The Kenyan police raid of Masjid Musa in the coastal city of Mombasa, the result of the mosque’s alleged link with Al Shabaab in early February reveals the pernicious cost of the unfettered muscular counter-terrorism campaign led by an unreformed Kenyan police.
The Kenyan police have, over the years, accumulated a tattered reputation because of their use of excessive force and entrenched culture of corruption.
For instance, during the 2007-2008 post-election violence in which about 1200 people were killed, and of those, the Kenya police were accused of killing close to one-third.
While since then there have been police reform efforts, it is still inchoate to embellish the systemic institutional deficit within the police hierarchy.
The mosque raid came against the backdrop of extra judicial killings of suspected Imams by the police because of their alleged involvement in recruiting and radicalizing young Kenyans. This has gone on parallel to profiling that occurs within Kenyan Muslim communities.
Such heavy-handed approach could prove counter-productive and stymie the long-term efforts at reforming the police.
Kenya’s Somalia intervention
In the past, despite suffering multiple high-profile terrorist attacks, Kenya avoided the Western funded Zeitgeist of the War on Terror despite receiving funding from the United States.
That policy dramatically changed in October 2011 when Kenya sent its troops to Somalia to fight the Al Shabaab, 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 neighbors.
This had two consequences. The first was that Al Shabaab explicitly targeted Kenya for retribution as indicated by a series of grenade and other attacks on Kenyan soil.
According to a report by Muhuri ““We’re Tired of Taking You to the Court”, The U.S. Embassy reported that in 2012 there had been over 30 attacks involving grenades or explosive devices in Kenya. The embassy reported that at least 76 people died in these attacks, and around 220 people were injured.2
This succession of relatively minor incidents preluded the spectacular attack on the upscale Westgate shopping mall on September 21, 2013.
The second consequence was to reinforce Kenya’s 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 Anti Terrorism Bill in 2002.
The Counter-terrorism trap
One year after intervening in Somalia, Kenya passed the Kenya Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2012. The passage of the bill coincided with an upswing in extrajudicial killings by the police, especially in the coastal city of Mombasa.
Additionally, most counter-terrorism activities in Kenya employ an increasingly disproportionate amount of force especially along the coast and parts of Northern Kenya, the two regions with the largest concentration of Muslims in Kenya.
With the passage of the bill the false dichotomy of – you are either with the terrorists or with us. This took away any veneer of dialogue between state security and the Muslim leaders on how to address radicalization of Muslim youth.
There is no doubt Kenya faces genuine security threats emanating from Somalia and Al Shabaab. Further, there is the increasing radicalization of Kenyan Muslim youth and new converts across Nairobi, the coast and Northern Kenya.
But the massive use of force and the sharp profiling of innocent Somalis and the Muslim community more generally could prove to be counter-productive; it runs the risk of eroding community and security force relations. Further, 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 constitutional reform.
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 $10 million from the United States Government.
The mixed signals especially those emanating from the United States are insulating the Kenyan government from legitimate criticism. On one hand, the State Department emphasizes 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 DoD places their money where their mouth is- providing untied training and funding.
The Kenyan government has become adept at exploiting these mixed signals by defending any extra judicial killing with the reflexive default response that it was a pre-emptive counter-terrorism effort.
In such an environment the ultimate loser will be the ongoing process of police reform and innocent Kenyans. By its very nature, counterterrorism is cloaked in secrecy. However, under the new constitution, police reform is predicated on transparency and accountability. The police in Kenya have a dreadful reputation and a terrible human rights record. Entrusting such a police force with counterterrorism before it is fundamentally reformed is akin to giving them a blank check.