Photo: Police officers with police dogs face demonstrators in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood [Carl de Souza/AFP]

Kenya has been both a target and a victim of violent extremism and terrorism, which has resulted in changes to the country’s security landscape. Most recently, al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group with roots in Somalia, has claimed responsibility for several attacks against targets in the country. The group reportedly has also been using its extremist ideology to recruit youths to carry out its terrorist missions in Kenya, attacking its major tourist hubs on the coast and in public places.[1] In response, the Kenyan government has, among other measures, enacted laws to counter violent extremism and terrorism, and it has created an anti-terror police unit to strengthen the capacity of the security bodies. According to Human Rights Watch, this unit has been accused of human rights violations and extrajudicial killings.

The terrorist attacks have further complicated Kenya’s peace and security terrain, already characterized by conflicts fuelled by politicized ethnic identities; struggles for power; inequality and poverty; and, more recently, the proliferation of small arms and militias. Intrastate conflicts and instability in the region, both in the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa, have also affected the country.

Kenya has a large population of youth, many of whom are unemployed and frustrated, making them vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists. Apart from offering monetary inducements, the extremist groups rely on sympathizers and manipulate religious identity and political marginalization to attract and radicalise alienated and angry young people. Youth radicalization has undermined social bonds and authority, at levels ranging from the family to the community, the region, and the nation. In the quest to combat radicalization and terrorism, the authorities have come up with counterterrorism strategies, some of which have come under fire from Muslim communities and human rights groups, who accuse security officers and agencies of stereotyping, excessive use of force, and abuse.

Among the security measures implemented is increased surveillance, especially at ports of entry. The government has also deployed additional security personnel in the affected and volatile areas in Northern Kenya, and it introduced an initiative called “Nyumba Kumi” which means “ten houses” in Kiswahili. The idea is to form clusters of households within communities (for instance, ten) that will look out for each other, report suspicious activities, address social problems among themselves, and be responsible for making their neighborhoods more secure[2]. This was introduced, based on the assumption that a small community made of ten households can be accountable as well as keep watch on activities that take place in their neighborhood.

To crack down on suspected terrorist cells and their sympathizers, the government also launched “Operation Usalama”[3] which was met with criticism from Muslim communities and human rights groups. Conducted in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, believed to be largely inhabited by Somali immigrants, the operation carried out a mass arrest of over three thousand people. This was seen as counterproductive by community members, who believed such sweeping actions targeting whole communities could lead to unintended outcomes, including radicalizing youth by causing them to resent the overzealousness of police and security agencies.

Reversing the Trend

As the Kenyan government’s strategies to combat violent extremists gradually take effect, al-Shabaab has sought to survive by adapting to the changing environment, penetrating communities, radicalizing youth from different educational and social backgrounds, and identifying new “soft targets.” Security personnel alone cannot effectively counter these extremists. They will need the support of communities, local youth, women’s groups, minorities, and religious leaders. They can gain it by several means:

  • Creating employment and wealth-generating opportunities for youth is very important for gaining their support, as is empowering communities to counter extremist ideologies by engaging youth in constructive dialogue and building their trust in the authorities. Success in such an effort would be a victory for both the community and the government as partners in ensuring national peace and security.
  • Since the communities in areas affected by radicalization are highly patriarchal, with men and elders controlling decision making and often excluding women’s voices, special attention must be paid to involving women and women’s groups in empowerment projects and decision making. Women’s roles as mentors, mothers, siblings, peacemakers, and teachers, among others, are crucial and cannot be ignored if the society is to progress in fighting radicalization. Strengthening women’s participation in the society will, among other things, help address the problem of young girls absconding from home to get married to al-Shabaab fighters.
  • Involving and working with religious clerics and Madrassa teachers in programs and actions to counter radicalization and become more involved with the youth can also help prevent recruitment and radicalization.
  • More has to be done to bring civil society and community-based advocacy groups already in the region on board, to engage in dialogue with various stakeholders on the rise of radicalization among youth and how to address and reverse it at the grassroots level.

Also important to note that the Kenyan state alone cannot completely eradicate terrorism by relying on laws and the use of its security forces. Engagement at the community level has to be part of the process of changing minds, de-radicalizing youth, and educating the vulnerable groups in society. Security personnel have to be sensitized and reoriented on how to engage and interact with the communities they serve, to replace a climate of fear, distrust, and intimidation with trust, confidence, and open lines of communications. More broadly, security agencies need to coordinate their role with those of other sectors in development, justice, health, education, social welfare, infrastructure, and information. Only a holistic approach that combines best practices in social inclusion and welfare, democracy, and development with context-sensitive security strategies is likely to counter violent extremism and promote sustainable peace in Kenya.

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