Intelligence sharing, closer surveillance only way to stay ahead of Shabaab

Saturday January 19 2019

dusit d2

Kenyan special security forces arrive at dusitD2 hotel in Nairobi's Westlands that was attacked by terrorists on January 15, 2019. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG 

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The International Crisis Group report published in September 2018 under the title, Al Shabaab Five Years after Westgate: Still a Menace to East Africa, shows how some of the countries in East Africa are vulnerable to terrorist attacks.


Kenya is the most vulnerable to attacks by Somalia terrorist groups because of the proximity, a common porous border, the large number citizens of Somalia stock and the country’s decision to enter Somalia in 2011. There is also the challenge of corruption where police are bribed to allow arms to be transported from Somalia into the country.

Before Tuesday’s attack, the last time the country experienced a major attack was in April 2015, when Al Shabaab stormed Garissa University College, killing 147 Kenyans.

Until the dusitD2 Hotel attack, there has been a lull that Mwenda Njoka, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, attributes to a major shift in how the government deals with counter-terrorism with the emphasis on preventive measures.

Among the measures the government has introduced are deployment of anti-terrorism police in the north of the country, an increase in defence budgetary allocations for equipment, and the intensified border patrols.


Others are public participation through the Nyumba Kumi initiative that enables citizens to know their neighbours and report any suspicious activities, and the co-ordination among the security agencies that previously worked at cross-purposes.

In September 2017, the Global Terrorism Index placed Kenya as the third most affected by terrorism in the world behind Iraq and Nigeria. Kenya rated 6.6 out of 10, Nigeria 7.5 and Iraq 9.96.

The ICG report says that the Kenyan coast has long been one of Al Shabaab’s prime recruitment zones, because of the grievances over marginalisation that saw the emergence of a separatist group known as the Mombasa Republican Council.

After attacks in 2012, the government launched a heavy-handed crackdown reportedly including the assassination of religious leaders and the closure of four mosques accused of being associated with jihadist recruitment. While the approach was successful in the short term, it deepened Muslim grievances against the state.

The vast former northeastern province of the country – now divided into Mandera, Garissa and Wajir counties — has been another key theatre of operations for the Shabaab, with militants staging attacks and stepping up recruitment since Kenya deployed troops to Somalia in October 2011.

The ICG report says that the region, which is home to Kenyans of Somali ethnicity, nearly all Muslim, shares characteristics with other jihadist recruitment hotspots: A history of brutality perpetrated by unaccountable security forces, along with official neglect and economic exclusion that nurtured anti-establishment sentiment and calls for secession.

According to Kenyan security officials, between 2011 and 2015, Al Shabaab relied on local cells in the region. These cells conducted mainly small-scale attacks against soft targets such as restaurants and churches.


Unlike in Kenya and Uganda, where militant attacks attract sustained attention, violence perpetrated in Tanzania by Al Shabaab and local militants, some of whom appear to have ties to the Somali movement, has passed largely under the radar.

The report says that media coverage has been scant in part because Tanzania is less open to the international media than its neighbours.

According to security officials, Tanzanians made up the second largest cohort of foreigners – after Kenyans – who joined Al Shabaab in Somalia between 2009 and 2012; several Tanzanians face trial in Kenya for trying to cross into Somalia.

Officials in Dar es Salaam blame Tanzanian returnees from Somalia for running training camps at home; police raids on some of these camps in recent years have involved bloody battles with militants.

Tanzanian authorities say hundreds of children and youth have disappeared from their homes in the Pwani region, particularly in Kibiti, Mkuranga, Rufiji and Ikwiriri, and may have joined these networks.

Militant attacks on churches, entertainment spots, Muslim clerics and priests began slowly in 2013. At first, Tanzanian authorities denied that jihadists were responsible.

The coast, particularly in the Tanga, Mtwara and Pwani regions, has been hit hardest by the attacks in 2017. The report says that security services responded harshly, including a string of extrajudicial executions. During a visit to coastal towns in June, 2017, President John Magufuli vowed that the militants would “see fire.''

Tanzanian Muslim leaders often cite neglect and maltreatment of Muslims, including higher than average incarceration levels and alleged discrimination in employment, by what they regard as a Christian-dominated state.

The political crisis in Zanzibar also appears to have played into the jihadists’ hands. Political elites, mainly organised around the opposition Civic United Front, have long peacefully sought greater autonomy for the archipelago.

The report say that the scale of Al Shabaab’s recruitment and violence in Tanzania is lower than it was in Kenya between 2013 and 2015 and, as yet, the country has seen no major attack on civilians.

The report recommends that Tanzanian authorities improve policing and intelligence gathering, target interventions only at those genuinely suspected of involvement in violence, consult Muslim communities themselves on what works best to diminish the appeal of militancy among their youth and avoid collective punishment.


The same ICG report says that Uganda has suffered fewer al Shabaab attacks than neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania. The group has not launched a successful assault in the country since the co-ordinated July 2010 bombings in Kampala that killed 74.

This is because there is no obvious constituency among local Muslims from which militants can recruit. Muslims, who make up about 14 per cent of Uganda’s population, are well integrated and inter-confessional relations are relatively good, with inter-marriage between Christians and Muslims quite common.

The reports says that although Muslims have similar grievances to their co-religionists in Kenya and Tanzania, notably state neglect and lower access to formal education, Muslim elites in Uganda are relatively successful in business — they dominate the hospitality and transport industries, among other sectors.

According to Hajj Nsereko Mutumba, the spokesperson of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council: “We historically did not have sufficient access to the education system but we focused on business and have done well.”

The second factor is that Uganda has integrated its Somali population better than say Kenya, thus making them less susceptible to militant recruitment.

The third factor is that the Ugandan security forces operates in close co-operation with Western intelligence agencies, a co-operation that began soon after the 2010 Kampala attack. Ugandan security officials assert that shared intelligence helped thwart attacks, including a September 2014 plot to hit bars, a hotel and a university.

But indiscriminate arrests of Muslims every time a high-profile crime occurs are an acute source of grievance.


The risk of terrorism in Rwanda has declined over past years. The country experienced a spate of grenade attacks previously, with the last incident occurring in 2014, injuring six people in Musanze district.

Past terror occurrences in Rwanda were not tied to extremist Islamic groups but to FDLR rebels hosted in eastern DR Congo, and the RNC, which is led by exiled army general Kayumba Nyamwasa.

However, recruitment for terror groups like ISIS and al Shabaab was in recent years reported to be happening, especially in Muslim communities and mosques.