After being beaten bloody by the Somali terror group — whose members sauntered through a mall shooting shoppers and slaughtered students at a university — Kenya is finally learning how to fight the extremists.
Even though Al-Shabaab has dealt Kenya its worst military defeats on record in early 2016 and again in early 2017, when it breached the security of KDF ( Kenya defence Forces ) bases inside Somalia and massacred service personnel, the group’s ability to carry out attacks further from the border is a lot less today than three years ago. Global Terrorism Database statistics show terror attacks reduced by more than three quarters in 2015 from the previous year.
According to the Kenyan National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) incidents have gone down even further in recent times with most of them taking place in towns bordering Somalia.
Some 1,007 Kenyans have been killed in terrorism incidents between 2008 and October 2016 year. Between 2008 and July 2015, Kenya experienced 340 terrorist attacks by local and international perpetrators, 986 deaths and at least 1,520 injuries, according to US-based National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Kenya experienced three attacks with 21 deaths after July 2015, an analysis of media reports shows.
The war is by no means won however, infact, the region bordering Somalia in North Eastern Kenya has seen a recent spike in low scale attacks. But days when they threw grenades into buses and churches and put the country under siege appear behind us. So what has worked?
First, fighting terrorism has become the business of all armed services — police, prison warders, game rangers and, particularly, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and its shadowy intelligence resources whose methods are reportedly brutal but effective.
Secondly, there seems to have been a realisation that it is not good having agencies working at cross-purposes and, at times, shooting one another.
Kenyan security forces had, in the immediate aftermath of the September 2013 Westgate Mall terror attack , been blamed for lacking coordination, giving the Islamist militants room to operate. The most notable blunder resulted from a misunderstanding between the elite Reconnaissance (Recce) Squad of the General Service Unit (GSU) and the KDF, who were called in to end the siege. The Recce Squad was forced to withdraw after several friendly fires directed at them, injured several officers. “What has helped the most is the improved coordination between the security agencies and intelligence-driven operations,” said Mr Martin Kimani, the director of NCTC.
Third, security managers have realised that it is all very well to out-gun the terrorists; but it is also vital to out-smart them too. Mr Kimani said it took a lot of research to reduce the number of attacks. “Today, the security forces are well coordinated and base their operations on intelligence,” said Mr Kimani. “We are now focusing on disrupting, preventing and deterring terror activities rather than reacting to them.”
The NCTC is an organ of the National Security Advisory Committee (NSAC), a coordinating agency for all counter-terrorism efforts. The Inspector-General of Police, Chief of Defence Forces and Director of Intelligence, as well as the Cabinet Secretary and the Principal Secretary in the Interior Ministry, are its members.
Once intelligence on plans and threats is gathered, NCTC advises NSAC to act upon it so as to deter terror activities.
Previously, there was always buck passing between the National Intelligence Service and police with NIS claiming to have provided information which could have been used to prevent attacks and the police denying getting it.
Other factors include the realisation that terrorism is not just an invasion but also very much a local insurgency and that community level intelligence gathering and action to prevent radicalisation of youth, as well as to rehabilitate those radicalised, are essential.
Additionally, anti-money laundering laws are not only an inconvenience to corruption barons moving their loot around; they have also complicated the funding of terrorism.
“Terrorism is a global problem and Kenya’s geographical proximity to Somalia and makes it more vulnerable to terror attacks than some other countries,” Mr Kimani said.
The former diplomat added that, initially, there was a notion that KDF’s involvement in Somalia, under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), had escalated the attacks in Kenya. “Terrorists’ idea is to fight democracy, and whether or not our troops are there, they would still fight with an aim of creating an extremists’ caliphate and spreading hatred,” said Mr Kimani.
NCTC, he said, had developed a counter-terrorism database, has been involved in several research activities and was engaged in a soft war against terrorism.
“The research recommends several forms of training, partnerships and other activities that have helped in the fight,” said Mr Kimani. “We involve priests, clerics and communities where several ideas and concerns are shared.”
Just a few months ago, for example, Mr Kimani hosted a cleric from the United Kingdom who held talks with Muslim leaders in the country with the aim of taming radicalisation among the youth.
The centre was also behind the rehabilitation of Al Shabaab returnees from Somalia after Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery extended an amnesty to youth who wished to be reintegrated into the society after being radicalised.
A source at the ministry revealed that more than 600 youth, especially in Mombasa, had been rehabilitated and financially empowered through the programme so that they may improve their economic status.
The ministry’s spokesman, Mr Mwenda Njoka, said the change of guard in regional, national and county agencies and administrative bodies charged with national security had also improved the results of the war on terror.
“Community policing, commonly known as Nyumba Kumi, has also played a big role in several parts of the country,” said Mr Njoka. “There is a lot of communication between the security agencies and the community coordinators.
“This has helped to pinpoint planners and perpetrators of terror activities. It has also helped to identify possible sleeper cells at the grassroots.”
He said inter-governmental approach to terrorism as a form of transnational crime was also being treated as an important tool in fighting terrorism. “Terrorism and radicalisation — like drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering and cybercrime — is conducted across nations and it affects not only one country,” said Mr Njoka. “With movement of intelligence and strategies between nations, it is easier to detect and track perpetrators of these forms of crime as the perpetrators move from state to state.”
Besides intelligence chiefs from African countries under the auspices of the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (Cissa) and periodic information sharing, several other security agencies and bodies drawn from the continent operate together to fight terrorism.
The East African Standby Force (EASF) is one of the organisations formed under the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) to enhance peace and security across the continent. The force comprises the military, police and civilians drawn from human rights groups and civil administrations in member states who are ready to respond to crises in the region at any time.
The then National Police Service spokesman George Kinoti noted that enhanced border patrols and better equipping of police had improved their efficiency in fighting terror.
“Increased funding to the service enabled the police to have better equipment, get increased intelligence and be more efficient in response to terrorism,” said Mr Kinoti.
He said intelligence has led to taming of sleeper cells and monitoring, arresting and confiscating the weapons of perceived terrorists.
“Once intelligence is gathered, it is handed confidentially to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU), the military, the Border Patrol Unit and the Flying Squad,” said Mr Kinoti. “All the coordination is done from the Office of the Inspector-General of Police.”
NSAC is in charge of coordinating the movement of intelligence and how it is acted upon, he added.
“Apart from coordination, several police officers have been put on training, considering that tactics applied by the terrorists keep changing fabric from time to time,” said Mr Kinoti. “Different units have undergone training in Kenya and outside the country.”
Officers from the ATPU have been deployed to several parts of the northeastern region, which is close to Somalia. They have been deployed to different bases to ease and sharpen operations — unlike before, when forces had to be transported from Nairobi to areas where there were attacks.
They are supplemented by officers from the Kenya Prisons Service, and rangers from Kenya Wildlife Services and Kenya Forestry Reserve, who have been gazetted and trained to perform duties of police officers to help in the fight against terrorism.
Mr Kinoti said there has also been improved equipping of the forces with infrared equipment, Armoured Personnel Carriers, Helicopters and more lethal light weapons so as to counter terrorism faster and more safely.
“The National Financial Reporting Centre has through the ‘Know your Customer’ also played a big role, by detecting and investigating financiers of terrorism,” Mr Kinoti said.
The fight against terrorism however has not been rosy with challenges such as radicalisation taking root in parts of the country.“The extremists target vulnerable youth and with the availability of internet, they are easily lured, and sometimes it is hard to detect them,” Mr Kinoti said.
He said another big challenge was the porous borders where terrorists manage to get into the country, sometimes undetected.“We also face a lot of challenges with the judicial systems where the laws sometimes favour the terror suspects such that when they are released on bond, they manage to tamper with investigations or even proceed with their crimes,” he said, adding that unlike other forms of crimes, terrorists do not mind facing death, and so they prefer killing more people before they are stopped.