The war against terror in Kenya could turn into a success for al Shabaab


THE PAST COUPLE of weeks have seen the government implement the most dramatic combination of an anti-terror operation and a crackdown against illegal immigrants in decades – Operation Linda Usalama.

Broadly it seems aimed at responding the security meltdown underway across the country and more specifically at the threat posed by ‘Islamic extremism’.

This operation has been accompanied by a series of massive sweeps in Nairobi and other towns seeking out illegal immigrants and terrorists supposedly associated with the originally Somali al Shabaab terror group.

Initially, these sweeps were aimed mainly at members of the Somali community and other Muslims in the context of a steadily and intensifying number of terrorist attacks over the past couple of years. By last week security forces were going house-to-house in an invasive (and for many expensive) graduation of the operation.

From grenades being thrown into churches, eateries and matatus killing and wounding a rapidly growing number of innocents; to the discovery of sophisticated improvised explosive devices (one of them in a car parked in a police station after being driven thousands of kilometres from Kismayo to the Coast) – its clear Kenya is under attack. Fear and anger have grown with every attack.

The most shocking was the brazen violent strike on the high-end Westgate Mall in Nairobi last September that resulted in 67 deaths and over 170 injuries. Most of the victims were middle class that lent events a resonance far more profound than would otherwise have been the case.

All this has been accompanied by the extra judicial assassination of some of the more outspoken Coast-based radical Muslim preachers over the same period.


The most recent was the extrajudicial killing on April 1, of the controversial Mombasa preacher, Abubakar Shariff Ahmed aka ‘Makaburi’. In life, Makaburi did little to hide his extreme views and indeed seemed to revel in shocking listeners with them.

He also served another useful purpose: to remind Kenyans that radicalisation is no longer only an external problem ‘imported’ into the country. Makaburi and many of his supporters are very Kenyan indeed.

Events at the Coast over the last year demonstrate we now have a solid cadre of radicalised Kenyan youth. It does to keep in mind that current social economic conditions help feed this trend. And the young radicals are not just Somalis – they are Ali Njoroges, Mohammed Otienos, Abdulkadir Wafulas…

Many Coast residents immediately blamed the assassination of Makaburi on the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit that is said to be heavily funded by the West. Indeed, one narrative on the ground, is of the existence of a sort of ‘hit squad’ that is responsible for a range of killings and disappearances of individuals deemed to have links with the terrorists. It doesn’t help that whenever one of these killings take place the authorities seem to announce that they are searching for suspects almost as an afterthought and even then the investigations are half hearted even by our standards.


It was a recent sweep of Somali dominated sections of the cities and towns across the country that moved Kenya’s ‘war against terror’ to a new level. Thousands of mainly Somali residents of sections of the city where they dominate were scooped up in what seemed like a rather indiscriminate dragnet (even little kids were held) and confined at the Safaricom Kasarani Stadium.

All throwing up a host of questions about the constitutionality of the exercise. Such use of a stadium is new to us. It reportedly forced the government to gazette the entire stadium a police post after the fact on the 9th of April though this Gazette Notice has been hard to track down.

It was the slightly bungling and hubristic Westgate-like characteristics of the operation that caused scepticism about its true objectives. It forced the questions as to whether this was an anti-illegal immigrant operation aimed at Somalis (because we didn’t initially see many non-Somali illegal immigrants also being targeted); or whether it was an anti-terrorism operation has been collapsing in slow motion because of a lack of specific intelligence that would have made for a more refined and targeted approach. Indeed, the assassination of Makaburi and the manner in which Operation Linda Usalama has been rolled out seemed aimed at making our expensive intelligence services look rather irrelevant.

Additionally, asked about the illegal immigrants being deported to Somalia, according to media reports, the head of the country’s immigration agency didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on.


The clunkiness of the current crackdown is curious. Previous similar crackdowns were authoritarian state affairs: highly centralised and with all bureaucratic, police and military hands on deck.

The Wagalla Massacre’s icon is a visitor’s book at he District Commissioner’s office in Wajir that was signed by a cross-section of senior civil servants who showed up in the area ostensibly to make sure government policy was being implemented.

The current sweep is very different: clumsy, in the full glare of the digital age’s media. The current regime’s deepening crisis with regard to corruption means that every policy initiative carries a deadweight of kickbacks born of the dictum that ‘for every need there is a corresponding greed’.


For over a year it has been clear the Jubilee government does not have a foreign policy per se. It had an ‘ICC policy’. This in turn defines Kenya’s relationship with the rest of the world.

This ICC policy has been robust, proactive and clearly consumed all the best brains around the President and Deputy President who are defendants before the ICC.

Over the past few weeks this has changed dramatically and our foreign policy now has a second pillar – the ‘war against terror’. And by war against terror I mean the muscular eye-for-an-eye variety of this policy that has overtaken the softer, light footprint, shadowy approach that had been Kenya’s defacto modus since al Qaeda bombed the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998 and until our troops invaded Somalia in 2011.


One of the unintended consequences of the Rambo approach to the so-called war against terror has ironically been to undermine the very foundations on which the mature democracies that wage it are built.

For the US it has meant Guantanamo Bay, ‘black sites’, executive renditions, officially sanctioned torture such as waterboarding, the lie of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the arming of tribal militias, drones blowing up terror suspects with a huge amount of ‘collateral damage’, the Abu Gharib scandal and as Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have revealed – a steady and consistent erosion of the liberties and freedoms that Americans enjoy and that many in the rest of the world admire and envy them for. Indeed, the Afghan and Iraqi misadventures have done much to undermine the moral authority of the US globally. ‘The war on terror’ eats the rights and freedoms of a people for breakfast, lunch and supper.


The Kenyan middle class has been broadly supportive of the security operation underway. This is informed in part by the dramatic decline in overall security over the past year.

It is also true that there are many Christians keen to see a more forceful response to the recent spate of terror attacks than has been apparent. There is also a powerful nervousness that as al Shabaab increases its attacks on Kenyan soil, our current government doesn’t have the grip on national security to deal with matters within the confines of our new constitution.

The fear is our terror problem has not only localised, it has less to do with illegal immigration than it has to do with corruption allowing in terrorists and eroding the capacity of expensive national institutions to grapple with the problem.

And so, even though there was a feeling among many that ‘they need to be hit hard’ the Safaricom Kasarani Stadium internment camp was also the cause of deep disquiet forcing important questions: ‘What are the implications of all this on our basic rights and freedoms?

To what extent will this war against terror undermine our constitution? Does the kind of ethnic and religious profiling we have seen threaten to become normalised with all the wretched implications that will have for national cohesion?;

Is this entire exercise also a cynical attempt to reset relations with the West at the price of ruining the historically tolerant relations between Christians and Muslims in Kenya?

So too in Kenya, despite our new dispensation, we have witnessed executive renditions, extrajudicial killings, ethnic and religious profiling by the security services and generally a range of muscular actions that are inimical to the progressive constitution we passed.

This has served to increase the potential for sectarian problems in the previously religiously tolerant Kenya. It is also utterly confusing, for example, why Makaburi was assassinated when in his speeches he had spouted enough venomous hate to deal with him using our judiciary very effectively.

For some at the core of the Jubilee regime, for whom these freedoms are ill-disposed to their political and, importantly, their economic interests, the war against terror is perfect cover to stymie hard won freedoms and responsibilities so that a few can harden their grip on power, deepen impunity and make a pile of money at the same time.

The deterioration in the security situation has hit the middle class in Kenya particularly hard. Even the regime’s most ardent supporters have had to accept that thus far many of its top officials are unwilling or unable to coherently deal with the problem.

Worse still, they’ve had to come to terms with what is – anecdotally – deepening of corruption in the institutions at the forefront of our war against terror.

This has meant that the current approach has undermined social cohesion while its benefits vis-à-vis the fight against terror are far from guaranteed.

Perhaps more introspection will help: ‘why are so many young Kenyans attracted by an ideology that causes them to engage in or celebrate despicable crimes committed against fellow Kenyans?’

The answer should inform how we go about our war against terror otherwise we shall find ourselves at war with ourselves. For al Shabaab this would be a tremendous success.

Already we should admit they have won the first round by getting us to round up people on the basis of ethnicity and confine them to a stadium; as well as security officers going house-to-house in entire estates making a mockery of our constitutional right to privacy as Kenyans.

This article was first published in the Kenyan Star on the 19th of April

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