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Could Kenya Learn From Ethiopia's Anti-terror Strategy?

People hold wooden crosses to represent those killed in a string of attacks, during a demonstration to demand greater security on Nov. 25, 2014 in Nairobi.

Kenya has a security problem.

Al-Shabab Timeline

Al-Shabab Timeline

2006 - Launches insurgency to take control of Somalia and impose strict Islamic law
2008 - U.S. declares al-Shabab a foreign terrorist organization
2009 - Seizes control of parts of Mogadishu and the port city Kismayo
2010 - Expands control across central and southern Somalia, carries out deadly bombing in Kampala, Uganda
2011 - Blocks drought/famine aid from areas under its control
2011 - East African leaders declare al-Shabab a regional threat; Ethiopian, Kenyan troops enter Somalia to pursue the group, which is driven out of Mogadishu
2012 - Declares itself an al-Qaida ally, loses ground in Somalia, abandons strategic coastal stronghold Kismayo
2013 - Attacks Mogadishu court complex, killing more than 30 and attacks mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 69 people
2014 - Attack in Mogadishu kills more than 10 on New Year's Day

Fighters from the militant group al-Shabab, driven from their strongholds across Somalia, have claimed responsibility for gruesome attacks targeting non-Muslims in northeastern Kenya: hijacking a bus full of passengers in one recent incident, and attacking quarry workers as they slept in their tents in another.

Billow Kerrow is a senator from Mandera County in Kenya on the border with Somalia, the country where both attacks took place.

“So we have a situation where most of the al-Shabab forces seem to be largely in control of the area bordering Mandera - this Gedo region - so we have a situation where we have large numbers of people there and we don't have a border that is really properly secured.”

Success story

Kerrow has noticed that Kenya's neighbor to the north, Ethiopia, has had much more success preventing terrorism on its own soil, despite having a much longer border with Somalia, and a longer history of military involvement in the country. And he thinks Kenya should look to Ethiopia as a model.

“What I know is on most of its border they have created a buffer, almost 50 to 100 kilometers, and any activity by these groups in that region will be met by an incursion directly that will immediately eliminate the threat," Kerrow said.

There have been some terrorist incidents in Ethiopia, but not nearly on the same scale as Kenya.

In 2013 a bomb exploded in the capital, Addis Ababa, allegedly killing two militant operatives.

The U.S. Embassy warned in October of this year of another al-Shabab threat in the Ethiopian capital, though nothing apparently came of it.

Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group, attributes much of Ethiopia's anti-terror success to its work developing a police force from local communities in the ethnically Somali east.

“Over the last few years, you've seen Ethiopia devolve a lot of security to a locally recruited police force called Liyu police, who are basically local Somalis who are police, but they are also counter-insurgency,” Barnes said.

But he notes that Ethiopia's system is not necessarily translatable to Kenya. For one thing, Ethiopia has been security-minded for years, he says, and has “radically devolved” power to local authorities - a process Kenya is just beginning to implement.

Barnes says imposing an Ethiopian-style security mechanism in Kenya could mean rolling back some of the political liberalization that has taken place, particularly in the Somali-dominated northeast.

“There are so many gains that have been made, it would be a real pity to reverse some of those in the interest of a security threat which could be dealt with fairly easily by better intelligence, a more devolved police force especially," Barnes said.

Rights concerns

There are also serious rights concerns. Ethiopian security forces often round up al-Shabab suspects under a controversial 2009 anti-terrorism law that has also been used to prosecute journalists and political opponents.

Leslie Lefkow, Deputy Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, says such strong-arm security tactics come at a cost.

“There is absolutely no space in Ethiopia today for citizens to express themselves peacefully," Lefkow noted, "whether in print or in protests and I think one of the concerns that we have is that this kind of iron grip is not a recipe for long-term stability.”

The Ethiopian government has repeatedly denied using anti-terror laws for anything other than the security of the country.

Kenya too is considering revamping its laws to give police more power to detain terror suspects, which, like Ethiopia's law, is likely to raise questions about whether the country is trading rights for security.