Community Support Key to Defeating al-Shabaab in Kenya
For nearly a decade, the people of Mandera County in northeast Kenya have lived under constant threat from the extremist group al-Shabaab as it has sown death and chaos along the border region.
Those same people might hold the key to defeating the terrorists.
Building trust and supporting the community are the best way to help security forces in the fight against al-Shabaab, a new report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS Africa) concluded.
“Although the government has made attempts to push the terrorists out of Kenya, it won’t succeed without community support and an extensive intelligence network,” the authors wrote. “It also needs to address corruption — a problem that is destroying the trust of Mandera’s people.”
The attacks began in 2011, thought to be in retaliation for a coordinated operation between the Somali Army and the Kenyan military, in a supporting role, against al-Shabaab insurgents in southern Somalia. In 2012, Kenyan forces were formally brought into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
In recent months, al-Shabaab has violently swept through Mandera County.
County Gov. Ali Roba, who has survived several al-Shabaab assassination attempts, warned the public and national authorities that the terrorist group is growing bolder.
“A serious security crisis is unfolding within Mandera County caused by undeterred movements of terror cells,” he wrote in a January editorial in Kenyan newspaper The Standard. “This situation has been developing over the last three months but has reached unprecedented levels.
“There is a need for change of approach in how we deal with this situation, otherwise we will soon be under terror rule.”
Roba said al-Shabaab can operate freely in more than 60% of Mandera County.
He reported that the terrorists recently destroyed police posts and telecommunications towers, kidnapped and killed civilians, and took livestock by force from pastoralists for what they falsely claim to be zakat, an obligatory Muslim tax.
The county government built strategic camps, brought in vehicles and hired 333 Kenyan reservists to support the police, though some of the reservists have been killed.
The insecurity has led to a severe teacher shortage and closure of more than half of the county’s 295 schools. More than 120,000 Mandera students have dropped out in the past 12 months — making them prime candidates for al-Shabaab recruitment.
Roba and other officials have pleaded for help from the federal government.
Former Mandera County Sen. Billow Kerrow called it a systemic failure.
“Folks in the region provide information to security forces, but there is no action,” he told The Standard. “When terrorists move more than 200 kilometers inside the county, the government cannot feign ignorance.”
At first the response was more personnel, but in February Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i met with Roba and Mandera leaders. Reengaging the community was high on their list of priorities.
“The two levels of government will jointly mobilize the locals to step up collaboration with security officers in reporting and repulsing the enemy,” Kenya’s Ministry of Interior tweeted in February.
Armed forces alone won’t halt al-Shabaab in Mandera, ISS Africa’s report stated. Kenya must improve border control and restore the education system — and look to its people for the solution.
“Winning civilians’ trust through community policing and honest, collaborative engagements is key to successful intelligence collection and strategic counter-terrorism operations,” the authors wrote.