False Security in Kenya

When Counterterrorism is Counterproductive

A Muslim man is detained by police officers at the Masjid Mussa Mosque in Kenya's coastal town of Mombasa, February 2, 2014. Joseph Okanga / Courtesy Reuters

As one of its first acts of the new year, Kenya’s High Court overturned eight provisions of a controversial security law designed to give the government sweeping powers to fight terrorism, particularly against the Somalia-based group al Shabaab. The decision has been hailed in Kenya as a great win for free speech and civil rights. Although the ruling was indeed a victory, it came in the middle of a troubling slide by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government into increasingly draconian behavior.

Terrorism in Kenya is a real and deadly threat. As of September 2014, al Shabaab has killed at least 400 people and injured over 1,000 in more than 100 attacks since 2011. That year, after several al Shabaab raids into Kenya’s eastern region and then a dramatic kidnapping of several Kenyan aid workers, the country launched an operation in Somalia to clear out the militants and secure its eastern border.

Since then, al Shabaab has retaliated by brutally attacking Kenyan civilians. Some of the most outrageous assaults include the one on Westgate mall in Nairobi in September 2013 that left at least 67 dead. In November 2014, al Shabaab murdered 28 civilians on a bus traveling to Nairobi. Then, last month, the terrorist group executed 36 Kenyans—several of whom were beheaded—near the Somali border, an area so violent that non-Muslims have largely fled. Some Kenyans who previously fought for al Shabaab in Somalia are returning to Kenya to professionalize the group’s Kenya-based affiliate, al-Hijra, which has proved adept at radicalizing Kenyans, particularly from the Muslim-dominated coast. The group exploits Muslims’ anger over their marginalization by the primarily Christian Kenyatta administration, which has at times portrayed Kenya’s operation in Somalia as a struggle between Christianity and Islam.

Although the government is under intense pressure to restore order and protect its citizens, its heavy-handed tactics have left civil society worried that the quest for security will overturn the country’s hard-won freedoms. In 2013, parliament passed two laws, currently being challenged in court, that allow a government

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