Learning from the neighbours: How to win Kenya’s war on terror

By Fredrick Omondi Ochieng’:

Police officers storm the Masjid Musa Mosque and detain alleged jihadist radicals in the Majengo area of Mombasa on 2February 2014. (Getty Images)
Police officers storm the Masjid Musa Mosque and detain alleged jihadist radicals in the Majengo area of Mombasa on 2February 2014.
(Getty Images)

The past few months have seen innocent Kenyans lose lives through increased terrorist activities. The September 2013 attack on Westgate Mall was the grisliest one of all, in which the official government report indicated that four armed terrorists invaded a busy shopping mall, claiming the lives of over sixty people and leaving scores with debilitating injuries. The aftermath of this terror attack and the reaction by the government revealed that terrorists are still very far ahead of security agencies in Kenya. Since then, there have been sporadic attacks in the country targeting innocent citizens in public transport vehicles, hotels, bars and markets, with the latest being the Gikomba market attack on 16th May, 2014.

There are various weaknesses with the government systems that allow such attacks to occur, including within the security apparatus. Inter-ethnic hate and perceptions between Kenyan born Somalis and other Kenyans, as well as the misdirected opinion of the Kenyan president that terrorism is a global phenomenon requiring a global effort rather than Kenya’s sole responsibility, are some of the factors that make the fight against terrorism difficult. By looking at comparative efforts made by Uganda and Ethiopia to scuttle terrorist activities this paper points to the need for the entire overhaul of the Kenyan security system to effectively address the terror problem in Kenya. Kenya can borrow from Uganda and Ethiopia in an effort to reduce the threat of terrorism.

The first question to ask is why Kenya? Why not Ethiopia or Uganda, whose troops are also in Somalia? A definitive answer to that is beyond the scope of this article. However, certain socio-economic and political dynamics could be a contributing factor. Many security sector specialists agree that Kenya’s borders are very porous, owing to crucial Kenyan security organs being mostly concerned with protecting the capital city and not the borderlands. With thousands of kilometers left unprotected due to the army and police prioritizing protection of major security installations and elite residences, the terrorists have been brought closer to the people because those who plan and execute these attacks would simply walk on foot, unchecked, to their destination.

Before terrorism became a major concern for Kenya, the government tended to blame regional insecurity on its neighbours, such as Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia. Refugee flows into the country were claimed to be a major source of insecurity in Kenya. Something that missed security analysis is what roles these refugees could play in agitating the growth of dissidents, unhappy with the way the government has been handling socio-political issues within the country. Right now, those who are being arrested are not from Somalia, but Kenyans who are frustrated by the current deteriorating economic situation.

When the issue of the Mungiki[1] came up a few years ago, the reactionary nature of the government was astonishing. Rather than examine why these groups emerged and try to deal with the root cause, the government chose to ‘cut the tree from the top’, leaving the off-shoots to re-grow into a bigger tree that became very difficult to manage-by executing many Mungiki adherents (action that was criticized by International Human Rights bodies, including Human Rights Watch and the United Nations). This is indicative of what is happening with the current terrorism threats in Kenya.

The government has refused to understand why terrorism is flourishing in Kenya at an alarming rate, and has continued its blame game and actions that only ‘add fertilizer’ to the problem. The first reason why fighting terrorism will be difficult to uproot in Kenya stems from the little support the current government has given to the Inspector General (IG) of Police, David Kimaiyo. In his public mien, Kimaiyo appears a man under siege, a helpless stooge that is destined for failure, who has resorted to giving directives that border on public harassment.[2] The questions are; what have tinted private car windows to do with the security of our borders? I ask that question because, while the president is busy blaming foreign governments for giving travel advice to their citizens visiting Kenya, the IG is busy with triviality like banning tinted windows on private cars; meanwhile, the bomb that was exploded in Gikomba was not even carried in a car. In addition, the public transport vehicles that were hit on Thika road did not have tinted windows. So the problem is not the tinted windows but something else, for example, a lack of preparedness, which the security agents are not focusing on.

The political blame game between the members of ruling Jubilee party and the opposition (CORD party), that ensued after the bombing on Thika road is another factor that provides a reason for the security forces’ lack of focus on how to combat terrorism. The security agents should not be dragged into the political party rivalry between two major political parties in Kenya i.e. Jubilee and Cord Coalitions, as this will only make them lose focus on the fight against terrorism. Because a suspectcalled Onyango or Otieno was arrested with pamphlets indicating that he had planned to carry out an attack on ‘another ethnic community’ is irrelevant. The individuals arrested ought to be treated individually as criminals and not as ‘members of one community planning attacks on another’ as the government is treating those arrested. Nairobi is a cosmopolitan city and no one ethnic group uses one particular vehicle while going back to their places of residence.

The recent arrests made in Eastleigh area of Nairobi, (an estate mostly inhabited by Somalis) which only Somali ethnic persons were targeted with arrests, was one of the worst of the strategies applied by the security agents yet. In an attempt to control the influx of Somali immigrants, the police descended on Eastleigh and arrested every Somali without any identification document (whether Kenyan or refugee, male female or children) caging them in what Human Rights bodies called ‘Concentration Camp’ for immigration verification, meanwhile there are exclusive Somali estates in South B, South C and Hurlingham (estates that were left out during this operation) areas as well. Those who have been radicalized are not only Somalis, but in fact come from across the country. Radicalization is occurring not only among the Somalis, but even Kenyan Youths from non-Somali communities are now being radicalised by al Shabaab. The security agencies have over concentrated their efforts on Eastleigh Estate and neglected other areas of the city, giving a chance for the terrorists to shift to new places like Thika road, Gikomba, Town centre, particularly, on the crowded streets. This action has buttressed the stereotypical belief that terrorists are only Somali people. Kenyans of Somali ethnicity now live in fear as other tribes have become highly suspicious of them. Secondly, the issue of ‘ethnic targeting’ would be misleading as communities live as neighbours. If one community is planning anything against the other, they know their homes and can simply target them there. Disconnect between the police and the citizen is in itself a security threat. In many parts of the world, the positive relationship between the security agents and the citizens works well for the security agents in their attempt to reduce insecurity. The communities are the eyes and the informants of security forces. There are no security cameras installed anywhere, but citizens could report on suspicious people living amongst them, were the relationship between the police and the citizens were not so strained. Even in developed societies, with CCTV everywhere, community liaison is still the primary investigative tool whenever crime occurs. The Kenyan case is different, in that as soon a citizen reports to the police, they themselves become the suspects. Kenyans have learned never to report any crime witnessed or anyone who is about to commit a crime.

How have Uganda and Ethiopia dealt with terrorist acts?

Ethiopia has its soldiers in Somalia and has not been hit with terrorism to a level equal to Kenya. According to reliable government reports, Ethiopia has put in place a tough and reliable security apparatus to deal with both internal and external aggression. Although considered as draconian legislation, the anti-terrorism law in Ethiopia has so far fended off terrorism from external borders and from within. When Ethiopia joined the USA in the fight against terrorism, by aiding the USA to counter the influence of Al-Qaeda fighters in Somalia, internal terrorist groups opposed to this action emerged in Ethiopia, forcing the US and some Western nations to close their embassies in Ethiopia (Shinn, 2003).[3] However, Ethiopia has a counterterrorist plan and actions that seek to integrate all the functions of the federal police (EFP), the courts and the citizens in order to maintain law and order.

In a paper entitled ‘Ethiopia’s Devotion to Peace’ (2014),[4] Tesfye Lemma reiterates the fact that, ‘Ethiopia has endeavored to its efforts towards creating a full understanding among its people through strengthening actions against anti-peace activities not only through military actions but also promoting political inclusion’ (Lemma, 2014, p. 1). Lemma adds that, ‘the police work with citizens to identify existence of groups that may cause havoc in the name of political agitation, while the courts are very strict on those who disobey the rule of law’. (p. 2) He further adds ‘the terrorist groups responsible for attacks were put under control due to collaboration of the entire people of Ethiopia and the security forces’. (p. 3) Although many journalists have been jailed using this law it has arguably made the country much safer from terrorist activities including actions of al-Shabaab and the Oromo Liberation Front that fight the government from the South.


Through the anti-terrorism legislation of 2002, Ugandan government efforts against terrorism have been both preventive as well as deliberately disruptive interventions. Ugandan citizens have been given space through which they augment the government’s efforts in its war against terrorism activities. The result has been little or no influence for support by the insurgents over the population and this has helped strengthen the position of the government as far as fighting terrorism is concerned. Even though groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have tried to use coercion and intimidation to force people to kill, abduct and maim innocent citizens, this has yielded more resentment towards them.

Terrorist acts such as the 10th July 2010 attack carried out by Al-Shabaab sympathizers allegedly from Kenya, in downtown Kampala during the World Cup Final, has also strengthened public views against terrorists. Even though many Ugandans view the Museveni government with contempt, on terrorism they seem to share a common interest and understanding. This has made the work easier for security forces to fight terrorism activities. That is why despite the fact that Ugandan soldiers are on Somali soil, the attempts by al-Shabaab has not succeeded beyond what happened in Kampala in 2010.

The government of Uganda has made a collaborative effort in which all the security agencies, including the police, intelligence service, military and private security firms have been working together, through a Joint anti-terrorism (JAT) taskforce. The significance of this is that the taskforce created a space for the citizen’s participation through community policing. Citizens have thus become their ‘brother’s keeper’ watching out for each other, by identifying and reporting suspicious elements within the country bent on causing chaos.

Uganda’s Anti-terrorism Act stipulates that suspected terrorists will no longer be tried or charged under the penal code, but under a separate criminal law. Urban terrorism was being addressed through this law while the rural terrorism, like that being advanced by LRA, was put under the jurisdiction of the military, who through their intensified actions have been able to disable the actions of LRA within the Northern corridors where the LRA operate. By cooperating with, and leading the East African community inter-forces cooperation and partnerships, tracking of terrorist plans and movements have been made easier for Ugandan intelligence services.

As Kenya relies on foreign intelligence services from the USA and UK to gather and inform her security intelligence of any pending terrorist attacks against Kenya, Uganda has strengthened its own security intelligence services that operate independently and is well equipped to deal with this task. The Kenyan security intelligence services on the other hand look inept and ill-equipped or are more interested in political services other than servicing the citizenry. An overhaul of the entire Kenyan security system is necessary, with space for citizens’ participation in the whole security plan and execution. Without citizen’s inclusion, Kenya will still find it hard to crack the security threats posed by both internal and external terrorist activities.



Fredrick Omondi Ochieng’ is an African Leadership Centre scholar at King’s College London undertaking MSc in Security Leadership and Society. He has worked as a Community development; Monitoring and Evaluation and Gender Mainstreaming Specialist with several United Nations agencies, NGOs and Government of Kenya.



[1] The Mungiki are a secretive mafia-/cult-like organization of young Kikuyu men who are adherents of a religious sect that was banned by Kenyan government due to terrorist activities in Kenya’s central province.
[2] Kimaiyo makes public pronouncements/directives not provided for in the Laws of Kenya. The Law society of Kenya (LSK) took the IG head-on on those directives and promised to offer free legal aid to anyone arrested by police due to these directives by the IG. (F.O).
[3] D.H. Shinn (2003). ‘Terrorism in East Africa and the Horn: An Overview’, The Journal of Conflict Studies, Vol. 23, No 2 (2003), online at The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/jcs/article/view/218/376 (accessed 7 June 2014).
[4] L. Tesfye (2014). ‘Ethiopia’s Devotion to Peace’, online at www.waltainfo.com/index.php (accessed 6 June 2014).

1 thought on “Learning from the neighbours: How to win Kenya’s war on terror”

  1. Good article. Two points I’m skeptical of:

    1. How does Ethiopia simulatneously “promote political inclusion” while “many journalists have been jailed”? Those two points seem to be mutually exclusive.

    2. How much does the fact that Uganda has all of Kenya as a “buffer” between it and al-Shabaab’s stronghold benefit it’s security?

    Additionally, what is the effect of Uganda’s Anti-terrorism Act, where “suspected terrorists will no longer be tried or charged under the penal code, but under a separate criminal law”? Is this a Guantanamo Bay style impingement of rights (or something else entirely – I am not acquainted with the Ugandan legal system)?

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