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From Westgate to Paris, lessons learnt so far

By RASHID ABDI November 15th, 2015 3 min read

The terrorist attacks in Paris are yet another tragic reminder of how we are all vulnerable to acts of extreme violence by radicalised young men, impelled by a fanatical world view.

Early indications are the attacks may have been carried out by homegrown jihadists sympathetic or affiliated to the Islamic State (IS).

In fact, IS has been appealing to sympathisers to “turn the streets of Europe into rivers of blood” in response to the escalation of coalition airstrikes on IS targets and the fact that the movement is losing territory in Syria.

The Paris attacks ought to refocus minds on the problem of homegrown jihadism and its linkages with transnational terrorism which is proving a major challenge for all nations with sizeable Muslim minorities.

No nation can effectively defend itself against the type of suicidal urban warfare techniques deployed by terrorist groups.


From Westgate to Garissa and now to Paris, we have seen the terrible damage which a small terrorist “suicide infantry”, armed with assault rifles and IED vests can inflict.

Terror groups like IS and Al-Shabaab have perfected this “low-tech mass casualty” assault model and the potential for more attacks of this type remain high.

Kenya’s own struggle against terrorism is far from won, but, admittedly, modest progress has been made since Garissa.

Five mosques linked to jihadism in Mombasa are now in the hands of a moderate leadership of mosque committees.

The Boni militants have been squeezed and most have fled across the border into Somalia.

In North Eastern, the appointment of Mohamud Saleh as regional coordinator and the deployment of an additional well-trained 200 APRDU (Administration Police Rapid Deployment Unit) has positively altered the security dynamics with a number of arms seizures and arrests.


In North Eastern, it would seem, the gamble by the national government to entrust security to an ethnic Somali leadership, after the Garissa attack, is paying off.

Much of the change is owed to the fact that the inhabitants are beginning to have more faith in the security services and are providing crucial actionable intelligence.

Kenyan towns and cities remain highly vulnerable to attacks despite a heightened state of vigilance and enhanced security checks.

It is almost certain active Al-Shabaab cells in the country will attempt to stage attacks on high-profile targets at some point in the future.

Complacency is the terrorists’ best tactical ally.

The creeping sense of false security that seems to have lulled many Nairobians, in particular, to let down their guard in recent months, ought to change now in the wake of the horrors in Paris.


Rightwing parties in Europe – on the resurgence in recent years – will no doubt seek to capitalise on the atrocities in Paris to whip up Islamophobia.

For France and Kenya, every act of terrorism must be meet with a resolute determination by those in leadership to maintain social cohesion and avoid any rhetoric likely to inflame passions or foment a backlash against Muslims.

Tackling the conditions that incubate homegrown jihadism, youth militancy and violent extremism is key to unlocking the security challenges posed by terrorist groups.

This requires a coherent strategy built on sound knowledge and a genuine and solid partnership with a broad array of Muslim forces opposed to violence.

And this is where the Kenya government’s effort seems most wanting.

Despite the rhetoric, the initiatives to tackle youth radicalism are far from satisfactory.

Attempts to craft a counter-violent extremism strategy has been dogged by numerous challenges, not least, by inter-agency frictions and competing priorities.


More troubling, heavy-handed responses by security agencies seem to alienate many Muslims and narrow the space for a broad partnership to undermine extremism.

The devolved system of government has opened new possibilities for empowering local communities at the county level to seriously address the conditions that foster militancy.

In Coast and North Eastern, the county governments now have an opportunity to craft community-owned initiatives to tackle radicalism in cooperation with the national government and other willing partners.

But all these cannot happen in the absence of a national consensus and a coherent national strategy.

The rise of IS and the rumoured growing ties with Al-Shabaab poses additional worries for Kenya.

It is not yet clear how close Al-Shabaab has moved to IS in the last one year.

A number of Somali media reports suggest some key Al-Shabaab commanders intend to switch their allegiance formally to IS.

Mahad Karate, the head of the Amniyat branch, is said to be one of those influential leaders in favour of a partnership.

One faction linked to Al-Shabaab that operates in the Galgala mountains in Puntland, northeastern Somalia, has already declared its allegiance to IS, according to media sources.

An IS-Shabaab partnership is bound to have dire consequences for regional security.