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Why is the US ramping up anti-terrorism efforts in Kenya?

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Why is the US ramping up anti-terrorism efforts in Kenya?

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In the aftermath of the deadly al-Shabaab attack on the Dusit 2 hotel complex in Nairobi in January 2019, urgent discussions began about how to re-enforce Kenya’s counter-terrorism capabilities. Clearly tough lessons still needed to be learnt in the wake of the Westgate Shopping Centre siege six years earlier.

Al-Shabaab continues to be a potent force in the region. After a brief lull it appears to be ramping up operations in both Somalia and Kenya. Despite a reported increase in the number of United States (US) air strikes against al-Shabaab operatives, al-Qaeda’s deadly affiliate has been linked to at least 15 attacks in Kenya since the start of 2020.

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Now Washington has announced the creation of the US’s first ever overseas joint terrorism task force, based in Kenya. The $2.5-million initiative envisages a multi-agency partnership between Kenya and the US to form the Kenyan Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF-K).

The FBI, which along with the US State Department is the key partner in the new joint task force, is no stranger to Kenya. It offered valuable forensics capacity following the Westgate attack, and FBI personnel are routinely embedded in foreign embassies. Now the JTTF-K is formalising that engagement by promising to offer Kenya’s counter-terrorism forces ‘training, experience and insight’ from US counterparts.

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It’s supported by George Kinoti, Kenya’s Director of Criminal Investigations, who at the JTTF-K launch said it would give Kenya the ‘upper hand’ at a time when al-Shabaab was entrenching itself and growing more adept at ‘adapting to new technologies’. As part of the joint task force, more than three dozen Kenyan investigators will receive training at the FBI’s specialist academy in Virginia. They’ll be drilled in FBI methodologies including intelligence handling and evidence collection, before returning to Kenya, to be supervised by specialist FBI mentors.

However the FBI also has a less savoury legacy in Kenya, its officers having been accused in the past of involvement in a series of extrajudicial renditions of suspected al-Shabaab operatives. It is perhaps not surprising then that there are questions regarding the creation of a joint terrorism task force, in particular its scope and the limitations of its operations.

The US State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism, which is sponsoring the two-year project, has made it clear that this is an investigative unit – not a military one. It is aimed at equipping Kenyan counter-terrorism officers with the tools required to detect and bring to justice those responsible for conducting, aiding and abetting terrorism.

Whether the Kenyan justice system has the capacity to bring to trial prominent terrorist suspects may be in question, but the US has made it clear that the task force will be subject to the Kenyan constitution and international law. That is code for retaining Kenyan sovereignty and being human rights-compliant, i.e. resisting the urge for security forces to act as judge, jury and executioner, something the Kenyan anti-terrorism police unit (ATPU) have previously been accused of.

New commanders have now been deployed and the ATPU has been the focus of concerted efforts to professionalise, which insiders say appear to be yielding results. However what remains to be seen is what the joint task force’s operational involvement will be beyond training.

Will FBI personnel help their Kenyan colleagues with questioning or interrogating terrorist suspects and if so what ‘methodologies’ will they use? While in Afghanistan the mantra ‘train, advise and assist’ formed an important part of the strategic communications narrative to prepare the ground for operations to be undertaken by local security services, the reality has been different, with US forces grabbing the wheel on numerous occasions.

So in Kenya, given the debate about the growing securitisation of the state and the creeping US security presence inside sub-Saharan Africa more broadly, there are sensitivities.

Two issues are worth highlighting. One concerns risk, the other oversight.

Al-Shabaab already cites Kenya’s military presence inside Somalia since October 2011 under operation Linda Nchi (as part of a multinational African Union force) as a legitimate reason for mounting cross-border attacks. It considers the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) presence an occupation and with no clear Kenyan exit strategy, one can assume that ‘justification’ by the Islamist fighters will continue.

Furthermore the Institute for Security Studies’ Roba Sharamo fears that the new task force could threaten the ‘considerable gains at national and communal levels’ to counter violent extremism in Kenya, which have attracted millions of dollars in support. He says other groups including ‘ISIS could easily establish roots and find new purpose in East Africa’, given the apparent deepening of the US presence.

That said, numerous other foreign entities, including Britain and the European Union, are already involved in quietly ‘building capacity’ in Kenya’s security forces, so would a joint US-Kenyan training initiative substantially increase the risk?

Perhaps of greater concern to Kenya’s sizable Muslim community, who at times have been the focus of collective punishment by Kenyan security forces, is the issue of checks and balances. The absence of any parliamentary oversight of the decision to establish a JTTF, they say, is particularly alarming.

One human rights monitor told ISS Today that there’s a need to ‘ensure that control of Kenya’s security structures falls under the control of civilian structures, not military. This is provided for under the constitution, but the creation of oversight bodies has simply not happened’.

For communities who already feel a sense of mistrust and alienation from executive decisions made in Nairobi, the need for transparency is clear. With the growing use of private contractors in the security space more generally, the lines of accountability are further blurred.

While the terrifying impact al-Shabaab has had on ordinary Kenyan citizens for more than a decade cannot be underestimated, the need for checks and balances on foreign security partnerships is paramount.

Kenya’s security forces clearly stand to gain from the expertise, knowledge and resources of international partners operating under Kenyan rules. However in the absence of transparency, the formal presence of the US as part of Kenya’s counter-terrorism efforts could prove to be a dangerous distraction – or worse still, a motivation for further violence.

Written by Karen Allen, Senior Research Adviser, Emerging Threats in Africa, ISS Pretoria

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