Varied approach vital in combating terrorism

As debate concerning the state of civilian preparedness in the event of terror attacks continues, three dimensions could be advanced to inform the renewed national counter terrorism posture. The first is the strategic dimension that combines civilian resourcefulness with state ability to know, disrupt and contain terror acts.

The second is the operational dimension that speaks to design of multi-agency lines of effort towards counter terrorism and third, is the tactical dimension that concentrates kinetic actions and severe consequences ready for activation once Al Shabaab moots a terror attack.

While executing these dimensions remains the duty of the National Security Advisory Council, they require insurance against political pressures that often come after elections and new regimes overhaul existing programmes to conform to their elective mandate. While it might be necessary to have new brooms sweeping clean, it is equally important to consider that re-arranging the house all together comes with its own set of logistical headaches that might take longer to address.

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At the same time, understanding that terrorism is a continuously evolving threat and will not accord a new regime the luxury to settle in and take its cup of coffee in peace, perhaps steady policy thinking might work here.

Historically, Kenya has a rich history in containing security threats starting with the Nyayo era regime preservation model.

Collective ownership

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While most of the actions flew in the face of what a democratic state would prefer, the operational sequence and inter agency collaboration towards the sole objective is something that could be reviewed and some approaches taken to address the present terrorism threat, albeit in light of the 2010 constitutional dispensation.

The Nyayo security apparatus had an appreciation of civilian resourcefulness by first placing civilians as the custodians of their own security and the State as an enabler and enforcer. The Provincial Administration, although serving the ruling regime, would swing into action whenever community cohesion would be threatened and this brought about a collective ownership of security.

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At present, the civilian- State distance has widened due to perceptions that the State has prioritised elite interests when it comes to security and harshly engages with the poor, marginalized and economically disadvantaged population. It is a distance that kills the initiative to alert State agencies despite the knowledge of a ‘suspicious activity’.

The State is yet to address this distance at the structural level and instead has opted for knee jerk reactions like extrajudicial killings and bounties- throwing money for information on most wanted crime suspects. Up to date, we have no information on how many persons have been lucky to collect the cash rewards, but we know from research that extra judicial killings have been counterproductive and to a large extent contributed to further radicalization.

In addressing civilian resourcefulness, the Government should move beyond blaming citizens for not providing information, because this creates a them-versus-us binary that is not useful. The State should instead invest in ways of accessing this information and cultivate conversation pools instead of directives.

Intelligence agencies

The State should, for once, drop it’s ‘know it all’ attitude and establish national crime incidence call centres with multi lingual responders who can engage the public on toll free numbers and collect critical insights. It is through the relay of these insights that security agencies will be able to know, disrupt and contain terror acts while at infancy.

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Building on this collection base, the second dimension- operational-then speaks to the recent trend to ‘multi agency’ every Government operation and what it means in counter terrorism. When asked about some of the gaps that led to the 9/11 terror attack in the United States, former President Barrack Obama alluded to the lack of ‘joining the dots’ by the 16 intelligence agencies working across different areas in the national security architecture. Given the fact that we are bordering a chaotic and incapacitated neighbour with large swathes of ungoverned spaces that have predominately been taken over by Al Shabaab, our national steer towards counter terrorism should be data first, procurement latter.

Without this sequence, we risk populating our counter-terrorism effort with unnecessary gear and kit yet once in our inventory, we have nowhere to utilise or deploy since the enemy might have abandoned that particular style of operation in favour of the next. However, establishing a state of the art big data analytics laboratory, say at the National Counter Terrorism Centre, will be a great step in mapping the emerging trends and equipping each state agency with data necessary to shape their contribution to the overall counter terrorism effort.

The third dimension- tactical- requires that the country develops a standby set of severe consequences that will be activated against the decision by Al Shabaab leadership when they deploy fighters across the borders to commit terror attacks. Terrorist ideology is soaked in a degree of violence and total annihilation in the battlefield attracts respect and deterrence.

Therefore, while we continue investing in training our Recce and Delta squads to respond better and faster, we should also invest in the ability to inflict pre-emptive strikes whenever the decision to deploy fighters is taken. Simply put, a critical appraisal of Al Shabaab vulnerability and calibration of painful responses will strengthen deterrence since all terror supporters, sympathisers and financiers will now have to consider the cost-benefit-analysis.

Mr Wanyonyi is Strategic Communications and Systems Thinking [email protected]

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