Why beating Shabaab explosives is Kenya’s biggest assignment

On October 12, up to 10 Kenyan police officers were killed when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED) planted on the roadside – most likely by Al Shabaab jihadists – in Garissa.  

On June 15, at least eight officers were killed in similar circumstances in Wajir County. These are just two of the many attacks by Al Shabaab on our security officers that have been prevalent in the recent past. 

Technology comes in various forms and terrorist groups, like any other organisation in this day and age, are keen to exploit them in furthering their agenda. Kenya’s anti-terrorism authorities have largely succeeded in stemming the use of modern information communication technology (ICT), especially social media, by the terrorists.

For instance, Al Shabaab’s Twitter handles have been constantly deactivated by counter terrorism agencies and the jihadists are evidently absent on Facebook, significantly crippling their chances of recruitment and spreading of propaganda.

However, this by no means implies that Kenya has won the war on terrorism on the technology front, as it is clear that Al Shabaab is thriving in the use of IEDs – simple bombs made from readily available raw materials.

Imports technology

Some experts argue that Al Shabaab’s technology upgrade that enables the rise of its IED attacks is often as a result of the terrorist organisation’s growing international connections. That it imports this technology from its international partners.

But Daisy Muibu and Benjamin Nickels in their article published by Combating Terrorism Centre – a US-based anti-terrorism research and advisory institution – discount this assumption as it overlooks the fact that Al Shabaab has in recent years been determined to reduce and limit foreign influence.

In this regard and as research has shown, Al Shabaab has its own bomb experts recruited locally, who have the capability of using readily available materials, some acquired from wreckage of attacked vehicles and from guns and ammunition gained from military and police bases in Somalia and Kenya.

In September, the media reported that some Al Shabaab operatives work in cahoots with mechanics, garage operators and car thieves to steal a special type of metal from car exhaust pipes that they use to make IEDs.

It is in the interest of terrorist organisations to always stay ahead of policy makers and the Kenyan government has been playing catch-up to Al Shabaab in this fight, mostly resorting to reactionary tactics whenever there is an attack.

And it seems Al Shabaab has realised that countering their IED attacks is Kenyan authorities’ weakest link, giving them a field day to exploit the simple technology to hurt and further weaken Kenya’s security apparatus.

Evidence suggests that the terrorists use IEDs as a means to an end – to immobilise the security personnel before attacking them and ensuring maximum damage and casualties.

The Kenyan government has attempted to respond to the offensive by importing a number of armoured personnel carriers from China for use by anti-terrorism police in areas prone to IED attacks.

The National Police Service admitted that the type of armoured carriers acquired cannot withstand rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks.

Now it is, however, apparent that the carriers cannot just withstand RPGs but are also defenceless in the face of an IED attack.

The anti-terrorism agencies should therefore train their guns to countering the use of IEDs.

Acquiring stronger armoured personnel carriers that can withstand these attacks may be a good starting point, but the intelligence that has been effectively used to foil premeditated attacks on the general population can be applied here even with better results.

It is intelligence that will help inform the officers where there is likely to be an attack to avoid them running into an ambush.

The government must also improve the road infrastructure in the areas prone to these IED attacks. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the terrorists to plant an explosive on a tarmac road, for instance.

Finally, more research needs to be conducted on how best to stop this rudimentary yet lethal technology once and for all.

- The writer is a graduate student of International Studies at the University of Nairobi and an editor at The Standard