Garissa Attacks Put Spotlight on Kenya’s Response to Growing Terror Threat

Not long after the 2013 siege at the Westgate Shopping Complex in Nairobi that killed 67 and wounded 175, a somber-looking Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared that his government stood “ready to defend the nation from internal as well as external aggression.” These words were foremost in the minds of many observers as Kenya suffered an even worse terrorist attack early this month at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya—the second deadliest in Kenya’s history, after the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of the US Embassy in Nairobi.

As expected, responsibility for the Garissa massacre, in which 148 were killed and 79 injured, was claimed by the militant group al-Shabaab, which was also behind the Westgate siege. And parallels between the Westgate and Garissa attacks are not only limited to their perpetrators. Both attacks have underlined chronic deficiencies in Kenya’s counterterrorism strategy—deficiencies which are being exploited by al-Shabaab with deadly consequences. In turn, the terrorist group continues to be a growing threat across the wider region, as today’s deadly bombing outside the education ministry in the Somalian capital Mogadishu attests.

During the Westgate political post-mortem, evidence surfaced of how both local and foreign intelligence had provided Kenyan officials with forewarning of a potential al-Shabaab attack in the capital. It was further disclosed how corruption among mid- and junior-level officials may have enabled the assailants to obtain passports and other documentation that aided in the facilitation of the attack. Finally, serious questions were raised about the professionalism of Kenya’s security forces after surveillance footage implicated several security personnel in acts of looting amid their pursuit of the al-Shabaab gunmen.

In the aftermath, Kenyatta said he had directed security agencies to be “decisive in their response to this or any other threat,” noting that these forces were mandated to “demonstrate our constitution’s categorical guarantee of Kenyans’ indefeasible right to life and property.” Fast forward to the Garissa attack and it appears that the president’s promises have failed to be realized.

Akin to Westgate, reports suggest that members of Kenya’s security apparatus were provided forewarning of an imminent al-Shabaab attack. In addition to a number of foreign government agencies either issuing specific warnings or changing their travel advisories for the country, a number of Kenyan universities advised students and staff to be extra vigilant due to an unspecified threat. Such advisories were even issued in Garissa, where the Garissa Teachers Training College was closed amid concerns about security prior to the attack on the adjacent university campus. Yet despite these warnings, little was done to increase security provisions in a region which, due to its proximity to the Somali border, has always been assessed as particularly susceptible to an al-Shabaab attack.

Although security forces were not implicated in any acts of criminality this time around, they were nonetheless berated for their slow response. Kenyan media reports suggest it took the country’s elite paramilitary unit seven hours to deploy to Garissa from their base in Nairobi. By the time they arrived, the majority of the deaths had already occurred.

As the Garissa attacks attest, the threat of al-Shabaab is becoming more, rather than less, pronounced for Kenya. Formed in 2006, al-Shabaab has largely been occupied with fighting Somalia’s Western- and African Union-backed government for political control of the country. The militant group has, however, long been thought to be embedded in northeastern Kenya, among the region’s sizeable ethnic Somali population.

While serving as an important recruitment, financing, and logistical hub for al-Shabaab, Kenya was largely spared from the group’s violent insurrection until October 2011, when the Kenyan government deployed its military to southern Somalia. This followed a spate of kidnappings in eastern Kenya that it blamed on al-Shabaab. At first, the militant group responded to these cross-border military operations with a spate of retaliatory, largely low-level, attacks targeting state, security and government interests across northern Kenya, but has now firmly graduated to large scale demonstrations of violence.

It is not only Kenya’s response, or lack thereof, to al-Shabaab attacks that has been problematic. Coinciding with its cross-border military operations in southern Somalia, Kenya has adopted a domestic counterterrorism policy which has seen thousands of its Muslim and ethnic Somali communities—claimed to be sympathetic to al-Shabaab—subjected to extortion, harassment, detentions and extrajudicial killings.

I previously argued that his strategy may not only be aiding al-Shabaab in its local recruitment, but could increase domestic radicalization among Kenyan communities who perceive their ethno-religious identities to be under threat. The fact that at least one of the Garissa assailants was a Kenyan national has only reinforced my concerns that the terrorism threat in Kenya is becoming as rooted in local dynamics as events across the Somali border.

It is becoming more evident that Kenya’s counterterrorism approach may be firmly broken. Al-Shabaab attacks have continued unabated and the need for a strategic overhaul is becoming urgent. Reform within the country’s state security apparatus remains a pressing concern, as does the government’s policy toward communities who are finding it difficult to differentiate between friend and foe in Kenya’s war on terror.

Solutions to these quandaries, will, however, not be implemented overnight. Nor will they yield immediate dividends once they are eventually established. In the interim, Kenya will have to find temporary ways and means of making good on the promises of protecting its citizens from both internal and existential threats. Until now, the only assurances being honored are those pledges of violent retribution by al-Shabaab.