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Kenya’s Battle Against Terrorism

With the world’s attention focusing on recent terrorist attacks in Nigeria it is easy to forget that other African countries also struggle with terrorism and extremist Islamist groups.


The past weeks have been intense for ethnic Somalis in Kenya with illegal Somali immigrants being deported, the movement of Somali refugees being restricted and many arrests of Somalis taking place. These actions were taken by the Kenyan government after several terrorist attacks in the country conducted by Al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamist militant group affiliated with Al-Qaeda since February 2012. The Kenyan government claims that Somali communities and refugees within the country are serving as a hideout and breeding place for extremism linked to Al-Shabaab.

Kenya decided to send troops into Somalia due to the increase in cross-border attacks and after aid workers and tourists were kidnapped in October 2011. In retaliation Al-Shabaab announced that they would take the conflict to the streets in Kenya. Since then, Kenya’s security situation has worsened with over 50 attacks taking place so far.

Major past attacks & on going issues

Even before 2011, the number of terrorist attacks in Kenya has been on the rise since the late 1990s. The situation started to deteriorate in 1998 when Kenya became the centre of attention for international terrorism due to the bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi in which over 200 people died. In 2002 an Israeli hotel was targeted in Mombasa leading to 13 deaths. Al-Qaeda terrorists were behind both attacks, and although their main targets were Americans and Israelis, it was the local Kenyans paid the highest price in terms of lives lost and injuries sustained.

But since Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011, attacks against civilians within the country have intensified. Attacks are usually carried out using grenades and improvised bombs, with public spaces, churches, pubs, bus stations, shopping centres and military sites in and around Nairobi and Mombasa being the main targets.

The first attacks began on the 24th of October, when a grenade was thrown into a bar and on a separate occasion in a bus terminal leading to six death in total. On the 12th of March 2012 a bus station was targeted in a second attack, killing six people. In May 2012, a bomb was placed in a shopping mall injuring 30 people.  In July 2012, masked gunmen attacked two churches killing 17 people in total.

The worst of these attacks occurred in September 2013, when Al-Shabaab militants seized the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi killing over 60 people, making it one of the deadliest attacks in Kenya, second only to the 1998 embassy bombing. The militants demanded the removal of Kenyan forces in Somalia.

Cultural Context

There are three main factors often cited as the reason for Kenya being a target for international terrorism: the country’s close relationship with Israel and the west; its predominantly beach-focused tourism industry which is at odds with the local Muslim culture; and its majority Christian population which is seen as obstructing the ‘Islamisation’ of Eastern Africa.

Kenya is also an easy target given its geographically strategic position relative to Europe and Asia, compounded by a lack of border policing leaving the country open to unstable neighbouring countries such as Somalia and Sudan. Other reasons given for how terrorists have been able to operate in Kenya include the country’s fairly open and multicultural society, its relatively advanced regional economy and infrastructure, considerable Muslim population, and socially and economically deprived costal regions.

Besides the obvious effect of causing injury and death to innocent citizens, terrorist attacks in Kenya have also had a negative effect on the country’s economy and society. Kenya’s tourism industry has been particularly badly affected, and relations between the Christian and Muslim populations have become increasingly tense. Terrorist activity has also resulted in a gradual degradation of Kenya’s sovereignty and its citizen’s rights.

Governmental efforts at countering terrorism

Currently Kenya depends on a legislative, social and diplomatic approach to the issue of terrorism. Among these approaches is the anti-terrorist legislation, enhanced security patrols performed by police and military forces, and social outreach and peace talks with Somalia and Sudan.

Since the 1998 terrorist attacks, Kenya has been developing a legal and official framework to fight its terrorist problem. For several years the parliament has been debating an anti-terrorism bill, but due to political and religious differences it has yet to be approved into law.

However, an Anti-terrorism Police Unit was established in 2003 as well as a National Counter-Terrorism Centre. This Centre was subsequently replaced in 2013 with the help of UK funding by a larger building with several holding cells, rooms for interrogation, cutting edge technology for conducting operations and inquiries, updated communications systems and detectors for explosives and detonators.

On the 10th of April 2014, Kenya’s transport minister Michael Kamauannounced that airport security at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) would be improved by the introduction of new security facilities and increasing the number of paramilitary patrols.

Kenya’s newest measures to combat terrorism focus primarily on screening Somali communities in Nairobi and uncovering Al-Shabaab militants who hide amongst the large refugee community.

Non-governmental efforts at countering terrorism

The Kenyan government, along with many NGOs, recognise the importance of creating a counter-radicalisation policy to stop young people from joining violent groups. In order to achieve this, some NGOs suggest that the Kenyan government should do more to encourage economic empowerment amidst marginalised communities. Tom Mboya, founder of the Inuka Kenya trust NGO created in 2009 dedicated to encouraging young Kenyans to improve their lives, says that now is the time to engage them and that: “they’re what should be the engine of this country,”

Abdikadir Sheikh, an employee of local NGO Sustainable Support and Advocacy Programme, mentions that they set up an experimental project to deter youths from entering extremist groups in the towns of Dadaab and Garissa: “We are very careful or [we could] lose our lives; you can’t confront radicalization directly – you need different approaches…We have established a strong team of more than 600 youths… some have so far joined colleges. We plan to work with the county governments.”

US efforts in Kenya’s fight against terrorism

Kenya is an important regional American ally in the “war on terror”. The country has been receiving aid through the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism program from Washington since 2003. Robert Godec, the US Ambassador to Kenya stated that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is collaborating with security forces in Kenya to help tackle the terrorist threat.

Kenya is amongst the top five recipients of State Department Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) financial assistance worldwide. It supports programmes that focus on law enforcement, as well as security of borders and coastal regions. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service in 2013, “ATA funds support counterterrorism training for the Kenyan Police, and have averaged $8 million annually in recent years”

*Cover image ‘ a column of Al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia’ by Abayomi Azikiwe


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