What you need to know:
- After fighting militants across the border for almost a decade, Kenya is now using the lessons learnt to implement new strategies.
Colonel Harun Rashid of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) was livid. On this day, a mid-morning at the Alhusna Islamic Centre in Kilifi, and as he delivered his speech he, at times, veered off into a sermon.
Outside, armed men from KDF’s Special Forces stood guard. The hall was packed and access was limited. Apart from the main participants, only senior officials of security agencies at the coast and the Nation, which had been granted exclusive access after months of requests, were in attendance.
Inside the hall, hundreds of young school girls picked from across the coastal region sat pensively. Their pink, light blue and white uniforms brought a warmth to what was an otherwise tough discussion.
Col Rashid played a graphic video showing Al-Shabaab militants just about to execute a person.
“These are their fellow Muslims,” he said. “Where did you hear in Islam that you can strip someone naked and then shoot a video of them before killing them and announce to the world?...Prophet Mohamed said they will have Korans on their chests, but the words will not be in their hearts. Don’t be like them,” he added.
Winning souls was Col Rashid’s main aim. After fighting Al-Shabaab across the border for almost a decade, KDF was now using the lessons learnt to implement new strategies of winning the war.
Although the armed combat across the border and internal counter-terrorism efforts have largely contributed to a safer Kenya, they still haven’t done much to prevent the hundreds of distraught youth who were joining terror groups every year.
The African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), which KDF has been part of in the war since February 2012, plans to start withdrawing its 22,000-strong force from Somalia next year.
Although it is yet to be seen if Amisom will withdraw, since it has been planning to do so since 2012, Kenya will be forced to make a tough decision come 2021. Whether to withdraw its troops from Somalia alongside Amisom or break ranks with Amisom and maintain its army in the war-torn country.
The terror group, which first attacked Kenya in 2008, has maintained that it will never stop attacking Kenya unless KDF pulls out of the country.
Military observers say there is no guarantee that Al-Shabaab will stop carrying out attacks on Kenyan soil even if KDF withdraws from Somalia.
“Attacking Kenya, particularly its capital Nairobi, serves an important propaganda purpose for Al-Shabaab. Kenya is a major hub in Africa for diplomatic activity, tourism and business,” says the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs of Watson University in the United States.
“Furthermore, Kenya hosts a number of international organisations and Al-Shabaab considers this as part of its mission to target these interests linked to Western countries. Kenya’s free media provides guaranteed coverage that Al-Shabaab benefits from whenever an attack occurs,” adds the institute.
This means that as the 2021 withdrawal date for Amisom draws nearer, Kenya is still caught between a rock and a hard place. President Uhuru Kenyatta has repeatedly said that KDF will remain in Somalia until the job is done.
“The reality is that unless Al-Shabaab is completely eliminated, it will continue to attack Kenya, whether or not KDF remains in Somalia. If they don’t, no one will care about them,” says Patrick Kamau, a peace and conflict studies lecturer at the United States International University.
“Since they cannot retake control of Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, at least in the near future, Al-Shabaab needs to attack Kenya in order to remain relevant,” he adds.
For Kenya, however, remaining in Somalia will not only be a security and logistical question, but also a financial one. It is worth remembering that KDF was forced to join Amisom after a few months in Somalia because the costs of the war were enormous.
At that time, it was said that KDF was spending upwards of Sh200 million per month on personnel costs alone. Today, Amisom receives up to $900 million (Sh90 billion) of international funding per year in order to sustain the war in Somalia.
A big chunk of this funding comes from the European Union and the US. The EU funds cater for allowances for the troops and police, international and local civilian staff salaries, operational costs of their offices, among others. The US also funds private security contractors, mercenaries, military proxies and conducts drone strikes.
“The US contracts private security firms that pay former soldiers from France, South Africa, and Scandinavia to train African Union troops. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a base for secret interrogation of suspected terrorists in Mogadishu,” explains the Watson Institute.
Last year, Kenya received Sh4 billion in refunds from Amisom spent on KDF soldiers in the year ending June. The receipts from Amisom are projected to fall further to Sh3.5 billion this year and then to Sh3 billion in 2021, the year the mission is expected to withdraw from Somalia.
The reality is that what began as a local fight for power in Somalia after the collapse of the government in 1991, has in three decades taken a global dimension. However, apart from Somalia, it is Kenya that has faced the brunt of the conflict.
The result of continued attacks by Al-Shabaab over the last decade are visible in the private security industry, which has transformed into a multibillion-shilling industry employing thousands of guards.
At the moment, it is not clear how many people are employed in the industry, but the number could exceed 300,000, according to the Kenya Security Industry Association. At 300,000, the number of people employed by the private security firms outnumbers that of the police and military combined.
That’s not all. The amount, type and sophistication of security hardware and protocols have also increased in tandem.
At bus stops, touts double up as security agents, frisking every passenger getting into the vehicle. Once inside, passengers also find themselves being constantly monitored by CCTV cameras that have become a norm. Kenyans have seemingly gotten used to being frisked over time, too, even when doing routine activities like going to work, shopping or visiting places of worship.
But with the war seemingly still far from over, Kenya has decided to try new strategies to fight the threat posed by the militants. The first one is using soft power by fighting extremism at its roots through convincing Kenyan youth against joining terror groups.
Through strategy, which is being fronted by KDF, religious groups and the Ministry of Education, military men and women put down their guns and visit schools in areas that feed recruits to Al-Shabaab.
This was the idea of retired KDF chief General Samson Mwathethe on the premise that mastering the art of war was not enough. Gen Mwathethe inherited the war in Somalia from his predecessor, General Julius Karangi, before leaving it to General Robert Kibochi, his successor.
In his own words just before leaving office in May, Gen Mwathethe said: “Every force has to defend its integrity at an age when the Fact or the Truth, as we knew them are no longer upheld as sacrosanct. Moreover, in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment, the search for peace can be as elusive as shooting moving targets.”
During the school visits, KDF teaches students about their mission in Somalia while trying to explain that Al-Shabaab’s philosophy is not linked to Islam.
This is because apart from suffering numerous attacks by the terror group, Kenya is Al-Shabaab’s biggest recruiting ground for fighters who are not native Somalis. According to military sources, about 700 Kenyan youth are currently fighting alongside Al-Shabaab
“When Prophet Mohamed had problems in Saudi, he sent emissaries to a christian king. How can you now be told by Al-Shabaab that you should kill christians when it is them who protected the people who started our religion?” posed Col Rashid to attentive students from various Coast schools.
“Why would you allow yourselves to cross to a country where you can’t get married and women get raped all the time? As if that is not enough, someone then sends you to be a suicide bomber when he won’t be there himself?” he continued.
Kenya also wants the militants classified as a terrorist group by the UN Security Council. This will help those fighting the group use sanctions meant to tackle terrorism and not control civil conflict as it is right now.
This quest by Kenya was first fronted to the Security Council in 2014, but it has never been adopted. Things could, however, change since Kenya was in June elected to serve as a non-permanent member to the top UN organ.