Kenya’s heavy-handed war on terror

A woman is rescued from the building where she had been held hostage after a fierce gunfight between Kenyan soldiers and al-Shabaab attackers at Garissa University. Photograph: Dai Kurokawa/EPA



There is no doubt that Kenya merits U.S. support as a frontline state in the war against terror. But some of Nairobi’s rhetorical and policy responses to that challenge could stifle civil society and inflame the conditions that fuel radicalization.

Last month, members of the Somali Islamist terror group al-Shabab conducted a horrific attack at a university in Garissa, gunning down nearly 150 people, including 142 students. The terrorists sought out young Christians to be murdered. The massacre came some two years after al-Shabab’s rampage at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, which left 67 dead. Garissa was the worst terror attack in the country since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi .

The gruesome Garissa attack refocused the world’s attention on the murderous exploits of al-Shabab — and on the difficult challenges Kenya faces in combating the group. A long, porous border with Somalia is one such challenge. The nation deserves Western backing to meet the threat. But it’s important that Kenya not react in ways that aggravate the danger.

Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, called upon the United Nations in April to close the Dadaab refugee camp near the border with Somalia. Dadaab, which was set up in 1991 after Somalia’s political collapse, is home to more than 400,000 Somalis and is the largest refugee camp in the world. Ruto gave the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees 90 days to close the camp before Kenya forcibly relocates it.

Such rhetoric serves only to alienate and further marginalize Kenya’s Somali population, exacerbating the divisions, both religious and ethnic, that al-Shabab exploits. In a visit to Kenya this week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry rightly said the solution lies in solving Somalia’s problems, not in closing the camp. The United States pledged $45 million in additional funding to assist UNHCR refugee programs in Kenya. On Wednesday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta backtracked on the threat to close the camp, saying that Kenya “has been and will continue fulfilling its international obligations.”

The United States should focus concern on Kenya’s tightening control over civil society and media under the pretext of fighting terrorism. In December, Kenya’s government deregistered more than 500 nongovernmental organizations, freezing bank accounts and canceling foreign work permits. Restrictive laws have impeded the media’s ability to report on the government’s security tactics. NGOs and journalists that criticize Kenya’s counterterror strategy risk reprisals. Kenyan police forces and their anti-terror unit have been accused of committing serious human rights abuses with impunity, including extrajudicial killings and violent raids on Somali-Kenyan communities.


Mr. Kerry’s visit to Kenya and surprise trip to Somalia, along with President Obama’s planned visit to his father’s homeland in July, signal an increased engagement with the region. The engagement is welcome, but it must include a clear message that respect for human rights and civil society is essential to an effective counterterrorism strategy.

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