As U.S. President Barack Obama concluded his trip to Kenya, at the top of his agenda was the country’s ongoing fight against the Somali-based jihadist militia, al Shabab. The group remains a threat, but it has evolved, and the United States should help ensure that the Kenyan government’s response follows suit. Currently, Nairobi remains focused on responding with counterterrorism measures that, although necessary, cannot be the sole tactic. Kenyan Muslims remain among the most deprived groups in the country, and many feel marginalized and disconnected from the state and its power structures. They lack any trust in the system, and are extremely suspicious of security authorities and their heavy-handed tactics.
Since the attack on the Westgate Mall three years ago, the Kenyan government has vastly increased its efforts against al Shabab. Before the shooting, the government still regarded the militant group as a Somalia-based problem affecting only Somali-Kenyans, but mass attacks on the affluent involving radicalized Kenyans forced a reassessment.
No longer can extremist sheikhs operate and recruit openly in known mosques and Islamic schools, also known as madrassas, which have mostly been shut down. Mass arrests of terrorist suspects, many of whom deny any involvement with al Shabab, are now commonplace, including in the last few weeks in preparation for the U.S. president’s visit. Counterterrorism police within Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) are also widely suspected of conducting an assassination campaign, targeting key figures thought to be involved in the al Shabab recruitment network. Along with the unsolved killing of al Shabab recruiter Sheikh Aboud Rogo in Mombasa in 2012, the most recent high-profile assassination was that of Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, also known as Sheikh Makaburi, in April last year. He, too, was a suspected recruiter and had expressed support for the Westgate attack. It is not only high-level figures who have been caught up in the sweep; foot soldiers who have defected from the group are also thought to have fallen victim. “
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