Security Situation Will Remain Tense


BMI View: Kenya's anti-terrorism efforts remain weak and poorly coordinated, and we doubt that the country's security services would be capable of preventing another spectacular attack by al-Shabaab, which would have significant negative implications for tourism and foreign investment. A draconian crackdown also risks further alienating the country's Muslim population.

At least three bombs went off in a heavily-Somali populated suburb of Nairobi on March 31, killing over half a dozen people and raising further questions about the ability of Kenya's embattled security forces. The blasts follow several attacks attributed to Somalia-based al-Shabaab militants, and BMI doubts that the Kenyan government will be able to stop the current wave of small-scale terrorist attacks.

Kenya's security forces have been severely criticised for their handling of the Westgate shopping mall massacre in September 2013, in which at least 67 people were killed by gunmen swearing allegiance to al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated group that originated in neighbouring Somalia. The bungled response, which involved turf wars between military and police units during the four day siege and allegations of systematic looting by security forces, has undermined confidence in Kenya's ability to protect the lives and property of its citizens and foreign nationals. Such concerns were further stoked by the government's inability to establish whether all the attackers were killed, or whether some had managed to escape the scene (see 'Weak Government Response Clouds Security Outlook', 8 October 2013).

Six months later, there is disturbing evidence that the authorities' security strategy remains in disarray. In mid-March, the Associated Press reported that the country's Anti Terror Police Unit (ATPU) was left with an operational budget of just US$735 dollars for March, to cover all maintenance for cars (including fuel), other travel expenses and office supplies. Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that a vehicle seized from alleged al-Shabaab operatives was impounded outside a Mombasa police station for at least six days before officers realized that it was packed with explosives.

Nairobi Residents Fear New Major Attack

Such poor resourcing and embarrassing leaks point to a demoralised atmosphere within the ATPU and underline the authorities' inability to deal with a determined enemy, which vowed to continue attacking Kenyan targets in the wake of the Westgate siege, in retaliation for Kenya's military presence in southern Somalia. Attacks against targets in Kenya have thus far been limited in scale (largely to hit-and-run efforts against police posts), but there is a palpable fear here in Nairobi that it is just a matter of time before there is another large-scale attack in the capital.

Shopping malls - containing high-end restaurants and bars, frequented by Kenya's political class and business elite, together with foreign diplomats, including those working for the UN's Somalia programmes - remain under-protected. Security checks are generally carried out by unarmed and scantly-trained personnel. Another large-scale attack on a high-profile target will, if it comes, prove a much bigger dent to international confidence in Kenya than the Westgate attack, since it will be impossible to dismiss such a development as a 'one-off.'

Beyond prompting foreign businesses and non-governmental organisations into reassessing whether to maintain Nairobi as their regional base, a second major attack would also have substantial implications for tourism revenues, which earn the country more than US$1bn per year and account for around 10 per cent of national GDP.

Concerns Rise Over Extra-Judicial Killings

When the security forces do react, they often do so in ways which risk harming community relations. The heavy-handed approach to dealing with the threat posed by Islamic extremism is also feeding into radicalization of elements of the country's Muslim community, including young Kenyan men, rather than just those of Somali origin.

In early February, the police conducted an armed raid against the Masjid Musa mosque, an institution consistently linked with Islamic extremism in the coastal city of Mombasa. The authorities acknowledge that they killed two people during this exercise, while independent sources (including a legal source spoken to by BMI) say eight worshippers died. Up to 130 people (including children) were initially rounded up and put in custody during this operation, with only 29 now facing terror charges.

The raid against the Musa mosque has contributed to young Muslim men here in Kenya feeling besieged by the security forces. Radical clerics have been murdered and some allege that the government has a policy of using extra judicial means to make targets 'disappear'. The two highest profile murders were of imams attached to the Musa mosque - Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, who was shot dead in his car in August 2012, and his successor Ibrahim Ishamael, who died in similar circumstances in October 2013.

There is widespread suspicion that these murders were carried out by the security forces, despite denials by the government. Fears were heightened in late March when Mombasa County Commissioner Nelson Marwa granted police investigating the March 23 attack on the Joy of Jesus church a shoot-to-kill order when tracking down suspects.

Kenya's Chief Inspector of Police, David Kimaiyo, subsequently publicly repudiated this order - which was seen as illegal - but the fact that it was publicly issued underlines, at best, the extent of command and control problems within the country's security forces, while also further exacerbating suspicions that extra-judicial killings are covertly being carried out by the security establishment.

Sectarian Tensions Rising

Meanwhile, the raid against the Musa Mosque points to a heightened danger that more attacks against Christian places of worship will be carried out by young al-Shabaab recruits. The gun attack against the Joy of Jesus church was one of several to have been perpetrated since Kenya's military invaded southern Somalia in October 2011. Such developments are not only further stoking tensions between the police and young Muslim men, but also between the wider Muslim and Christian communities, which could, in the worst case scenario, boil over into sectarian conflict in Kenya.

That said, there is evidence that some religious leaders are attempting to use interfaith dialogue to defuse the situation. The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims has worked closely with church leaders to periodically cool tensions, and the country has a strong history of inter-religious co-operation. Equally, however, there are signs of violent opposition to moderate Islam from the within the increasingly noticeable radical strand, including the stoning of a moderate cleric by Muslim youths in Mombasa in mid-March.

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Related sectors of this article: Political Risk, Defence, Domestic Politics, Armed Forces, Security
Geography: Kenya