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Rejoinder| Isiolo County is not hot bed for violent extremists

By Salad Malicha

I read Guyo Chepe Turi’s monograph which was laced with mixed-up innuendoes by the Institute for Security Studies titled; Violent extremists find fertile ground in Kenya’s Isiolo County” with utter bemusement. However, I agree with Turi’s narrative save for his unverified allegations that Isiolo County is breeding habitat for violent extremists.

Terrorism is a region-wide problem. It makes sense for Kenya to work with Somalia and Ethiopia on shared borders, refugees and the like. It is my considered opinion to exhaustively ventilate these ragtag militias broadly rather than making it look like Isiolo County menace using a biased lens.

Kenya has suffered the far-reaching effects of repeated attacks including last year’s one at luxurious Dusit Hotel in Nairobi and abduction of two Cuban doctors in Mandera by Somalia-based Al-Shabaab terrorist group for years. Tourism has declined. Jobs have been lost and foreign direct investment has withered. The greater Horn of Africa region bordering Somalia has also suffered, but statistics indicate that Kenya experiences an inordinate number of attacks by the terror group including the recent attacks of primary school in Ijara, Garissa and Manda bay in Lamu counties.

This trend cannot be explained by geography alone. Granted, Kenya’s porous and ill-guarded borders does make it easier for terrorists to infiltrate the country. But Ethiopia has a much longer border with Somalia than Kenya does. Between 2006 and 2007 Al-Shabaab conducted few attacks outside of Somalia. There was only one terrorist attack in Ethiopia; there were none in Kenya. In contrast, between 2008 and 2015, the group executed a total of 272 attacks in Kenya and only five in Ethiopia.

Indeed, Al-Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya have been characterised by their gruesome effect and have attracted critical news coverage internationally. This gives Al-Shabaab a level of publicity, notoriety and international relevance that often belies its increasing isolation in Somalia.

The impact of violent extremism in Kenya has escalated in the recent past due to dwindling socio-economic phenomenon. The primary effect of these has been most trickled down to infrastructure, physical and human capital, productivity and economic growth. Current high inflation and cost of living have exacerbated the already volatile situations. Furthermore, violent extremism in Kenya have increased uncertainty in the investment climate, disrupted household spending and livelihood, dissuaded foreign direct investment (FDI) and led to a reallocation of resources from growths enhancing investment to spending designed to increase national security which falls within the purview of the National Government.

Why do they target Kenya?

Al-Shabaab’s current – though shrunken – stronghold is in southern Somalia. The geographic proximity of southern Somalia to targets in Kenya makes it easier to plan and launch terrorist attacks. The terror group has attacked not only Nairobi but Mandera and Garissa in the North-Eastern, as well as Kenya’s tourist-filled coastline. In contrast, potential targets such as Addis Ababa, Djibouti or Kampala are geographically distant and logistically difficult to reach.

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Kenya is also one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most important states and East Africa’s hub. Its international visibility and status lead Al-Shabaab to make conscious decisions and efforts to attack it. Attacking targets in Kenya, particularly in Nairobi or on the coast, guarantees Al-Shabaab a level of international coverage that a similar attack in Ethiopia, for example, would not.

Most international media operate freely in Kenya. Many outlets, such as XinhuaCNN and Al-Jazeera base their Africa operations in Nairobi. The media coverage given to horrific attacks here presents Al-Shabaab the “oxygen” it needs to survive and, potentially, thrive.

Kenya’s highly-developed tourism sector is another target. The cumulative result of attacks and terrorism-related travel advisories has been a marked decline in the number of tourists visiting the country since 2013. This has also led to hotel closures and job losses along the entire tourism supply chain.

This appears to bleed into arguments that posit Al-Shabaab attacks Kenya to bring it to its knees economically, influence foreign policy and force it to withdraw from Somalia. We argue that while this is partially true, it is not the only reason Al-Shabaab attacks Kenya’s tourist spots. Rather, it attacks Kenya because it’s a tourist hub and offers ample, opportune targets for terror.

Finally, Kenya’s security services are reportedly riddled with inefficiency, complacency, malfeasance and corruption. Al-Shabaab has exploited this fact. There have been strong allegations as well as hard evidence that Kenya’s police and military have occasionally colluded with Al-Shabaab.

What Kenya can do

Kenya needs to squarely face this reality and take appropriate measures to counter a persistent and therefore predictable threat. This does not imply that the Kenyan government should anticipate the location or timing of attacks. But it should be aware of and take appropriate measures to counter this threat.

Research has demonstrated that the most promising way to reduce terrorism is to reduce the terrorists’ confidence in their ability to carry out attacks. Kenya needs to proactively address border security and revamp national security apparatuses.

But before shelling out money for the recruitment and training of more security and military personnel, Kenya must firmly deal with the omnipresent bugbear of corruption. Research on the proposed Kenya-Somalia border wall, for example, demonstrated it will have little positive effect if the design and construction are simply vehicles for corruption.

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Walls may stop some determined terrorists but they are largely useless if guards are susceptible to bribes and let attackers through. In 2014 two Al-Shabaab affiliated border guards bribed Kenyan border guards to escort them from Somalia to Mombasa. The two were later captured in the city driving a vehicle stuffed with automatic weapons, rounds of ammunition and almost 50 kilograms of explosives.

The overall lack of training and professionalism in the security sector must also be addressed. Close attention should be paid to the well-being and quality of security personnel and equipment at installations ranging from shopping malls to private homes, government buildings and borders.

Third, the Kenyan government has been unable or unwilling to effectively counter negative news stories and Al-Shabaab propaganda that paint the country as a “hotbed of terror”. The fact remains that some states, including Kenya, appear to suffer more from the public perception of instability and danger from terrorism than others. These perceptions often correspond little to reality or statistics.

Yet Kenya must also understand that it is the primary Al-Shabaab target outside of Somalia. No amount of regional cooperation will entirely alter that. As such, it must attempt to positively and consistently address the reasons why it is the target of attack largely on its own.

Ripple Effects

Empirical survey shows that there is a direct relationship between violent extremism and youth radicalisation owing to high multidimensional inequalities, high poverty levels, and high youth unemployment. These inequalities have glaring consequences to high poverty levels in certain regions of the country such as the North Eastern and the coastal regions of Kenya. High youth unemployment alienates communities, especially the unemployed youths who are easily recruited by ragtag vigilantes and organized militant groups.

Therefore, long and short term panacea to these worrying trends is through the promotion of socio-economic promoting and political opportunities which includes; job opportunities, access to finance, access to education and health services among others, is important to prevent violent extremism and youth radicalization in Kenya. Moreover, this should be complemented by a labour-intensive growth model that generates rapid growth that is equitably distributed and generates employment for the peasants and youth. This is vital to reduce the supply of labour to prosecute violent extremism.

Interventions by Isiolo County Government

To avert the upsurge of these menace Isiolo County government launched Kenya’s first youth innovation centre to nurture talents and impart skills to address the unemployment challenge by engaging various state and non-state actors. The project was carefully crafted to enabled the youth to realize their purpose, dreams and aspirations.

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This remarkable initiative emerged from training 52 Youth drawn from 10 wards in Isiolo County by the Kenya school of Governments in partnership with Isiolo County Government way back in mid-2018. The follow-up training was tailor-made and undertaken to practically activate youth skills and involvement of youth in the following key areas; business start-ups and management, business registration and operationalisation, AGPO (Access to Government Procurement Opportunities), public participation, ICT Bulk SMS Platform, peacebuilding, livelihood, life skills, leadership & governance, youth policy, employability skills development and performing arts. The project was funded by Isiolo County Government, Department of Youth, National Youth Council, Kenya National Commission for UNESCO, Kenya Film Commission, Kenya Film Classification Board, UN-HABITAT, World Vision, Huawei and Kenya Red Cross Society.

Isiolo County Youths are set to benefit from the pioneer youth innovation centre in Kenya that has been established courtesy of Partnership between the County government, Kenya School of Government and other development partners such as United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Department For International Development (DFID) and the Norwegian Embassy. Electronics giant Huawei will provide internet connectivity for use at the centre.

The Centre encompasses an ICT cyberspace with a Computer Laboratory where young people thinking about using the internet to eke a livelihood will receive training on mobile and computer applications, and will also provide a platform for youths interested in innovations, while those in the entertainment industry will also receive training in film making to enable them fully exploit their talents to earn a living. The County government will ensure a fair chance for both genders as well as physically challenged people.

Isiolo County government has also incorporated Members of the County Assembly to enhance team spirit among the youths for the good of Isiolo County in general. The MCA’s are committed to consider County Employment Bill to help the Youth, Youth Policy and also draft another legislative proposal to allow the youths to have the County Revolving Fund for accelerating the growth of the businesses of the youths in the county.

This historic project will provide a ground for the youths to think positively and actively embark on making sense of their lives, engage my Government for opportunities and representation. Moving forward, the County Government will engage the youth productively to minimize negative vices such as radicalization, drugs and substance abuse, unemployment, marginalization and women misrepresentation.

It would be ideal and prudent to do proper cross-checking instead of publishing unverified information that will ultimately scare prospective investors and tourists.

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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