Intelligence key in battle to ward off terror threats

One of GSU recce squad. (Boniface Okendo, Standard)
When the dust on the Riverside attack settles, Kenya will remind itself that while a section of the war on terrorism will be fought in the battlefields, it can only be won in the heart and minds of its citizens.

In the years leading to some of the most bloody attacks by the terror group on Kenyan soil, it was clear that brute force has lost its advantage in this war.

The more boots we had in Somali, the more attacks were meted out on Kenyans. “It was clear then that we were fighting an enemy who lived among us and knew almost everything about us but we knew little about them,” security analyst George Musamali says.

After this, there was a shift in the country’s approach to fight the terror group, that it was a network being fought. “And it could only be dismantled from within,” says Musamali.

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Importantly, there was the realisation that although a majority of the terror group’s sympathisers were kilometres away in Somalia, it’s support structure as well as its intelligence was located in Nairobi.

Unseen army

“What we are confronting is an unseen army. The only way to win against them is to have a capable intelligence service,” Abduwahab Sheikh, a lecturer at the United States International University, says.

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Global trends on the war against terror show that nations are increasingly relying on espionage to halt the jihadists. Nations on the frontline of radicalisation have over the years come to the same realisation that Kenya came to a few years ago.

“From the Algerian war, France learned that military victory on the ground did not guarantee an end to terrorist attacks. It realised that the “hearts and minds” of a population could not be won through military action alone,” reads a study from the Combating Terrorism Centre.

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To reach optimal efficiency, counter-terrorism must be inventive and flexible while remaining within the confines of the law. Renouncing democratic principles will only help terrorists spread their ideology and bolster their “martyr” narrative.

This same narrative has been the bread and butter for Al-Shabaab operatives and their sympathisers. Initially, their core recruitment pool was in areas with a heavy sense of historical injustices. 

But the terrorist profile the security forces had grown used to changed. There was no template anymore on how a terrorist looked like.

“They started going into schools and universities to radicalise the most unlikely targets,” Abduwahab says.

Counter surveillance

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To counter this, experts say, much more effort needs to be put in police counter surveillance. The months after the Garissa attack saw this swing into place. The government revived grassroots espionage networks that served previous regimes to devastating effect.

Many credit this to the reduction of attacks in Northern Kenya and other major towns over the past couple of years. This is, however, just part of the solution to winning the war.

“First, the minds and hearts of the people have to be won. This can only be done through the use of popular intelligence - the local man and woman on the street,” says Musamali.

Riverside attackAl ShabaabTerrorism