The Great Wall of Kenya and the failing strategy against Al-Shabaab



“The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa.” These words from William Ruto, the Kenyan Deputy President, heralded the dawn of a new strategy in the fight against Al-Shabaab. This strategy has come in the form of a wall stretching from the Indian Ocean to the city of Mandera. It is hoped that the wall will boost security within Kenya, after a wave of attacks that have claimed scores of lives, most notably the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and Garissa University attack in April 2015.


Yet, the wall symbolises Kenya’s failing counter-terrorism strategy and succeeds in distracting and deceiving Kenyans rather than defeating the threat posed by Al-Shabaab. The real threat to Kenya is not in Somalia but rather on its own side of the wall. Al-Shabaab aims to conquer Kenya by dividing it. Its attacks focus on causing economic instability by crippling the country’s tourism industry and on exploiting religious divides within Kenya. By ignoring this truth, Kenya risks further attacks against its citizens.


Kenya has a tendency to blame all its problems with terrorism on the political instability in neighbouring Somalia. Whilst there is some truth to this – after all, Al-Shabaab has been significantly helped by a weak government in Somalia – such a standpoint fails to fully recognise the group's threat to Kenya. Support for a wall of defence augmented following the terrorist attack at Garissa University. Whilst this attack was conducted by the Somali-based group, Kenyan authorities seem unwilling to recognise that all four of the Garissa attackers originated in Kenya, rather than over the border.


The complete lack of an internal counter-terrorism strategy will only result in the loss of more lives in Kenya. To defeat Al-Shabaab, Kenya must recognise that many of its members come from Kenya rather than Somalia. Once this has been recognised, a significant effort must be made through communities and educational facilities to combat the group’s poisonous ideologies. The war against Al-Shabaab will be won in the classroom, not the battlefield. The sooner Kenya realises this, the quicker the group will be defeated. Moreover, while improving community cohesion and education is vital, economic development is also fundamentally important. Kenya’s great wall has worsened rather than improved the economic prospects of those who live near the country’s border. In the border towns of Mandera in Kenya and Bula Hawa in Somalia, the geographic boundary between the two nations had previously been so blurred that traders and people moved back and forth freely, businesses operated on both sides and mobile phone signals even alternated between countries. By dividing the two countries, Kenya has put an end to this economic flexibility. The Kenyan government has therefore risked inadvertently creating a hotbed for terrorist recruitment in the areas most susceptible to Al-Shabaab infiltration.


Walls are a comforting proposition for Kenya. There is something reassuring about shutting everyone else out and pretending that the world’s problems are not yours; that the bad guys can’t get you. This is a fantasy rather than a reality. Countries cannot simply shut themselves off from their neighbours, particularly when dealing with terrorist threats. George Morara, Vice Chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said, “The war on terror must be a multi-agency, well-coordinated and intelligence-led undertaking … aimed at creating opportunities for gainful employment for the youth who are increasingly becoming soft targets for Al-Shabaab’s recruitment drives.” If Al-Shabaab is to be defeated, Kenya must adopt a fourfold counter-terrorism approach which recognises the complexity of the threat posed to the country and the region.


Kenya must firstly stabilise neighbouring Somalia and strengthen the country’s government. This can be done through international organizations such as the African Union which already offer assistance in Somalia. Once Somalia has been strengthened, Al-Shabaab will no longer be able to act with impunity in the Somali countryside. This will limit the organisation’s ability to train its recruits and plan its attacks.


Secondly, when stability has been returned to Somalia, Kenyan must get its own house in order. Consequently, corruption must be eliminated. Corruption allows Al-Shabaab to bribe its way through Kenya by avoiding military checkpoints. In Kenya, corruption is so endemic that entire public institutions are essentially privatised. There is great need for more robust international mechanisms to deal with this situation. An international anti-corruption court with the same kind of powers held by weapons inspectors would go a long way. By bringing corruption to an end, Kenya would significant reduce Al-Shabaab’s ability to operate.


However, it is not enough to simply reduce Al-Shabaab’s operational capacity. The group cannot be destroyed solely through military means; its pragmatic appeal must also be reduced. This can be done by boosting the economic prospects of those living within the country’s poorer northern and coastal regions; reducing dependence on the finance the group provides its fighters.


The fourth and final nail in Al-Shabaab’s coffin will then be the development of an internal counter-terrorism strategy to target those who are at risk of being deceived by Al-Shabaab’s propaganda. By saving the next generation from the lies of Islamic extremism, Al-Shabaab will be unable to carry out significant attacks against targets in East Africa. I admit that this strategy cannot fully remove the possibility of lone wolf terrorism, but it can reduce the current threat posed by the group and save countless lives in doing so.


The war against Al-Shabaab is failing. Urgent action is needed by Kenya if it is to prevent the terrorist threat from growing. Building a wall might create a feeling of comfort and security, but this feeling will not last. Engaging with the world rather than withdrawing from it is the only way to defeat a threat that operates ruthlessly across borders.

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