How to respond to terrorist attacks

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Nic CheesemanIn his regular column in the Daily Nation, our Co-editor, Nic Cheeseman, takes a look through local and international media responses to the Westgate Mall terrorists attacks, all of which are pressuring the Kenyan government to take action in the wake of the attacks. He asks which of these suggestions are most sensible, and which might be futile, or counterproductive.


Following the terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya, there have been calls for the government to pursue a number of different strategies which, if they are implemented on their own, they are likely to fail. An integrated approach is the only way to secure Kenya. But even this will have little effect unless it goes hand in hand with a serious attempt to reform the military and the police.

Over the last few days, I have been going through the media coverage of the responses of Kenyan politicians and the wider public to the Westgate attack. Kenyans have expressed a wide range of emotions and proposed numerous ideas for how the country can be made safer. These can be grouped into four main schools of thought on how the government should respond to the terrorist threat: secure the border, increase security, find the enemy within, and bring in the troops. Each of these strategies has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Secure the border. In the wake of a terrorist attack there are usually calls to increase border security in order to prevent the movement of terrorists into and out of the country. This is only natural, and anything that makes it more difficult to illegally move people and weapons across borders is clearly a positive development so far as security is concerned.

But in the current context, it is not clear how much safer efforts to increase border security would actually make ordinary Kenyans. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is extremely hard to secure long and porous borders, such as the border between Kenya and Somalia, and so in practice sealing the country off from its neighbours may not be possible. The second is that it is not clear where the next terrorist attack will come from. It is possible that Al-Shabaab has already deployed militants inside Kenya, or that individuals involved in the Westgate attack are still at large. It is also possible that the militants will have success recruiting supporters within Kenya’s borders. If this happens, securing the border is unlikely to prevent another attack. Efforts to make Kenya safer must therefore include other strategies.

Increase security. Following the Westgate attack, much attention has focused on the question of why the Mall was not better protected. That fact that it was Israeli owned and frequented by wealthy Kenyans and western tourists made it a natural target for attack. It was not even a question of guess work: Al-Shabaab had already stated that Westgate was a target. There is no doubt that additional security is sensible. Many of Kenya’s most popular Malls have very little security, despite the significant terrorist threat that has existed for well over a decade. Hotels and shopping centres that make good profits should use this to hire more and better guards, and to strengthen their security protocols. They will benefit from this in the long-run, as Kenyans and tourists alike will gravitate to the places in which they feel safest.

But posting more guards at the doors of shops and complexes is not the answer. Most obviously, there are simply too many potential targets in Kenya to effectively secure them all. And simply posting guards is not enough – if they are not well armed and well trained, they are unlikely to be able to hold their position against a well coordinated attack. Security guards are also most effective against attackers who do not want to be caught or harmed, such as armed robbers. They are far less effective against contemporary terrorists, who are often willing to give up their lives as part of their operations, and as a result are willing to take far higher risks.

Find the enemy within. On some websites and message boards a minority of people scared and angry with the government’s failure to protect them have suggested imposing tighter controls on Kenya’s Muslim community in order to root out Al-Shabaab supporters. This is not surprising – a similar response occurred in America and Britain after recent terror attacks – but it is unlikely to make Kenya significantly safer.

Most Muslims in Kenya are opposed to Al-Shabaab and its activities. Infringing on the human rights of Muslims would only serve to undermine the government’s moral legitimacy and to make it easier for the terror group to recruit supporters. Credit must be given to the government on this point. While so much of the response to Westgate has been poorly handled, the government has clearly tried to adopt an inclusive approach that has avoided scapegoating any one group.

Bring the troops in. Once it became clear that the Westgate incident was a terrorist attack and not a robbery, most commentators advocated quickly transferring responsibility to the security forces and in particular the military. Some even went as far as to suggest that the military and paramilitary General Service Unit should be deployed more generally in Nairobi until calm has returned. It is always tempting in the wake of an attack to send in the troops, and to think that those forces with the biggest firepower are best placed to secure the country. But often this is not true.

Military troops are trained to fight against a known enemy in a clear location using heavy weaponry. This is not what is required to combat contemporary terrorists who typically operate underground in high density areas in the country they plan to attack. In Nigeria, for example, the fight against Boko Haram has been hampered by the poor strategy of the police, and the overreliance on the military. Kenya should not make the same mistake. High quality information, specially trained anti-terrorist teams, and careful police work are the only way to detect, and prevent, terrorist activity. It has been these organisations, not the military, which have been responsible for limiting the number of terrorist attacks in Britain and America.

So, what is needed to make Kenya more secure? First, the government would be well advised to adopt an integrated approach which recognizes that no one strategy will make Kenya safer if deployed in isolation. Second, resources and serious political effort needs to be invested in reforming Kenya’s security apparatus. It is essential that the existing security forces are further professionalised. The allegations about the behaviour of Kenyan forces during the Westgate crisis have shocked many Kenyans, but these sorts of accusations are nothing new. However, spending more money on the security forces will not be effective unless the money is spent on the right things. This does not mean a bigger budget for the military: it means investing in a more effective police force and establishing systems that can generate and act upon security information.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Nation on 12th October 2013.

The Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in East Africa with a daily circulation of around 205,000.

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