Is Kenya’s heavy-handed response to security threats justifiable?

Extrajudicial killings, rampant corruption and widespread profiling taint Kenya’s police forces.

"Security forces employ a disproportionate amount of force along the coast and in parts of northern Kenya, the two regions with the largest concentration of Muslims in Kenya," writes Abdullahi Halakhe [AFP]

The Kenyan police raid of Masjid Musa in February and the April 1 assassination of Islamic preacher Abubakar Shariff in the coastal city of Mombasa reveals the pernicious cost of the aggressive counter-terrorism campaign led by an unreformed Kenyan police.

The police forces have, over the years, accumulated a tattered reputation because of their use of excessive force, allegations of corruption and extrajudicial killings. For instance, during the 2007-2008 post-election violence in which about 1200 people were killed, and of those, the Kenyan police was accused of killing close to one-third.

While since then some efforts at reforming the police have been undertaken, there remains systemic institutional deficit within the police hierarchy. A lack of political will has also stymied police reform.

The mosque raid came against the backdrop of killings of imams suspected by the police to be allegedly involved in recruiting and radicalising young Kenyans. This parallels the profiling that occurs within Kenyan Muslim communities, especially among Kenyan-Somalis.

Such heavy-handed approaches could prove counter-productive and stymie the long-term efforts at reforming the police.

Kenya’s intervention in Somalia 

In the past, despite suffering multiple high profile terrorist attacks, Kenya avoided the Western-funded “War on Terror” despite receiving military funding from the US.

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That policy dramatically shifted in October 2011 when Kenya sent its troops to Somalia to fight the al-Shabab, the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliated group, following the group’s alleged cross-border kidnapping of Western tourists and aid workers.

By sending its troops to Somalia, Kenya lost its distinctive regional profile as the only country whose military never went to war with any of its neighbours.

This had two consequences. The first was that al-Shabab explicitly targeted Kenya for retribution. Since Kenya intervened in Somalia, there have been a total of 30 attacks involving grenades or improvised explosive devices.  This succession of relatively minor incidents preluded the attack on the upscale Westgate shopping mall on September 21, 2013.

The second consequence was to reinforce Kenya’s explicitly prominent role in the War on Terror in the region. Domestically, the face of the aggressive counter-terrorism posture was the enhanced role of the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) and the passage of an anti-terrorism bill in 2002.

The counter-terrorism trap

This legislation was passed one year after Kenya’s intervention in Somalia started in 2011. The passage of the law saw an uptick in the collective profiling of Muslims, and specifically Somalis. While the demonisation of the Somalis has a long history, under the counter-terrorism rubric the community has become the security forces’ focal point. For example, after the recent blast in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, the police arrested over 600 Somalis.

Additionally, the passage of the bill coincided with an upswing in extrajudicial killings by the police, especially in the coastal city of Mombasa.

Additionally, security forces have employed a disproportionate amount of force along the coast and in parts of northern Kenya, the two regions with the largest concentration of Muslims. This is despite the government’s protestation they are not targeting Muslims.

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The anti-terrorism legislation has also encouraged the emergence of a false posture from the government, where individuals are forced into an artificial binary: You are either with the terrorists or with us. This took away any veneer of dialogue between the state security and the Muslim leaders on how to address radicalisation of Muslim youth.

There is no doubt Kenya faces genuine security threats emanating from Somalia and al-Shabab. Also, there is indisputable instances of radicalisation among the Muslim youth, especially new converts along the Kenyan coast, in the North-East, as well as in the Nairobi slums.

But the massive use of force and the profiling of innocent Somalis and Muslims, in general, could be counter-productive; it runs the risk of eroding community and security force relations. Further, an unchecked use of force will destroy the modest gains made in human rights, rule of law and good governance that Kenya has enjoyed since the passage of the new constitution in 2010.

For instance, if Shariff was engaged in radicalising and recruiting Muslim youths to join al-Shabab, he should have been charged in court under the terrorism law. In fact, just before his death Sarif was awarded damages by a court in a lawsuit over the excessive use of force and wrongful arrest by the Kenyan police in 2010. 

Western mixed signals

Presently the Kenyan government, itself, has little to worry about because the Western countries are providing the majority of counter-terrorism funding and training. Upon its establishment the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, Kenya received $10m from the US government.

The mixed signals, especially those emanating from the US, are insulating the Kenyan government from legitimate criticism. On the one hand, the US State Department emphasises the principles of good governance, human rights and the rule of law; on the other, the Department of Defense (DoD) gives a priority to counterterrorism. 

The Kenyan government has become adept at exploiting these mixed signals by defending any extrajudicial killing with the response that it was a pre-emptive counter-terrorism effort. 

Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a Horn of Africa security analyst.