The Westgate Mall terror attack of September 21 has raised many questions about the nature of national security in Kenya and regional security in Eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa. Key among these are the following three: Does the collapse of the Somali Republic, the reentry of international forces to restore normalcy, and the subsequent decision by terror groups like Al-Shabaab to take revenge against those forces represent a new challenge for regional security? If so, should our thinking about these new security challenges be framed from a Kenya-centric position or a regional perspective? And what should a new security structure look like?These questions call for a rethinking of how security operations are conceived and executed and an understanding of how the war on terror has raised new stakes and demanded different approaches to security. Where the Somali Republic is at issue, as in the case of Westgate, the complications are many, and they worsen the situation for security thinkers. To the extent that Somalia is at issue and Kenya is a target country, a narrow national approach to these questions is inadequate, and the George W. Bush framing of terrorism using the binary of “us” versus “them,” “good” against “evil,” is doubly wanting.

Westgate provides three lessons in response to these questions. These three lessons are illuminated by the case of Somalia in East Africa and of Somali identity and citizenship in the Horn of Africa. The first comes from the complicated context within which Al-Shabaab terror is unfolding in the region. We need to understand the context, but not be confined by it. The second goes back to the practices of current security operations in Kenya and, indeed, in Africa, which are organized around the old Maoist notion of draining the pond to catch the fish. In view of the regional context of the Somali problem, this practice is based on a brutal and unreasonable approach. The third lesson relates to the inescapable centrality of properly weighed citizen participation in the country’s security thinking and action.

These three lessons are related. The context of antiterror operations in Kenya is complicated by the identity and citizenship of people of Somali ethnicity, who have historically been divided among five different nation-states in the horn: Kenya, the Somali Republic, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Although major US military operations in the region have maintained relative calm in Eritrea and Djibouti, times have been more difficult for Somali communities in Kenya and Ethiopia, and Somalis in the Somali Republic have survived the internal war that followed the 1991 collapse of the Siyad Barre regime only at great cost.

The collapse of the Somali Republic did not only cause internal anarchy; it also unleashed a massive wave of ethnic Somali refugees into Kenya, which today has left Kenya with its own large population of ethnic Somalis. To that end, the border between the two countries is long (extending more than 500 kilometers) and is inadequately policed and susceptible to all manner of criminal transgressions. Worse, the northeastern region of Kenya is historically a marginalized area lacking necessary investments in basic infrastructure, including security provision. (For example, in the 1960s it was home to an irredentist movement, with Somalis of Kenyan citizenship seeking to rejoin the Somali Republic.) To the extent, then, that instability in Somalia has been a problem in the region, it is best expressed in Kenya and, perhaps, Ethiopia—the two countries that have intervened to restore normalcy there with varying levels of success.

The complexity of the Somali issue and of Somali citizenship feeds into the second lesson, as it starkly epitomizes the conflict between security and rights—in this case, the security concerns of Kenya and the citizenship rights of Kenyan Somalis. At the heart of the conflict are the refugees from Somalia, who occupy refugee camps in Kenya but often find their way into towns in the region, including Nairobi, Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda.1Human Rights Watch, Hidden in Plain View: Refugees Living without Protection in Nairobi and Kampala, New York, 2002. Their presence makes the job of Kenya’s security agencies more difficult, as they have to then distinguish citizens of their own country from noncitizens among people of the same ethnic identity.

In response to this difficulty, the security agencies have adopted the Maoist approach of draining the pond to catch the fish. Kenyan legislators recently joined a growing public chorus demanding the closure of all refugee camps. While this counterproductive approach assumes terrorists are trained in or use the camps to infiltrate Kenya, no actionable security evidence for this assumption exists. Insisting on closing the camps is arguably a diversionary act adopted by the state and legislators to divert the attention of Kenyans from the core issues of insecurity in the country.

The strategy of draining the pond is also implemented through the profiling of Muslims and ethnic Somalis. To avoid profiling or being targeted by other Kenyans, many Kenyan Somalis in particular have been forced to dissociate themselves publicly from terrorist groups. The Washington Post published a piece showing how any ethnic Somalis with innocent “links” to Westgate—for instance, having phoned someone who was there during the siege, whether as terrorist or victim—might face the risk of being profiled, harassed, or even detained. One ethnic Somali living in Kenya named Mohammed Khayrad, for example, who runs a Somali youth group in Eastleigh Estate in Nairobi, was called a terrorist by the owner of a downtown restaurant and ordered to leave. He responded with these words:

I hurt the way you hurt. I hate the way you hate. I am not one of the terrorists. I am part of the community who loves Kenya.2See Sudarsan Raghavan, “Somalis in Nairobi Face Backlash after Attack,” Washington Post, October 2, 2013,

As illustrated by this example, indiscriminate profiling does not facilitate a solution to a complex security threat like that posed by Al-Shabaab, which requires better security thinking, smarter strategy, and deliberate security action.

Devising a superior security strategy requires that we understand the complex context of the Al-Shabaab problem and come up with effective methods of thwarting possible threats in the future. Kenyan security needs to operate several steps ahead of Al-Shabaab and do so while mobilizing a regional strategy to support its operations. This will only happen if we dissociate ourselves from the thinking that currently dominates counterterrorist action internationally and question the assumption that state security is synonymous with secrecy.

International counterterrorism is based on false dichotomies of “us” versus “them,” “good” against “evil.” The idea that someone is either with us or against us has led to counterterrorist action that involves the threat or actual use of force and the forced rendition of suspects across borders, with limited results. Secrecy allows the use of crude and cruel force that intimidates while producing possibly false confessions and blurs the distinction between the horror that terrorists visit on innocent victims and the cruelty to which security forces subject terror suspects. Demonstrating the difference between terrorist tactics and security actions must therefore become a core element of the struggle to win the war against terror.

Security agencies must seek to demystify security operations by engaging citizens at some level in security sensitization and awareness. Citizens must cooperate with security vigilance, intelligence gathering, and surveillance. Any forms of surveillance that involve citizen participation and assure the people that security is conducted to guarantee our rights, not to victimize us, are likely to yield better results. This must include engaging the Somali and Muslim communities in Kenya, both citizens and refugees, to secure their cooperation.

The challenge we face in achieving better security thinking and strategy is the assumption that security is about the state. State security is discussed as if the security of the person is inconsequential. Government officials easily become the “brilliant” advocates of the “we-cannot-discuss-intelligence–in-public” doctrine, claiming that security issues take “place away from the glare of the limelight” and police vigilance and “the actions that come out of it are not a matter of public drama.”3See Daily Nation, February 28, 2013, 13. The consequence is that intelligence and security systems continue to exist in splendid isolation from ordinary people. Security is treated like tap water—something we expect to find ready-made until, of course, the taps run dry, and suddenly the blame begins. The reason we suffer repeated attacks is that “securocrats” have remained the all-consuming ogres of security knowledge, and citizens are passive recipients of what they dole out to us. The final lesson of Westgate is that the situation where security is seen as the exclusive preserve of a few experts is no longer sustainable, and must change.

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