Kenya's War on Terror Helps Terrorists

A colleague comforts a survivor of an attack by Islamist gunmen on a university in Kenya.

Photographer: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Kenya’s plan to close the Dadaab refugee camp, about 50 miles from the Somali border, is intended to reduce the chance of attacks by al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based militant group that recently murdered more than 140 people at a Kenyan university. It's likely to have the opposite effect. Kicking almost 400,000 displaced Somalis back into a mostly lawless, poverty-wracked land will create more misery -- and thus more terrorist recruits.

It will also make an ugly backdrop for President Barack Obama's planned July visit to Kenya and give the lie to Obama's contention that U.S. cooperation with Kenya and other African nations in fighting al-Shabaab has been a model effort against terrorism.

Since 2011, when Kenyan troops joined the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Islamic extremists have conducted more than 100 attacks in Kenya, killing at least 400 people. Although the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta has sought to blame these on Somali infiltrators, al-Shabaab is by now well established within Kenya itself. Five of the suspected gunmen who shot up Garissa University College on April 2, for instance, were Kenyan. And Garissa is the capital of Kenya’s North Eastern Province, home to many Kenyan Muslims of Somali descent and one of the country’s most neglected and underdeveloped areas. In fact, most of the college’s students are from elsewhere; the northeast, in addition to having the country's highest unemployment and second-worst access to electricity, has the fewest students in tertiary education.

Al-Shabaab has made no secret about its strategy to exploit Kenya’s inequities and divisions. The government’s discrimination and harsh repressive measures against Kenya’s Muslims, who make up 11 percent of the population, have only made al-Shabaab’s job easier. Muslims are underrepresented in government and discriminated against, too; to get a national identity card for access to government services, they must overcome extra hurdles.

Many of these grievances were cataloged in a landmark 2008 report commissioned by the government, which has yet to do anything about them. Most urgently, it needs to curb the excesses of the security forces -- the single greatest reason that Kenyan al-Shabaab recruits give for joining -- and investigate and punish those who have committed them. Harsh security tactics -- collective punishments, human-rights abuses, even “disappearances” and assassinations of Muslim community leaders -- have become commonplace.

Kenyatta must also tackle the corruption that has weakened the country's security forces. While it took four days to dislodge four al-Shabaab gunmen from a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013 after they killed 67 people, the crack Kenyan units did not hesitate to strip the mall bare of valuables. During the attack on Garissa, reporters showed up before an elite counter-terrorism unit did: One of its transport planes had been sent to retrieve an official’s family.

Yet rather than solve such problems, Kenyatta’s government has blamed attacks on political opponents and passed new "anti-terrorism" laws that allow it to crack down on the news media and nongovernmental organizations. Kenya also shut down money-transfer services that are vital to the Somali refugee community, not to mention Somalia itself.

In announcing the Dabaab refugee camp closure, Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto said, “The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa.” The U.S. needs to correct that misguided analogy. It could start by stepping up its effort to find ways to stop money transfers to terrorists without punishing innocent families and businesses. The U.S. also has influence with Kenyan security forces, who received more than $40 million in U.S. assistance last year.

Obama himself, of course, has special leverage with Kenya. Who better to deliver a message on the benefits of inclusion, tolerance and democratic governance than the powerful Christian American son of a Kenyan Muslim?

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.