Kenya Unveils New Strategy for Tackling Terror

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 19


Kenya has launched a new strategy aimed at preventing violent extremism, unveiling it against a background of increased threats from Somalia’s al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab, home-grown militants and, more recently, suspected Islamic State (IS) sympathizers (The Star, September 16).

President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the strategy on September 7 in a speech from State House Nairobi, which was itself recently targeted in a series of grenade and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks linked to suspected al-Shabaab members (Capital FM, September 7).

Kenyatta has vowed the new National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism (NCVE) will marshal people from across all sectors – government, civil society, the private sector, etc. – in support of the country’s counterterrorism efforts. [1] The plan, with its emphasis on deradicalization over heavy-handed tactics, is seen by Kenya’s counterterrorism experts as critical to dealing with the terror threats the country faces.

Implementing a New Strategy

Kenya’s National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), which is run by the office of president and coordinates all government counterterrorism efforts, will implement the NCVE. Heading it up is NCTC director Martin Kimani. An experienced diplomat, as well as a military educated and regional security expert, his role is to ensure smooth coordination with regional and global partners.

Kimani was previously the permanent representative and head of mission to the United National Environmental Program (UNEP). A good deal of his experience comes from having worked as director of the Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism, an agency of the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) based in Addis Ababa Ethiopia, an organization that works to prevent conflict in the Horn of Africa. He has also held senior positions at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and worked in various capacities in currency and bond trading, political risk analysis, policy development and regional security (The Standard, January 11).

Kimani’s time heading up the NCTC has been relatively successful. On his watch, terror attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and Garissa have declined, and the scale of attacks witnessed along the border with Somalia have been reduced. These are mainly ambushes and “night raids.” On September 21, for example, al-Shabaab fighters attacked Hamey Police Station in Garissa County, killing two police officers. The militants stole guns, ammunition and a police land cruiser (The Standard, September 21). Over 4,400 rounds of ammunition, an MG3 machine gun, two G3 rifles and a VHF radio set were also taken (Daily Nation, September 26).

Emphasis on Deradicalizsation

For years, Kenya’s anti-terrorism efforts have focused largely on the deployment of the security forces, with the country sending troops into Somalia in 2011. Inside Kenya’s borders the police have heightened border surveillance and carried out raids in neighborhoods in Nairobi and Mombasa, as well as in Garissa town (The Standard, April 14, 2014). Yet al-Shabaab has continued to pose a significant threat, evidenced by the Garissa University attack in April 2015 and the attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall on September 21, 2013.

The NCVE, which adds prevention and counter-radicalization elements to existing anti-terror approaches, has the prevention of extremist groups from radicalizing ordinary Kenyans as one of its key aims. A statement on the NCVE from the president’s office stresses the importance of the rehabilitation of Kenyan nationals who are former al-Shabaab combatants. [2]

This is a welcome change in focus. In 2015, reports suggested that nearly 700 combatants who had earlier left to fight for al-Shabaab in Somalia had quietly deserted the battlefields and returned to Kenya. Some left the radical group to take advantage of a Kenyan government amnesty, announced by Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery in April, while others left the jihadists after the lucrative deals al-Shabaab promised them turned out to be less remunerative than expected (The Star, October 21. 2015).

With the influx of former militants, it is perhaps unsurprising that experts have concluded there has been a shift in the principle terror threat Kenya faces – from that posed by Somali militants, to that posed by home grown terror cells (Daily Nation, March 10).

Security Forces ‘Infiltrated’

Increasingly Kenya’s security agencies have highlighted the problem of radicalization within local communities. In schools over the last few years, school heads have grappled with concerns that al-Shabaab agents have penetrated their institutions, allegedly influencing students and recruiting some to their cause (The Star, August 7). Near the Somali border, the police have on several occasions arrested students travelling to Somalia to join the ranks of militant groups and in some cases have rounded up students allegedly intending to join IS in Libya and Syria (Kenyans, February 19; The Star, August 2).

At first the radicalization and recruitment efforts targeted youth in majority Muslims regions like Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood, northern Kenya and the coastal region of Mombasa, but this appears to have changed. Militants now also recruit from non-traditional Muslims regions. Factors such as poverty, unemployment and a lack of opportunities for young people are seen as the drivers of radicalization, but another important factor may be grievances around marginalization as a result of race or tribe (Daily Nation, July 4, 2015).

Meanwhile, reports also suggest that members of al-Shabaab’s Amniyat, the group’s intelligence wing, have targeted the security forces. In July, a police officer killed seven of his colleagues at a police station in Kapenguria, West Pokot County in what has been portrayed as a lone wolf attack. The officer was later gunned down by members of the elite Recce squad of the General Service Unit (GSU) following an eight-hour siege at the police station (Daily Nation, July 14).

Investigations have since shown that the officer had a network within the service. According to some reports, he had attempted to bribe other officers to release a terror suspect held at the station, while his bank account is said to have contained more than $30,000 that could not be properly accounted for (Daily Nation, July 14; The Standard, July 14).

In August, a police raid targeting a former Recce elite squad officer who had deserted the force discovered three AK47 rifles and 178 round of ammunition. The operation followed reports the officer had been radicalized and was planning to attack a GSU camp in the Ruiru area near Nairobi, which hosts the elite squad (The Star, August 4). He had reportedly been seen attending the radical Riyadha Mosque in Nairobi, where hardline sermons are preached.

Under Scrutiny

Kenyan military efforts in Somalia have had some success in countering al-Shabaab, but fresh thinking on anti-terror strategies in Kenya is clearly to be welcomed.

Kimani appears well placed to facilitate the planned coordination with regional partners the NCVE envisages; and the emphasis on deradicalization efforts is pertinent given the number of former al-Shabaab fighters returning to Kenya.

Nevertheless, recent reported incidents of radicalization within the security services are a troubling development and a reminder that Kenyan counterterrorism officials will need to monitor just how effectively its new strategy plays out.



[1] See the statement from the Kenyan president (September 7)

[2] Ibid.