Our vigilance against terror activities must not wear out

Security officers comb Boni Forest in Lamu County for Al-Shabaab terrorists during “Operation Linda Boni”.

Four years ago, we were visited by anarchy at the Riverside area of Nairobi, yet again. We remember this terror attack and all others that we have suffered to honour the lives that were so senselessly lost, for every life is sacrosanct and must be accounted for.

It is also a moment of introspection and stock-taking on the progress we have made on this journey, but also to remind ourselves of the potency and adaptability of the adversary we still face.   

Indeed, we have come a long way and learnt tough lessons in the process. A key lesson from Dusit was that enlightened citizens and communities are at the heart of an effective strategy on preventing and countering violent extremism.

The concerted efforts of the citizenry and the state have made it harder for terrorists to operate; we have responded accordingly, upping our kinetic capabilities in degrading the threat, protecting public spaces and arresting the criminals.  

In implementing our strategy to counter violent extremism, we have sought to eradicate the insidious ideology propagated by violent extremists to divide us along sectarian cleavages.

 In so doing, we have focused on every county through action plans that are alive to the existing realities, heavily invested in community-led initiatives to drain the pool of would-be recruits, sensitised communities to watch out for the malevolent recruiters, and trained the private security sector as partners in protection of public spaces.

We have also enacted legislations and policies to mainstream prevention of terrorism in government operations, held intensive inter-faith dialogues, and created resilience among communities. 

As part of counter-radicalisation, programmes targeting at-risk youth have been injected, thus depleting the terror organisations of membership. Counties are now playing an instrumental role in the prevention and countering of violent extremism.

The ongoing review of County Action Plans is geared towards making them more inclusive and responsive to dynamic realities of extremism.

  However, it must not be lost on us that this threat will shift as other global interests shift, and thus the responses cannot remain static.  We live among inherently malignant forces, and it is our cardinal duty to keep re-inventing ourselves and keep ahead of the adversaries. 

Apocalyptic Daesh

For instance, Africa is rapidly becoming the epicentre of the apocalyptic Daesh (the so-called Islamic State) brand of terrorism, with upcoming franchises falling besides themselves to seek affiliation with the Daesh senior leadership.

The killing of a leader (what they call a caliph) and the subsequent replacement is predictably followed by a scramble to proclaim the oath of allegiance. This forms part of scary propaganda, deliberately meant to show invincibility and entrench fear. 

This is an addition to the subsisting terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaida in Africa, thus the choices of combat theatres to which recruits are attracted are also on the increase. Correspondingly, counter-terrorism pressure in the combat theatres would translate to an inflow of returnee combatants, posing a danger to society.

Imperatively, conflict and terrorism are two sides of the same coin, thus countries that are experiencing internal conflicts are more likely to experience a surge in activities of terrorist groups. 

All this is happening against the backdrop of phenomenal technological growth globally, which the terrorists are already exploiting.  Indeed, when Daesh started losing territory in Syria and the Levant, they advised their followers to morph into a cyber-caliphate.  The cogent internet infrastructure has served their purpose in that they have embedded themselves in the online space and recruitment into their rank is rife within the ungoverned spaces in the internet. 

Indeed, recruitment has shrunk in the physical spaces but has peaked in the online spaces.  While good internet infrastructure has myriad advantages in terms of economic growth, it is fraught with dangers of negative exposure especially for the incipient minds that are our youth.

Instructions on how to carry out attacks abound in the internet, and possibilities of lone wolves executing facile but lethal attacks (such as ramming into a crowd with a vehicle) are real.  

Changing personality

It behoves parents, guardians and communities to be vigilant and watch out for those tell-tale signs of a changing personality, such as change in dressing to the perceived ‘pious’ styles, change in language, demeanour and associates, among others.

To defeat the enemy, we must understand their thinking and methods. The goal of the terrorist is to instil fear so as to force us to reject our time-tested social and democratic values, through intolerance and hatred directed at those we perceive to be different from us. This they do by presentation of macabre propaganda such as videos and threatening speeches.

Addressing technology as a driver of violent extremism, especially social media as a tool for online recruitment and investment in technology that ensures that any signature of a would-be lone-wolf is detectable is core. At the same time, investment in strategic communication to provide counter and alternative messaging to the terrorist propaganda and win the battle for the hearts and minds while inoculating the wider society against the propaganda is a major priority.

This includes working with stakeholders such as in the media and in the education sector to create awareness of the dangers of online extremism. Through an elaborate stakeholder-driven approach, religious leaders have been involved in developing counter narratives to distorted religious messages.

To completely defeat this enemy, we need a fine balance between the imperatives of decisive security-driven responses that directly counter and nullify the threat of terrorism, and measures aimed at addressing the social, political, economic, cultural and religious drivers of violent extremism.

Kenya is on the right track to defeating the enemy. We just need to remain united and focused on this collective goal. Fortunately, the resilient Kenyan spirit has time and again triumphed over the barbaric actions of terrorists. We salute the courageous men and women who have sacrificed life and limb — both civilians and members of the security agencies — to keep our motherland safe.

Dr Nyawira is Director, National Counter Terrorism Centre.