‘Playing Straight into the Hands of al-Shabab’

Kenya's counterterrorism approach following the Westgate Mall attack is crude -- and may actually be spawning more violence.


NAIROBI, Kenya — At around 7:30 p.m. on March 31, three blasts went off in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood. The explosions, which police say were caused by grenades, killed six and injured around a dozen civilians congregating at two local cafes in the suburban area, which is dominated by ethnic Somalis.

The bombings were only the latest in a spat of terror attacks following the September 2013 siege of Westgate Mall by Somali gunmen, which left 67 people dead. In December, a grenade blast killed four people in Eastleigh. In late March, unidentified gunmen entered a church near the coastal city of Mombasa, killing six. In all, nearly a dozen attacks that bear the marks of al-Shabab, a jihadist group based in Somalia that was responsible for the Westgate attack, have rattled Kenya since last fall.

Police are taking a high-profile approach as they respond to these attacks, detaining thousands of Somalis and Kenyan citizens of Somali heritage. But stops and arrests are not based on intelligence. Rather, police officers simply scour ethnic-Somali neighborhoods, sweeping up civilians from the streets.

Terrorism analysts say this sort of policing may actually be making Kenya less safe. As indiscriminate profiling becomes the fabric of security procedures, hundreds of thousands of Kenyan-Somali Muslims — a group from which al-Shabab affiliates are actively attempting to recruit — have something to be angry about. The government’s ethnic-focused, and often brutal, anti-terror tactics thus may be fueling the very attacks they are meant to suppress.

In response to the March grenade attacks, police indiscriminately picked up thousands of people off the streets of Eastleigh and locked them in a stadium for several days, out of reach of human rights attorneys and the press. An unknown number still remain inside. Such arbitrary detentions are ongoing, according to human rights groups, and they are the most visible incarnation of Kenya’s official response to terrorism post-Westgate. "The Kenyan police want to appear as if they’re doing something," says Stig Hansen, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences who researches terrorism in the Horn of Africa. "To collect a lot of Somalis appears like doing something."

Kenya’s police chief, David Kimaiyo, proclaimed last month that the "war against terrorism is still on, and we are not relenting." But he also has insisted that no profiling, bribery, or unprofessionalism has taken place. 

Countless Eastleigh residents have stories to tell of being stopped or taken captive by police, only to have to buy their freedom. The consequences of nighttime police raids on Eastleigh homes can be even more severe: One woman fell, or was pushed, from a fifth-floor balcony when police entered her home one night. In a separate raid, police took a woman away from her six-month-old baby, who died in her absence. Hundreds of Somalis — including some with legal status as refugees — have been deported altogether.  

Across Nairobi, police killings have reportedly become routine, raising doubts as to the ability or will of authorities to uphold the rule of law, even as they ostensibly go about enforcing it. Security forces have also failed to carry out even the most basic of investigative procedures. On May 4, grenades exploded on two crowded buses in Nairobi, killing three and injuring 62. At a loss to explain the source of the blasts, police responded by criminally charging the bus operators for "failing to prevent a felony."

"Imagine if the FBI’s response to 9/11 was to prosecute the security guards at the World Trade Center," one Somali-Kenyan said to me.

Authorities have done very little to reassure Somali Muslims that their grievances matter. Police in Mombasa have yet to name any suspects in the assassinations of two outspoken, hard-line Muslim clerics. Many Muslims suspect police themselves may be responsible for the killings, which occurred in March and last October, respectively.

Mombasa has long been the country’s hotbed of religious tension between Muslims and Christians. Occasionally that has escalated into violence, and police have often managed to aggravate such episodes. When a gang of Mombasa youth rioted and burned a church following the killing of the first cleric, Kenyan police responded by storming a nearby mosque during prayer time, dragging out worshipers, and beating them with batons.

Collective anger over such incidents may be radicalizing certain individuals here, not only in Mombasa but across the country. Those within Kenya’s ethnic Somali communities say some young Muslims seem increasingly ready to act upon that anger.

"If they feel more pressure than they can take, anything can happen," said Somali-Kenyan journalist and Eastleigh resident Said Hassan Anteno, who interviews victims of police harassment. "When you punch someone, what do you expect? They punch back."

Indeed, several recent terror attacks seem to have specifically targeted the police: In April, a bomb exploded outside a police station, killing two officers. And just last week, gunmen near Kenya’s northern border with Somalia killed three police officers, in addition to nine civilians, in an attack that al-Shabab claimed to have carried out.

This cycle of ill-disciplined policing accelerating anti-state violence isn’t new. When the Islamic Party of Kenya was founded in the 1990s, Kenya’s then-president, Daniel arap Moi, immediately accused the party of "promoting Islamic fundamentalism." Although relatively benign, "the gathering of these Muslims created an almost irrational fear by the government and over the course of the early 1990s, led to numerous violent clashes with police… [and] arguably spread the ideology of extremist views amongst Muslims in Kenya," explains Samuel L. Aronson in a recent paper on Kenya’s failing security.

The spark that ignited Kenya’s current fight with terrorism was Kenya’s 2011 invasion of Somalia in reaction to the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from northern Kenya. Months after the unilateral incursion, Kenyan troops integrated with the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia and advanced as al-Shabab’s leadership abandoned their former stronghold in the town of Kismayo, a strategic port city in southern Somalia.  

But these missions did little to eradicate al-Shabab. As Kenyan soldiers fought a war in Somalia, their enemies came to Kenya. "Al-Shabab is telling Kenya that there’s a price to pay to be involved in Somalia," Hansen said. "It’s not only telling Kenya this through the Westgate attack, but through the over 70 attacks that have taken place since 2011."

The accelerating pace of attacks highlights just how little Kenya’s leaders have done to address some of the nation’s tangible, even obvious, vulnerabilities. For instance, the four Somali gunmen who sieged Westgate are believed to have entered Kenya at the same unsecured border crossing through which illegal weapons used to attack an Israeli-owned hotel and airplane in 2002 were smuggled.

U.S. agencies are trying to strengthen Kenya’s counterterrorism capabilities. The FBI has trained some 800 Kenyan security personnel over the past several years, according to the bureau’s legal attaché in Nairobi, Dennis Brady. During the Westgate attack, the FBI deployed more than 80 officers in Nairobi and has since continued to assist Kenyan authorities in their investigation. 

And yet embarrassments on the part of security forces emerged even before the mall was cleared: Security footage shows ­­­­Kenyan commandos looting the mall while Kenya’s government claimed that the gunmen were still at large. Reporters surveying the carnage found safes whose locks had been shot at and bars whose alcohol had been ransacked. 

For their part, Kenya’s lawmakers haven’t really addressed the myriad accusations of security forces’ unprofessionalism. A 2013 parliamentary report largely whitewashed, despite overwhelming evidence, accusations of looting in Westgate. In March, the Associated Press revealed that Kenya’s anti-terror police unit in Nairobi was operating on a budget of only $735 per month. In comparison, parliamentary salaries and allowances total about $15,000 per month — per representative.

In a popular political stance, lawmakers are demanding the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp, which houses some 400,000 Somali refugees in northern Kenya. Calling the camp "a nursery for terrorists," the head of Kenya’s Parliamentary Committee on National Security, Asman Kamama, said in September 2013 that "the U.N. must now understand the security of Kenyans comes first. Even if it is about human rights, it should not be at our expense."

The sentiment plays well among ordinary Kenyans. More concerning to the broader population than illegal detentions and other human rights abuses of ethnic Somalis is the fact that these police tactics have failed to quell the violence.

But no one in Kenya has more cause for concern than Somali-Muslims themselves: It is the refugee camps, border communities, and urban Somali neighborhoods that, in fact, have been the targets of most terrorist attacks here. "A week and a half ago there was an explosion, and Eastleigh was turned upside down [by police]," said Ahmed Mohamed, an assistant to a parliamentary representative from Eastleigh and a well-known figure here, on May 14. "[A police] operation has been going on for six weeks. And then yet another explosion happens. It’s not working."

Earlier this month two bombs killed at least 10 and injured more than 70 in a crowded market in downtown Nairobi. At that same time, just a short walk away, a cleric in Nairobi’s Jamia Mosque delivered a lecture before hundreds of worshipers, most of them ethnic Somalis. Sheik Mohamoud Shakul urged the crowd to separate religion from politics and to avoid associating with those who might lead them astray from a peaceful interpretation of Islam. "In some communities, ethnic profiling has taken place," he said. "We all know that is happening. I want us to go back to the basics this time."

Sitting in his Eastleigh office a few days earlier, Shakul had warned me that the "actions of the police can radicalize the youth of Kenya against the government." He and other Muslim leaders say they are trying to keep the peace. But their task is being made increasingly difficult by the counterterrorism activities sanctioned by Kenya’s leaders.

"The Kenyan police are playing straight into the hands of al-Shabab," said Hansen. "By inflicting collective punishment, they are again reviving the Muslim sentiment against them."

Jacob Kushner reports on human rights, aid, and foreign investment in Africa and the Caribbean.