With Kenyans heading to the polls on August 8, voting once again against the backdrop of the security threat posed by al-Shabaab, the recent supposed theft by militants of an electronic voting kit has raised fears that the group could seek to directly target the election process.
While fears of some form of electronic threat are overstated — and possibly owe something to the hacking claims that have followed elections in the West — al-Shabaab could still seek to disrupt the polls in a more traditional manner.
Kenya introduced some electronic voting measures in 2013, in response to recommendations made by the Kriegler Commission in its report on the deadly violence that followed the 2007 presidential election. These have since been codified, and Kenya goes into its 2017 election using a biometric voter registration system, candidate registration system and electronic voter identification. These could all be targeted, according to some government officials.
Allegations of the potential threat to the elections emerged as far back as December 2016, when the country was debating the merits of using an electronic voting system (The Star, Dec. 29, 2016). At the time, Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru warned that al-Shabaab, or any cyber-criminal group, could target electronic voting methods. He advised against using the system, pointing out similar systems had failed in various countries and suggesting that Kenya should not consider itself to be an exception (The Standard, December 31, 2016).
Those fears are not unfounded. In 2012, a hacker known as Direxer brought down 103 government of Kenya websites. In May 2016, hacking collective Anonymous carried out a sophisticated hack on the Kenyan ministry of foreign affairs, stealing data and confidential files, including email conversations and security related communications, and posting them on the dark web.
The issue appeared to come to a head in February this year when suspected al-Shabaab fighters reportedly stole biometric voter registration kits belonging to Kenya’s elections manager, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (Nairobi News , February 2). The militants attacked a local police station in Mandera, over-powering the 21 police officers manning the station before making off with the kits, three guns, ammunition, a police vehicle and a motorcycle (The Star, February 2; Daily Nation, February 8).
The incident further fueled speculation that the group had an interest in directly targeting the elections, but al-Shabaab later denied the voting kits were among the items it had seized, instead saying the government needed to come clean and admit it had simply lost the equipment (Daily Nation, February 6).
Whether al-Shabaab poses a real threat to the election is the subject of intense debate in Kenya.
Ali Hassan Joho, the Mombasa governor and a member of the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy alliance, has said the debate simply bolsters al-Shabaab’s credentials as a terror group. He warned that making the militants part of the election discourse gives them a degree of prestige that they did not deserve. The governor questioned the militant’s abilities to jam any electronic system and charged that the debate simply exposed Kenya’s weakness.
Indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that al-Shabaab has acquired the technology to deploy a cyber or electronic attack. The group is not known to have executed one in the past, although it has targeted telecommunication installations. On May 11, the militants destroyed a telephone mast in Amuma area near the Somali border, as they carried out an attack in El-Wak town. The attacked left a quarry mine-worker dead (The Star, May 16). And in December 2016, militants destroyed four telecommunication masts belonging to mobile companies Safaricom and Orange, in Mandera County in a single week (Daily Nation, December 13, 2016; The Star, December 16, 2016). The move cut the region off from the rest of the country for months and left local residents fearing the militants were isolating them in order to carry out sustained attacks.
More likely, the threat from al-Shabaab is of a more traditional nature. The group recently stepped-up attacks in the border areas of Garissa, Mandera and Wajir, carrying out attacks in regions that are by and large poorly policed.
On May 15, suspected al-Shabaab gunmen attacked Omar Jillo, a small town center in Lafey sub-county in Mandera, killing a local chief and abducting two Kenya Police Reservists (Capital FM, May 16, 2016). Omar Jillo, like other towns in the area, is under a dawn-to-dusk curfew to try to curb militant activity.
Queuing voters at polling stations are a potential soft target for the militants. In the past, they have used grenades and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to attack public places, the police, churches and other institutions. Polling centers, which are usually poorly policed or set-up without considering the possibility of a strike by militants, could be a relatively easy targets.
Furthermore, the kidnapping of election officials cannot be ruled out. The militant group is known to kidnap aid workers, tourists and other officials for ransom. In April, fighters kidnapped four aid officials working for the World Health Organization in central Somalia (Hiiraan Online, April 4). Five years ago such abductions prompted Kenya to send its troops into Somalia.
Potential for Disruption
Until recently, al-Shabaab had not commented on Kenya’s elections, but in March the militants accused President Uhuru Kenyatta of plotting to use the security services to rig the polls.
Ali Mohamoud Rage (a.k.a. Ali Dheree) told the Somalia-based Radio al-Furqan that Kenyatta had armed the police and bought armored vehicles to suppress and intimidate any opposition. Dheree pointed to Kenyatta’s surprise visit to Kenyan forces in the border town of Dhobley, saying the visit showed Kenyatta was fearful of the political opposition and was desperately trying to shore up support from a military he had long-neglected and left to suffer heavy losses in battles with al-Shabaab (Harar 24 New, March 23).
Dheree’s statement at least confirmed that the militant group was closely monitoring electoral developments in Kenya.
Analysts say that by targeting the electronic process, the militants would be attempting to turn public opinion against the government by showing its inability to secure the election process. In a country that has seen significant electoral violence in the past, that could ignite tempers and even drive calls for the withdrawal of KDF in Somalia in order to bolster security at home. An effective attack of this nature could disrupt and destabilize the country.
However, the chances of a cyber-attack are slim. The government will need to ensure it takes steps to secure the electronic voting system, as well as step up its data protection measures. But that is simply a matter of good practice.
In reality, the threat al-Shabaab poses to the polls on August 8 is more likely to come from grenades, guns and explosives than in the form of an electronic attack.