University attack brings stark lessons for Kenya

Garissa Market, Nairobi, Kenya.
Garissa Market, Nairobi, Kenya.

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Edward Wanyonyi is a Security, Leadership and Society Fellow at University of London-Kings College.

The recent attack at Garissa University in North Eastern Kenya by Al Shabaab came as a surprise to many Kenyans and the world. Launched at the crack of dawn on Thursday April 2nd in Garissa, the attack lasted more than 6 hours and in its wake claimed the lives of 147 students, faculty and security personnel who were deployed in the counter offensive. While the Kenyan authorities concentrated their efforts in evacuating the injured, and there was improved inter agency cooperation between the various arms of the security services, more anger, helplessness and a palpable sense of disillusionment swept across the country.

The question is: how did it happen and can future attacks be stopped?

This is not the first such attack by Al Shabaab. Indeed from 2011 when the Kenya Defence Forces launched operation Linda Nchi in response to a series of kidnappings of aid workers and tourists along northern and coastal towns in Kenya, there have been now close to over 150 attacks by Al Shabaab within Kenya with severe casualties.

While Nairobi maintains that its forces are in Somalia until Al Shabaab is defeated, it remains unclear what actually defeating entails, the means employed, the resources required and the civilian, military and diplomatic capacities that need to be mobilised towards this end.

It is the contention of this article that the Government of Kenya has invested its focus on an external military offensive within Somalia while lacking a pragmatic counter terrorism strategy that will operationalise this fight in the homeland. I argue that the current Anti-Terrorism Police Unit is under resourced, understaffed, poorly equipped in combing the entire country and, worse, led by a low ranking officer who is answerable to the Director of operations at the Kenya Police Service Headquarters. He is not directly answerable to the Inspector General of Police nor can he even access the President.

Furthermore, the current civil-military team around the President is causing him to loose altitude as it is enmeshed in a group think psychology that excludes critical thinking. This team formed of party sycophants and key architects of a tribal hegemony are behind a string of pleasant briefings that placate the President with an ‘all is well’ narrative. They are obsessed about regime preservation, locking out other tribes from core sectors of the economy and shaping succession politics while leaving the flanks open for terror to thrive, causing the President to loose altitude.

Moreover, the recent purchase of arms worth USD 2.9 billion from Serbia indicates emphasis on infantry offensive within Somalia but what is greatly needed are teams of personnel mobile and highly trained in special operations missions that can be deployed across the country and anywhere AS supporters, funders, sympathisers are found.

Such a strategy calls for the President to institute sweeping changes. Key will be establishing a new counter terrorism operational command centre as a centralised unit directing action, legislation, resources, local and international support necessary in the war against Al Shabaab. This should produce a Homeland Preparedness action plan that will articulate clearly what it will take to eliminate if not reduce the Al Shabaab terror capacity. This should be followed with a full scale reorganisation of the security agencies to de-tribalise the current upper echelons within handling coordinating security, economic and diplomatic duties within the office of the President, Ministry of Interior and Coordination of Government, Cabinet office and Ministry of foreign affairs.

The incursion of Kenya Defence Forces into Somalia in 2011 was preceded by a series of high level war preparation. Crucially missing in this arrangement were two elements. First, a critical analysis of the capacity of the Al Shabaab to hold out and launch a successful urban insurgency inside Kenya often escaping the scene of crime. In most attacks attackers had all the luxury of time to execute terror with often little counter attacks from local security forces. This goes to prove the intelligence capability and operational planning efficiency of Al Shabaab in not only conducting reconnaissance to establish the best time and target of attack but also a getaway plan from the scene.

This is evident from the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall attack that had over 70 causalities, the 2014 attacks in Mpeketoni and Poromoko villages in Lamu County that claimed over 65 lives, the cold blood execution of 15 quarry workers in Mandera country and the execution of close to 28 passengers on a bus from Garissa County.

Secondly, Al Shabaab have proven that they are no longer a team of young boys running around with Kalashnikovs following instructions from a radical cleric. This is now a well-trained paramilitary force that is taking more Special Forces missions with the right artillery, formation n tactical finesse.

Al Shabaab is not just a Kenyan problem, of course. Kenya is already part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that has made quite impressive efforts to liberate parts of Somalia and support the government in Mogadishu. Kenya is also a key ally in the global war against terror and has been supportive of US counter terrorism efforts within the region. But what is missing now is an international mobilisation against Al Shabaab the same way Al Qaeda and ISIS are being battled on all sides by the global community.

A two pronged approach might be essential in defeating Al Shabaab at the international arena. First and of crucial importance to Kenya is the need for Western allies to join an international contact group for Somalia with the main objective being defeating Al Shabaab. In this regard, AMISOM should be strategically enabled with capacity such as what the International Stabilisation Assistance Force in Afghanistan possessed.

Secondly, the Somalia Government should expedite national reconstruction to ensure that basic services are available to citizens in order to weaken the appeal of jihadism which takes advantage of a weak and absent state authority.

President Uhuru Kenyatta is ready to do what it takes to address this crisis and increasingly he has shown his sincerity and commitment to the safety of every Kenyan. Kenya is not a failed state but the haphazard and chaotic knee jerk reactions every time an attack takes place only emboldens Al Shabaab and sustains a climate of fear.

Project for the Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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