Obama Must Address Kenya’s Alarmingly Weak Counterterrorism Plan

In this photo taken Saturday, April 4, 2015, Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers arrive at a hospital to escort the bodies of the attackers to be put on public view, in Garissa, Kenya.

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In this photo taken Saturday, April 4, 2015, Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers arrive at a hospital to escort the bodies of the attackers to be put on public view, in Garissa, Kenya.

Kenya is under immediate terrorism threat, yet its leaders block civil organizations, target Muslims and extort bribes.

President Barack Obama this week heads to Kenya, where counterterrorism—and basic security—is a grave concern that needs greater U.S. attention.

The threat of violent extremism in Kenya is both serious and imminent. But Kenya’s entire approach to countering terrorism is dangerously misdirected and underfunded.  And the problem is readily on display for visitors who are subjected to half-hearted security searches throughout the country. Earlier this month during a trip to Kenya I was searched at least a dozen times a day at airports, fancy hotels, cathedrals, shopping centers, and other public places in Nairobi and Mombasa. But at an event I attended with Kenyan President Kenyatta, the security check was not adequate to prevent an actual breach.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi apparently shares my confidence in Kenyan security, electing to wear a bullet-proof vest on his visit to see Kenyatta last week. When Obama visits this week, he publicly should address these concerns and urge Kenya toward an inclusive approach to countering violent extremism.

Since 2012, at least 600 people have been killed in the country by the terrorist group al-Shabaab, including at least 67 at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013 and 148 at Garissa University College in April.

Last month’s Kenyan conference on countering violent extremism, a follow up to the February 2015 White House Summit, was designed to show off Kenyan proposals to understand and confront the rise of terrorism, and to publicly present progress prior to Obama’s visit.

Instead of impressing, the conference raised alarming questions about Kenya’s narrow approach and lack of inclusion of critical voices in fighting terrorism. Organizers claimed over 500 people from dozens of countries attended, though discussions at the event quickly made clear that too many people with real expertise were not invited, including civil society groups targeted by the Kenyan government for their criticism of police torture and killings - practices that fuel grievances on which violent extremism feeds. In one key presentation, the director of the Kenya School of Government, Ludeki Chweya, told the audience that extremism is driven by single parent families and a lack of old school discipline.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Sarah Sewall, who headed the U.S. delegation to the event, publicly criticized the exclusion of valuable civil society experience from the debate, saying, “The United States is disappointed that some of the Kenyan civil society groups so central to the discussion about security and terrorism such as Muhuri and Haki Africa, which President Obama welcomed at the February White House summit, are not able to participate.”

Public confidence is low in Kenyan security forces’ ability to prevent terrorist attacks, with police corruption undermining efforts to arrest and prosecute suspects. Muslim leaders complain of widespread harassment and say the police are too ready to link the whole Muslim community to al-Shabaab extremists.

“Every time people see one of these massacres – no sane person celebrates that,” Khelef Khalifa, chair of Muhuri, told me. “But the government can’t succeed in fighting terrorists if it alienates Muslims.” Khalifa says the police harass Muslims and that they are “90 percent more likely” to arrest Muslim men, who they then exploit for bribes. “The last two years have been hell for the Muslim community,” said Khalifa.

In addition, there are few takers for Kenyatta’s “unconditional amnesty” initiative his administration established to rehabilitate terrorists and integrate those who want to return home. The Kenyan Ministry of the Interior reported 85 people participating in the initiative at the end of May.

“It’s a poorly thought-through project,” a former senior Kenyan security officer told me. “It needs a mix of civil society and government planning but that’s not what’s happened. It must be a time-bound offer with clear coordination and a proper strategy. That hasn’t happened.”

Kenya’s approach to fighting al-Shabaab and other threats should alarm Obama. While in Kenya next week, he should tell his Kenyan partners that a radical change is needed. He should emphasize that a nationwide pat-down isn’t a real search, a corrupt police force can’t provide real security, and civil society activists should be included and not targeted in the fight against terrorism.   

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