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Security Expert Calls Kenya Reply to al-Shabab Attacks Incoherent

FILE - Kenyan security forces and others gather around the scene on an attack on a bus about 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside the town of Mandera, near the Somali border in northeastern Kenya, Nov. 22, 2014.

Kenya needs more that military options to deal with the terrorist threat of al-Shabab, says a security specialist. He proposes that the government adopt a comprehensive response that includes non-military options rolled out in a way that is national in scope and commensurate to the domestic threats that Kenya faces.

Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior researcher in conflict prevention and risk analysis at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, told VOA that Kenya’s current options are haphazard and incoherent.

A few hours after Somali-based al-Shabab militants killed 36 workers in a rock quarry in northwern Kenya last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta fired his security minister and accepted the resignation of his police chief. The rock quarry killings were the latest al-Shabab retaliation for Kenya’s role in a United Nations-backed peacekeeping force in Somalia.

The Somalia-based insurgents of al-Shabab – listed by the United States and others as a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida - began launching deadly attacks on civilians in Kenya when Nairobi sent its own troops to neighboring Somalia to confront the militant Islamist extremists in 2011. Since then, Kenyan military units have successfully targeted militants' hideouts across Somalia, prompting retaliatory attacks from the terrorists.

Last year, al-Shabab fighters retaliated by killing 68 civilians in a Nairobi shopping mall. In September, the Somali rebels vowed revenge when a U.S. airstrike killed al-Shabab leader Ahmed Godane.

The problem is bigger than national borders

“There is no proof that if Kenya pulls out of Somalia right now, the al-Shabab militants will cease fire,” said Asamoah. “Some of the fundamental causes are homegrown. They are around issues of marginalization and exclusion.” These issues, he added, have to be addressed within Kenya.

Although the militant group’s initial demand was for Kenya to withdraw her troops from Somalia, he said, they group now seems to have introduced a religious dimension to what they are doing. He cited the targeting of non-Muslims in recent attacks in the north of the country.

Al-Shabab might also be trying to capitalize on any cracks in the Kenyan community, said Asamoah, who said most attacks were in and around the Kenyan port city of Mombasa.

“If that becomes the trend, then it’s going to be a bit more difficult for Kenya to deal with them because the Kenyan society has a lot of fault lines which evidently its grappling with,” he said.

Asamoah also dismissed the idea that Kenya should close its border with Somalia in order to stop cross-border attacks.

“The border is very porous and it’s a long border, so the chances of effective closure of the border are something that is really almost impossible,” he said.

Asamoah believes many al-Shabab fighters infiltrate Kenya’s borders through approved routes, a condition that suggests the militants already have operatives and sympathizers within Kenya.

Kenya must be more careful about its methods of maintaining security, Asamoah said, because some of the government’s actions end up looking like racial profiling. Al-Shabab has taken advantage of issues of marginalization and exclusion, he said, so the government needs to address the issue of fundamental social cohesion in the country.

The Kenyatta administration needs to be pro-active in communicating with various communities and more aggressively engage some of those communities to avoid such criticism, Asamoah said.

“Some citizens are dis-engaged from the state and are really providing a cover or some support for what is happening with al-Shabab.”