Kenya's Counterterrorism Approach is Floundering

Counter-IED training in Nairobi, Kenya. Flickr/U.S. Army Africa

Despite money and training, Kenya’s security forces are still far from professional.

As Kenya inches dangerously close to shutting down the world’s largest refugee camp in Dabaab, the announced closure masks a calculated, yet disastrous parlay of legitimate domestic terrorism concerns for an expedient, yet flawed, solution that is unlikely to resolve the country’s security challenges. But as insecurity evolves into a bargaining currency for the governing elite, the United States’ partnership with an arguably capable East African partner will increasingly fall into worrying scrutiny.

Kenya is one of the largest recipients of U.S. security assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. Through both State and Defense Department accounts, the Kenyan government has received over $141 million in security assistance funds since 2010­—an amount that rose to $100 million in 2015 alone. Most of this financing is directed towards counterterrorism support, but despite substantial increases in training and equipment, concerns abound with woeful professionalism in Kenya’s military and security forces. Both security institutions are hampered by persistent allegations of human rights violations and entrenched corruption—both to the detriment of Kenya’s national security, and the general well-being of Kenya’s Somali population.

In the past decade, the United States has helped bolster Kenya’s domestic security and military capacity, assisting in the development of the National Intelligence Service­—Kenya’s domestic and foreign intelligence service—the General Service Unit, a paramilitary reserve unit primarily deployed to respond to civil disorders, and the Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU)—a specialized police unit tasked with counterterror responses. These domestic security and military services serve at the forefront of Kenya’s counterterrorism efforts against a capable enemy in Al Shabaab.

Elsewhere, the United States has been instrumental in resolving the challenges of cross-agency coordination and cooperation—a handicap that led to the deficient response to the Westgate Mall attack in 2013. Indeed, since 2005, the State Department has dedicated funds towards improving coordination within the country’s intelligence and domestic security services. But despite increased financial assistance and training, Kenya’s overall security structure lags in overall professionalism, posing a worrisome challenge to the country’s national security.

Certainly, the Kenyan government is pivotal partner and contributor to U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the horn of Africa. But as transnational terrorism threats in East Africa have broadened, Kenya’s formally restrained foreign and domestic policy has acquired an increasingly hawkish fervor. In particular, the Kenyan government has narrowed its security aperture on the Muslim and Somali communities residing within its borders—policing Somali enclaves such as Eastleigh with draconian tactics unlikely to resolve the attendant concerns with domestic radicalization and terrorism.

Elsewhere, Kenya’s counterterrorism footprint has expanded through the military’s participation in the African Union–led mission against Al Shabaab inside Somalia, AMISOM. This effort initially weakened Al Shabaab’s overall potency, though the group maintains a couple insurgent reach in both Kenya and Somalia. Indeed, since Kenya joined the AMISOM-led campaign against Al Shabaab in 2011, Al Shabaab attacks inside the country have intensified across the country with escalating confidence.