in Africa to rubble. This time however the context and impact of the day reverberated across the world. Eighteen U.S soldiers were dead, eighty more were critically wounded or suffering and between 1,500 – 3000 Somalians littered the streets of the capital.

Operation Gothic Serpent though a tactical victory, was a Pyrrhic victory, the cost too high for the Clinton administration to tolerate and for the U.N’s strategic and humanitarian objectives. The result was the consequential failure of ‘Operation Restore Hope’ and UNOSOM all of which had been supported by the previous President Bush in December 1992 and the withdrawal of all peacekeeping forces. Following the battle, President Clinton ordered for a full withdrawal and that all military actions to be ceased on October 6th. Clinton called for a full withdrawal by 31st Match 1994. Conforming to this request, most troops were out of the country by March 1994. U.S actions promptly gutted UNOSOM resulting in the abandonment of the peacekeeping mission under Chapter VII of the U.N Charter.

It is undoubtedly clear the sheer magnitude of the task facing the U.N in addressing the humanitarian crisis and civil war in Somalia. Operations to force a political agreement between rivals warlords, gangs and clans was an impossible task, the result of the U.N’s bureaucratic peacekeeping structure which had been moulded by Cold War, rather than post-Cold War situations. The U.N was not simply ready to deal with this sort of a conflict. As Mary Harper contends ‘one of the most important is that the Somali clans…were fluid and ambiguous’ the clan serving as a formidable obstacle to the formation of a stable, modern nation-states.

‘Alliances between these almost infinitely divisible groups shift frequently, making it very difficult for outsiders to understand what is going on. A seemingly united clan can split into two or more sub-clans, which turn on each other’

Each country in Africa maintains different internal relationships and Somalia’s borders are simply a European carving, and although the emergence of al-Shabbab has somewhat diluted the concept of the clan theory, it remains an important consideration to how Somalia operates. Certainly in 1991-1993, many officials, namely Boutros Ghal,i clearly illustrated the lack of understanding of this system as did U.S policymakers. Mohamed Sahnoun dismissal as head of UNOSOM in October 1992 represented this, a month before the UN and Western powers, unnerved by the horrific stats (300,000 dead by famine, 3000 dying a day), the continued seizure of food aid, and the death of NGO and U.N officials enforced more aggressive policies towards aggressors and neutrals on the ground .

Sahnoun in difficult circumstances worked assiduously to gain the trust of different fiefdoms earning the respect of both Somalis and the international aid community. Martin Merdith quotes Somali Hussein Mursal who praised Mohamed Sahnoun; ‘He was the first who came and saw there were alternatives, he was the first to meet the elders of the Hawiye clans, the neutral clans, who are not involved in the fighting…He used to reason like Somalis.’

Yet despite the progress he made in securing the trust of the Somali factions, he was dismissed by Boutros Ghali for his complaints that the United Nations and the international community were failing to heed the very real humanitarian plight in Somalia. Pragmatism and important small details, the most important link to understanding the cobweb of Somali culture and society was replaced for an overbearing grandiose approach preferred by Boutros-Ghali, the latter of which lacked the personnel, resources and realism to be deployed successfully and without  excess casualties. This was reflected in forceful intervention, the deployment of over 28,000 troops in Somalia in response to plight of thousands of refugees seen starving on CNN.

All in all only 10,000 lives were saved by the US forces, and their response to the murder of twenty-six Pakistani U.N soldiers significantly escalated their direct involvement in the conflict which they did not understand. Their blame for the massacre fell on Aideed and the hunt culminated in the events at Mogadishu in October, the U.N and Western powers now regarded by neutral Somalis as an enemy rather than an ally, particularly after indiscriminate bombing and attacks on towns by U.S Cobras.


After the battle of Mogadishu, an daylight raid which had culminated in the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters, the deaths of eighteen and the wounding of seventy three U.S soldiers. The Clinton administration decided that enough was enough, that another Vietnam and the gruesome parading of dead U.S soldiers on the streets of Mogadishu was a step too far in humanitarian intervention. Vietnam for starters concerned solely American interests in containing ‘communist expansion’ and secondly what kind of humanitarian intervention isn’t expected to make sacrifice for a greater cause.

Finally, the parading of dead American soldiers on CNN for the whole world to see, a brutal act carried out by angry mobs, the hatred shown towards the Pakistani soldiers who were mutilated and butchered, the hostility towards the U.N and American soldiers was a direct result of their inability to conduct operations in a humanitarian and pragmatic way.

‘The Day of the Rangers’ was celebrated by Somalis as the day rag-tag militias won the battle against the world’s most powerful army leaving them and their peacekeeping forces fleeing in humiliation. Boutros-Ghali veiled over tiny details replacing them with grand ideas that simply could not work in civil war, which to be fair was a product of the lack of understanding of the new post-Cold War period.

UNOSOM II and UNITAF are lessons that can be learned by states, global organizations and the United Nations in how not to conduct/enforce a peacekeeping population in a country ripped apart by civil strife. This is not simply eluding to the logistical difficulties facing the peacekeeping forces, nor the failure of the U.N to operate as a coercive unit (allowing the U.S to operate almost unilaterally in the stages before Operation Gothic Serpent), but also to the moral and humanitarian failure to the Somali people.

I say moral failures under the illusion that the nation states and politicians contributing to the peacekeeping forces entered Somalia considering the lives of their soldiers more valuable than the lives of the Somali people, an inexcusable idea to carry into a humanitarian operation. This attitude pervaded operations in Bosnia and escalated in Rwanda where Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda), was told by a U.S official at the White House at the end of the Rwandan genocide that it would take the deaths of 85,000 Rwandans to justify the risking of the life of one American soldier and to have intervened in the butchery of eight-hundred thousand to a million Tutsi and Hutu moderates.

That is roughly ten soldiers, whilst the Belgians insisted that, after losing ten soldiers in the early stages of the genocide conducted by Hutu Power, MRND and the Interahamwe that the lives of Rwandans were not worth risking one more Belgian soldier. France’s role in the Rwandan genocide was not even bystander, they were strongly aligned with (and still refuse to admit) the Hutu-led government of Juvenal Habyarimana arming and training the Presidential guard and supplying the militia with the means to exterminate the Tutsi’s and Hutu moderates.

The disaster of Mogadishu had terrible consequences for Rwanda

A startling change in attitudes and an eye-opening day once again into how the U.S.A conducts it foreign policy repeatedly emphasizing a need to adhere to ‘national/self-interest’, with a narrow minded attitude of how to solve a civil conflict and divided societies whether it be Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda (the latter of which the U.S was non-existent) and even as far back as it attitude to the Turkish committing atrocities against the Armenians in World War 1. Hutu Power in Rwanda before the genocide calculated that the Western powers would not act and would withdraw under the illusion that their soldiers’ lives were too valuable to sacrifice in the name of protecting civilians and humanitarian causes. These subtle calculations were all done under the events of Mogadishu, the previous failures in Somalia by the U.N and Western powers and the reaction of the U.S.A to the loss of their men, which who I like to add were lost under tough conditions doing their duty.

Forty-four plus dead in the UNISOM and as Kofi Annan (former Secretary General of the U.N) branded the ‘Shadow of Somalia’ had shaped this new attitude, the idea that many in the developed world act in a way that indicates that our lives are worth more than the lives of other citizens and people on the planet. This putrid notion unconsciously pervaded the international community by enlarge and has hampered many of the U.N’s operations since.

The warlord era in Somalia was replaced by the emergence of  terrorist cells such as Al-Shabaab, which after the 2006 U.S sponsored Ethiopian invasion declared its presence at an international threat after killing seventy in an attack in Uganda (2010) and an almost equal amount mere weeks ago. The emergence of al-Shabaab and the continuance of twenty three years of civil war, now affecting the entire region is once again another dark legacy left by western politicians in Africa in the 1990s.

This has left them (and rightly so) with their hands tied when it comes to negotiating settlements in former regions and influencing African politics who they first exploited as overlords and then abandoned as humanitarian operators in their hour of need. Somalia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo joined the other countries in Africa that continued to be ignored by the world powers in the 1990s. Though they did not take part or bear a large part of the responsibility for the deaths of millions of Somalis, Rwandans and Congolese civilians.

Matthew Williams