The Great Wall of Kenya and the failing strategy against Al-Shabaab
“The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa” – These words by William Ruto, the Kenyan deputy president heralded the dawning of a new strategy in the fight against Al-Shabaab.  This strategy has come in the form of a wall stretching from the Indian Ocean to the city of Mandera where both Kenya and Somalia converge with Ethiopia. It is hoped that the wall will boost security within Kenya after a wave of attacks that have claimed scores of lives most notably the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and Garissa University attack in April. This wall symbolises Kenya’s current failing counter terrorism strategy and succeeds in distracting and deceiving Kenyans rather than defeating the threat posed by Al-Shabaab. The real threat to Kenya is not in Somalia but rather on its own side of the wall. Al-Shabaab aims to conquer Kenya by dividing it. Its attacks focus on causing both economic instability by crippling the country’s tourism industry and in exploiting religious divides within Kenya.  By ignoring this truth Kenya risks further attacks against its citizens. If A-Shabaab is to be defeated Kenya must change its approach else more innocent blood will be shed in East Africa.
Kenya has a tendency to blame all problems with terrorism on the political instability in neighbouring Somalia. Whilst there is some truth to this, in that Al-Shabaab has been significantly helped by the weak government and political instability within Somalia, it fails to fully recognise the threat the group poses to Kenya. The surge in support for a wall came following the attack at Garissa University. Whilst this attack was conducted by the Somali based group, Kenyan authorities do not seem to have recognised that all four of the Garissa attackers came from Kenya, rather than over the border. The complete lack of any internal counter terrorism strategy will only cause the loss of more lives within the country. To defeat Al-Shabaab Kenya must recognise that many of its member come from Kenya rather than Somalia. Once this has been recognised a significant effort must be made through communities and educational facilities to combat the group’s poisonous ideology. The war against Al-Shabaab will be won in the classroom not the battlefield and the sooner Kenya realises this, the quicker the group will be defeated. Whilst improving community cohesion and education is important, it must be done in conjunction with economic development. Kenya’s great wall has worsened rather than improved the economic prospects of those who live near the country’s border. In the border towns of Mandera in Kenya and Bula Hawa in Somalia, the lines are so blurred that traders and people move back and forth freely, businesses operate on both sides and mobile phone signals even alternate between countries. By dividing the two country’s Kenya is going to further exacerbate rather than heal the regions problems.
Walls are a comforting proposition for Kenya. There is something reassuring about shutting everyone else out and pretending as you go to sleep at night that the world’s problems are not yours; that the bad guys can’t get you.  This is reassuring fantasy rather than reality. Countries cannot shut themselves off from their neighbours and Kenya has yet to realise this. George Morara, vice chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said, “The war on terror must be a multi-agency, well-coordinated and intelligence-led undertaking…aimed at creating opportunities for gainful employment for the youth who are increasingly becoming soft targets for Al Shabab’s recruitment drives.”  If Al-Shabaab is to be defeated Kenya must adopt a fourfold counter terrorism approach which recognises the complexity of the threat posed to the country.
The first thing Kenya must do is to stabilise neighbouring Somalia and strengthen the country’s government. This can be done through international organizations such as the African Union which currently already offer assistance in Somalia. Once Somalia has been strengthened Al-Shabaab will be under significant pressure in that it will no longer be able to act with impunity in the Somali countryside and will be on the back foot in the war unable to properly train its recruits and plan its attacks. When stability has been returned to Somalia, Kenyan must get its own house in order. This means that corruption must be eliminated. Corruption allows Al-Shabaab to bribe its way through Kenya avoiding military checkpoints. In Kenya corruption is so systemic that entire public institutions are essentially privatised. To say the system is corrupt does not entirely do justice to this problem. The system isn’t corrupt but corruption is literally the system. There is great need for more robust international mechanisms to deal with this corruption. An international anti-corruption court enjoying the same kind of powers held by weapons inspectors would go a long way.  By bringing corruption to an end, Kenya significantly reduces the group’s ability to operate reducing both its capacity to launch attacks and its ability to train new recruits. It is not enough to simply reduce Al-Shabaab’s operational capacity. The group cannot be destroyed solely through military means, instead the groups appeal must be reduced. This can be done by boosting the economic prospects for those living within the country’s poorer Northern and coastal regions, reducing people’s dependence on the salary the group pays its fighters. The fourth and final nail in the group’s coffin will then be the development of an internal counter terrorism strategy which targets those who are at risk of being deceived by Al-Shabaabs propaganda. By saving the next generation from the lies of Islamic extremism Al-Shabaabs recruit numbers will dwindle until the group is both small and unable to carry out significant attacks against targets in East Africa. I admit that this strategy cannot fully remove the possibility for lone wolf terrorism, but it can reduce the current threat posed by the group and save countless lives in doing so.
The war against Al-Shabaab is failing. Urgent action is needed by Kenya if it is to prevent the loss of more life and destroy Al-Shabaab. Building a wall might make Kenya feel safe but this feeling will not last. Engaging with the world rather than withdrawing from and getting its own house in order by recognising the country’s internal problems is the only way to defeat a threat that operates internationally and across borders.
Written by Nathaniel Robinson