Beyond Mombasa: Rethinking counter-radicalisation in Kenya

Nairobi central business district,Kenya. photo courtesy www.demotix.com
Nairobi central business district,Kenya.
photo courtesy www.demotix.com

By Alex Waterman & Robert Forster

The sectarian element of al-Shabaab’s raids in Kenya in 2014 and a growing trend of radicalisation among Mombasa’s youth raise the question of how Kenyatta’s government will tackle the roots of radicalisation. Recent fast-tracked reforms indicate further centralisation of power in the hands of the Jubilee administration to the possible detriment of reconciliation with Kenya’s marginalised Muslim minority.

Sporadic attacks across Kenya left over 310 dead between January and November 2014. This violence peaked in November when the Somali insurgent group, al-Shabaab, conducted a series of cross-border raids into Kenya’s North East Province. The situation further deteriorated in late 2014 following a flair-up of tribal conflicts and general banditry in Turkana in the northwest, in addition to civil unrest following security raids on a number of mosques in the southern port city of Mombasa. In the face of immense public pressure, President Uhuru Kenyatta made a speech on 2 December 2014 reaffirming the commitment of the Jubilee coalition (2) to fighting terrorism and responding to Kenya’s insecurity dilemma.(3) This speech was followed by a string of hasty reforms aimed at increasing the capabilities of national security. However, these reforms may be detrimental to further reconciliation with Kenya’s Muslim-minority as implementation thereof includes the risk that human rights will be sidelined and power further centralised in Nairobi.

The sectarian element of al-Shabaab’s raids in Lamu and Mandera between July and December 2014 and a growing trend of radicalisation among Mombasa’s youth brought the threat of political Islam to the forefront of Kenya’s political discourse in December. The steady indication of al-Shabaab’s infiltration into Kenya and the rebranding of their operations as “Kenyan” under the name al-Hijra has made it increasingly clear that they have sources of support within Kenya and that the country is not simply “an innocent victim in the war on terror.”(4) The question now arises as to the means that Kenyatta’s government will choose in order to tackle the roots of radicalisation: repeating past mistakes of implementing policies that aggravate the marginalisation of Muslims, or reaching out to bridge the trust deficit caused by unequal and heavy-handed policing and discrimination at the hands of security forces. Recent developments seem to indicate the former, but continuing down that path will fuel the very extremism within Kenya’s Muslim communities that the Jubilee government is looking to quell.

Profiling and marginalisation have eroded trust in government among Kenya’s Muslims

Kenyan politics are heavily defined by ethno-religious affiliations, wherein Muslims form a multi-ethnic group representing 11% of the population. Although inter-ethnic tolerance has generally been the status quo in Kenya, power remains centralised in Nairobi with the Kikuyu, Kalenjin and Luo ethnic groups.(5) Within this context, Muslim-minorities in the North East and Coast provinces have remained dominated by non-Muslims in Kenya’s central government. Individual Muslim representatives regularly contribute to national politics and Muslim candidates are among those who benefit from the 12 “special seats” for minorities instituted after the electoral violence in 2007-2008.(6) However, the secularization of Kenyan politics is enshrined in the constitution, which has ensured that political organisations based on an Islamic identity have either been disbanded or ignored.(7) Moreover, Muslim-majority areas such as the North East and Coast regions suffer from a lack of infrastructure and social programmes, which heighten the feeling of marginalisation.(8) This is further cemented by the fact that Kenyans with Muslim names must produce additional evidence of citizenship compared to their non-Muslim counterparts when applying for official government documents.(9)

Systematic discrimination on these grounds in addition to the growing influence of political Islam reinforce a perception of marginalization – real and imagined – that is eroding the trust that Kenya’s Muslim communities hold in the state. These resentments are particularly strong in ethnic Somali communities. The Kenyan Defence Force’s (KDF) intervention into Somalia in October 2011 as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forms the backdrop to the relations between the Muslim Kenyan-Somali community and the Jubilee government. The conflict is extrapolated by radicals as an “occupation of Muslim lands” by Kenyan state security forces.(10) This reaction then instigates a reciprocation from Kenyan officials in the form of suspecting every Muslim to be a potential terrorist threat.(11)

Emergency legislation and the centralisation will be counter-productive

The need for President Kenyatta to act following the 1 December 2014 attack by al-Shabaab that killed 36 non-Muslim quarry workers in Mandera County led to the proposal of controversial reforms indicating a further centralisation of power in Nairobi. The most immediate reaction was the dismissal of key security figures such as Kenya’s Police Inspector General, David Kimaiyo, and head of the Ministry of Interior, Joseph ole Lenku, who President Kenyatta later called “an embarrassment to Kenya.”(12) Following their dismissal, government sources spoke of merging the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Interior to create a Ministry of Homeland Security. The aim of this would be to facilitate closer cooperation and coordination between the KDF, the National Police Service (NPS) and the National Intelligence Service.(13)

While increasing cooperation between security services does have benefits, the risk of such a move is that it threatens to conflate the external and internal dimensions of radicalisation and terrorism affecting Kenya. This would generate misguided policy measures that associate the problem of Kenya’s marginalised Muslim community with the KDF’s militarised approach in Somalia. Moreover, on 18 December, parliament passed its 2014 Security Act which aims to greatly increase security services’ legal abilities regarding surveillance, media censorship and the regulation of identity cards. Sections of this law were repealed only five days later following a suit filed by the political opposition. Sections repealed include restrictions on media, the tapping of phones without the permission of a judge, as well as the proposed ceiling on the number of refugees allowed into Kenya. New-founded legal abilities, coordination and leadership could bring benefits regarding the abilities of the individual security institutions. However, considering the heavy-handed practices by these institutions, it is unlikely that such legislative reforms will heal the Muslim community’s mistrust of government and unify Kenya against radical Islamism. Furthermore, communal punishments to deter inter-tribal fighting and banditry in rural areas – a policy proposed in mid-January 2015 by the newly instated Interior Commission Secretary, Major General Joseph Nkaissery – is likely to renew aversion to state intervention in affected communities and also provide further opportunities for police corruption and heavy-handedness.(14)

The excessive use of force displayed during Operation Usalama Watch conducted in April 2014 in Nairobi’s Muslim-majority Eastleigh neighbourhood foreshadowed the type of damage such disproportionate responses can have. The operation witnessed an influx of 5,000 security officers over a two-week period and the round-up, interrogation and incarceration of over 4,000 individuals. The scale and militarised protocol of the operations was met with heavy criticism from the Muslim community and international observers alike. Amnesty International called the operation “a pretext for the blanket punishment of the Somali community in Kenya.”(15) Likewise, two raids on the Shuhada (formerly Musa) and Mujahideen (formerly Sakina) mosques in Mombasa in February and November 2014 were conducted in an insensitive manner despite successfully in seizing grenades, small arms and Islamist propaganda.

The Religious Societies Compliance Rules authored in December 2014, offers another pretext for further intervention in Kenya’s religious domain by the state. The proposed legislation that will go into effect after 18 February 2015 places religious institutions under strict government oversight and religious leaders will need to provide documentation and be vetted by security before continuing their practices. A greater rift between security forces and the communities that they supposedly serve is further indicated by the implication of the Anti-Terror Police Unit in extra-judicial killings, kidnapping and torture – including the alleged killing of over 20 Muslims clerics in Mombasa since 2012 – by the NGOs Muslims for Human Rights and the Open Society Foundation.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Jubilee government passed a number of laws in 2014 that have diminished the oversight of the NPS and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA).(16) This trend of minimising the accountability of government security initiatives was further underscored in December 2014 when NGOs known for criticising the government’s policies toward Kenyan Muslims, including Muslims for Human Rights and Haki Africa, were indicted under accusations by government that they had possible links to terrorism. A backlash of public opinion following increased insecurity has, however, instigated some nominal victories regarding police oversight since January 2015. Among them, Johnston Kavuludi, Chairman of the NPS, announced that the Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) would be separated from the NPS and be accountable to the IPOA. Furthermore, a vigorous vetting process of IAU recruits and senior NPS officers is scheduled to be completed by April, after which the 80,000 strong police force will be reviewed in an attempt to actualise reform.(17) In addition, effective action taken by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission in late January 2015 was met with broad public support when a woman was freed after being jailed for refusing to pay a bribe to the Nakuru police.(18) Such positive developments need continuity to remain effective, and the sustainability of trust-building initiatives are repeatedly threatened by the unequal implementation of justice.

Concluding remarks

Considering the above, security issues in Kenya require a two-pronged approach. First is the need to strengthen rule of law and homogenise the response by security services towards terrorist threats and criminal behaviour across ethnic groups, thus nullifying concerns over the uneven, and at times discriminatory, policing across Kenya. This means the government must shy away from red herrings found in legislative reform and focus instead on more systemic issues such as eradicating corruption in the notoriously corrupt Kenyan police force,(19) and encouraging more widespread recruitment of police.(20) Security services also need to make a more concerted effort to engage with the communities that they police to hinder further isolation of those communities from the government, and vice versa.(21)

The second approach requires the strengthening of social and development programmes in areas of need, encouraging job creation and access to education and credit to prevent situations where disaffected youth are drawn to a life of purpose via radicalisation. This is especially the case in regard to the North East and Coast provinces where investment in education and school attendance levels remain low.(22) These reforms would target the labour pool of possible Islamist recruits. Meanwhile, further policies of militarisation within Kenya will most likely backfire on the Jubilee regime by exacerbating existing tensions, leading to further polarisation in Kenyan society. Failing such changes and the tackling of systemic issues, radical Islamist groups are likely to continue to find a pool of Kenyan recruits, sustaining themselves in Kenya even as al-Shabaab continues to suffer considerable military losses in Somalia.


(1) Robert Forster is the editor at the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation in Cairo. His research focuses on state-society relations and conflict in the MENA region. Alex Waterman is a Research Associate at IOA with a focus on insurgencies, civil wars and counterinsurgency strategy. Contact Robert and Alex through IOA’s South African office (info@inonafrica.com). Edited by Liezl Stretton. Research Manager: Kyle Hiebert.
(2) Formally known as the Jubilee Alliance, the coalition consists of four parties: the National Alliance, the National Rainbow Coalition, the United Republican Party, and the Republican Congress. It was founded on 12 January 2013 to support Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto in Kenya’s 2013 general elections and is now the incumbent in power.
(3) Kenyatta, U., ‘Statement by H.E. Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta, President of the Republic of Kenya on current security situation’, The President – Official Website of the President, 2 December 2014, http://www.president.go.ke.
(4) Andersen, D.M., ‘Why Mpeketoni matters: al-Shabaab and violence in Kenya’, NOREF Policy Brief, September 2014, http://www.peacebuilding.no; Botha, A., ‘Radicalisation in Kenya: Recruitment to al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council’, ISS Paper 265, 4 September 2014,http://www.issafrica.org.
(5) Elischer, S., ‘Ethnic coalitions of convenience and commitment: Political parties and party systems in Kenya’, GIGA Working Papers no. 68, February 2008, http://www.giga-hamburg.de.
(6) ‘Kenya overview’, Minority Rights, November 2012, http://www.minorityrights.org.
(7) Møller, B., ‘Political Islam in Kenya’, DIIS Working Paper no. 2006/22 (2006), http://www.diis.dk; Ndzovu, H., ‘Muslims and party politics and electoral campaigns in Kenya’, ISITA Working Paper No. 09, March 2009, http://www.bcics.northwestern.edu.
(8) ‘Countering the radicalization of Kenya’s youth’,IRIN News, 6 May 2013, http://www.irinnews.org.
(9) Botha, A., ‘Radicalisation in Kenya: Recruitment to al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council’, ISS Paper 265, 4 September 2014, http://www.issafrica.org.
(10) Andersen, D.M., ‘Why Mpeketoni matters: al-Shabaab and violence in Kenya’, NOREF Policy Brief, 10 September 2014, http://www.peacebuilding.no.
(11) Botha, A., ‘Radicalisation in Kenya: Recruitment to al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council’, ISS Paper 265, 4 September 2014, http://www.issafrica.org.
(12) Marindany, K., ‘Ole Lenku embarrassed Kenya, says Uhuru’, The Star, 31 January 2014, http://www.the-star.co.ke.
(13) ‘Lenku, Omamo ministries to be merged’, The Star, 29 November 2014, http://allafrica.com.
(14) Boniface, B., ‘Kenya’s collective punishment plan draws praise and alarm’, Sabahi, 21 January 2015, http://allafrica.com.
(15) ‘Kenya: Somalis scapegoated in counter-terror crackdown’, Amnesty International,27 May 2014, http://www.amnesty.org.
(16) ‘Security bill tramples basic rights’, Human Rights Watch, 14 December 2014, http://www.hrw.org.
(17) Muraya, J., ‘Police internal affairs unit to be detached – Kavuludi’, Capital FM, 27 January 2015, http://www.capitalfm.co.ke.
(18) Kituure, J., ‘Kenyans applaud anti-corruption agency raid on Nakuru police station’, Sabahi, 27 January 2015, http://allafrica.com.
(19) Ramah, R., ‘Kenya’s security needs more than leadership change’, Sabahi, 10 December 2014, http://allafrica.com; ‘Migiro, K., ‘Divided Kenyans disagree over strategy to end ‘terror’ attacks’, Reuters, 17 December 2014, http://www.reuters.com.
(20) Ramah, R., ‘Kenya’s security needs more than leadership change’, Sabahi, 10 December 2014, http://allafrica.com.
(21) ‘Underlying causes of radicalisation must be tackled’, Capital FM, 11 November 2014, http://www.capitalfm.co.ke.
(22) Keriga, L. and Bujra, A., ‘Social policy, development and government in Kenya’, Development Policy Management Forum, March 2009, http://www.dpmf.org.