Kenya's current probe on terror: why Operation Usulama Watch won't cut it

Kenya should go back to the drawing board to find a realistic solution to the threat of terrorism, radicalisation and religious extremism.

At the beginning of April, the Kenyan government launched a massive crackdown on terror. Known as Operation Usalama (peace) Watch, the security forces describe it as an operation to detect illegal immigrants, arrest and prosecute people suspected of engaging in terrorist activities, identify places harbouring criminals and prevent acts of crime and lawlessness in general. However, the operation is essentially aimed at eliminating terrorism.

Unfortunately, however well intended, this type of operation will in no way contain terrorism, radicalisation and religious extremism, which have become a real threat in Kenya and throughout the entire region. Research-driven and well-thought-out, comprehensive policy is what Kenya needs to ensure appropriate, proactive and preventative counter-terrorism action.

Operation Usalama Watch – focuses mainly on Nairobi’s Eastleigh area and Mombasa – has to date resulted in as many as 4 000 people being arrested and detained. The operation bears a striking similarity to the one mounted against the terrorists during the Westgate Mall attack in that both are bullish, brutal, impulse driven and reactionary. Moreover, both types of operations involved different security arms and departments of government.

However well intended, this type of operation will in no way contain the threat of terrorism

A further similarity is that both operations are aimed at an enemy described vaguely as ‘terrorism’ – but which is difficult to identify in reality, despite being present throughout the country and the region. A valid question to ask therefore is whether any lessons were learnt from the Westgate Mall attack; both in terms of the failure to prevent it, and the way it was responded to. For example, was serious strategic thought and analysis given to the current operation to prevent it from ending up as smoke screen that would result in bitterness, isolation and alienation amongst Kenyans?

There is no doubt that terrorism is a global threat and should therefore not be countenanced. Kenya is no exception, and has since 1998 suffered numerous terrorist attacks in which many lives and property have been lost. In the last two months alone, at least five such attacks occurred in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, in Mombasa and in north-eastern Kenya. This shows that the threat of terrorism in Kenya has become a real menace that affects people’s lives on a daily basis.

The Kenyan government’s reaction to this threat has been largely oblivious of the root factors – as demonstrated during the Westgate Mall attack and the current Operation Usalama Watch. The Westgate Mall attack saw the use of uncoordinated brute force by the government’s military and security, which nevertheless did not prevent the loss of lives and left behind massive destruction of property, and extreme bitterness among the people of Kenya. Even with a demonstration of such might, terrorism was not defeated.

Under Operation Usalama Watch, large numbers of security personnel have been deployed in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area and parts of Mombasa, which are believed to host operational bases for terrorists. Security personnel have been conducting massive raids on those living and doing business in these areas.

This only deepens a sense of resentment and discrimination, which might contribute to further radicalisation

Large numbers of people have been arrested and detained, particularly those perceived to be non-Kenyans or suspected to be criminals. These people have been held in degrading conditions, in a way that shows little regard for basic human rights and the fundamental liberties enshrined under the Kenyan Constitution, as well as international and regional human rights law and standards, which Kenya is obligated to observe. This only deepens a sense of resentment, isolation, and discrimination, which are sure recipes for radicalisation, extremism and ultimately further terrorist activities.

For example, out of those arrested and detained, some 82 were deported to Somalia in the first week of the operation – and over 225 were to be additionally deported in the second week of the operation. Yet the basis under which the deportations are being conducted is not clear, since human rights organisations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC), were denied access to the detention and screening centres. In any event, any deportations to Somalia would contravene the well-known refugee principle of non-refoulement, which is protected under Article 2 (3) of the 1969 Organisation of African Union (OAU) Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, to which Kenya is a signatory.

Furthermore, the concentration of the security forces’ raids in Nairobi’s Eastleigh and parts of Mombasa also adds credit to the perception that the operation is discriminatory and targeted towards particular communities and a particular religion. This increases perceptions that the operation is being driven by little more than ethnic and religious profiling.

Security is indeed a sensitive matter, and governments have the right to ensure the safety and security of its citizens within its borders. However, the best way to do this is to ensure that large-scale security operations are based on clear intelligence, and are well-thought-out and planned to ensure that they are conducted in a humane and balanced manner.

This would help reduce the risk that security operations might contribute to further radicalisation, extremism and terrorist activities, as it is not possible – merely based on security operations – to identify all those involved across Kenya and the region.

Evidence-based research conducted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and other experts has identified deep-rooted social, political, economic, religious and environmental factors that contribute to various individuals and groups becoming radicalised and involved in extremist and terrorist activities. Effective counter-terrorism strategies should therefore be multidimensional, and any realistic fight against radicalisation, religious extremism and terrorist activities must take into account these factors.

The mere demonstration of its security is an attempt by the government to stamp its authority, but would certainly generate more resentment, isolation and alienation and ultimately serve to drive radicalisation and religious extremism further. Beyond Operation Usalama Watch, Kenya must go back to the drawing board and work with experts, partners and citizens to form a comprehensive policy, multi-dimensional strategies and durable solutions to combat the radicalisation and religious extremism that give rise to terrorism.

Peter Aling'o, Senior Researcher and Office Head, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Nairobi

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