'Playing Straight into the Hands of al-Shabab'

Kenya's counterterrorism approach following the Westgate Mall attack is crude -- and may actually be spawning more violence.

NAIROBI, Kenya — At around 7:30 p.m. on March 31, three blasts went off in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighborhood. The explosions, which police say were caused by grenades, killed six and injured around a dozen civilians congregating at two local cafes in the suburban area, which is dominated by ethnic Somalis.

The bombings were only the latest in a spat of terror attacks following the September 2013 siege of Westgate Mall by Somali gunmen, which left 67 people dead. In December, a grenade blast killed four people in Eastleigh. In late March, unidentified gunmen entered a church near the coastal city of Mombasa, killing six. In all, nearly a dozen attacks that bear the marks of al-Shabab, a jihadist group based in Somalia that was responsible for the Westgate attack, have rattled Kenya since last fall.

Police are taking a high-profile approach as they respond to these attacks, detaining thousands of Somalis and Kenyan citizens of Somali heritage. But stops and arrests are not based on intelligence. Rather, police officers simply scour ethnic-Somali neighborhoods, sweeping up civilians from the streets.

Terrorism analysts say this sort of policing may actually be making Kenya less safe. As indiscriminate profiling becomes the fabric of security procedures, hundreds of thousands of Kenyan-Somali Muslims -- a group from which al-Shabab affiliates are actively attempting to recruit -- have something to be angry about. The government's ethnic-focused, and often brutal, anti-terror tactics thus may be fueling the very attacks they are meant to suppress.

In response to the March grenade attacks, police indiscriminately picked up thousands of people off the streets of Eastleigh and locked them in a stadium for several days, out of reach of human rights attorneys and the press. An unknown number still remain inside. Such arbitrary detentions are ongoing, according to human rights groups, and they are the most visible incarnation of Kenya's official response to terrorism post-Westgate. "The Kenyan police want to appear as if they're doing something," says Stig Hansen, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences who researches terrorism in the Horn of Africa. "To collect a lot of Somalis appears like doing something."

Kenya's police chief, David Kimaiyo, proclaimed last month that the "war against terrorism is still on, and we are not relenting." But he also has insisted that no profiling, bribery, or unprofessionalism has taken place. 

Countless Eastleigh residents have stories to tell of being stopped or taken captive by police, only to have to buy their freedom. The consequences of nighttime police raids on Eastleigh homes can be even more severe: One woman fell, or was pushed, from a fifth-floor balcony when police entered her home one night. In a separate raid, police took a woman away from her six-month-old baby, who died in her absence. Hundreds of Somalis -- including some with legal status as refugees -- have been deported altogether.  

Across Nairobi, police killings have reportedly become routine, raising doubts as to the ability or will of authorities to uphold the rule of law, even as they ostensibly go about enforcing it. Security forces have also failed to carry out even the most basic of investigative procedures. On May 4, grenades exploded on two crowded buses in Nairobi, killing three and injuring 62. At a loss to explain the source of the blasts, police responded by criminally charging the bus operators for "failing to prevent a felony."

"Imagine if the FBI's response to 9/11 was to prosecute the security guards at the World Trade Center," one Somali-Kenyan said to me.

Authorities have done very little to reassure Somali Muslims that their grievances matter. Police in Mombasa have yet to name any suspects in the assassinations of two outspoken, hard-line Muslim clerics. Many Muslims suspect police themselves may be responsible for the killings, which occurred in March and last October, respectively.

Mombasa has long been the country's hotbed of religious tension between Muslims and Christians. Occasionally that has escalated into violence, and police have often managed to aggravate such episodes. When a gang of Mombasa youth rioted and burned a church following the killing of the first cleric, Kenyan police responded by storming a nearby mosque during prayer time, dragging out worshipers, and beating them with batons.

Collective anger over such incidents may be radicalizing certain individuals here, not only in Mombasa but across the country. Those within Kenya's ethnic Somali communities say some young Muslims seem increasingly ready to act upon that anger.

"If they feel more pressure than they can take, anything can happen," said Somali-Kenyan journalist and Eastleigh resident Said Hassan Anteno, who interviews victims of police harassment. "When you punch someone, what do you expect? They punch back."

Indeed, several recent terror attacks seem to have specifically targeted the police: In April, a bomb exploded outside a police station, killing two officers. And just last week, gunmen near Kenya's northern border with Somalia killed three police officers, in addition to nine civilians, in an attack that al-Shabab claimed to have carried out.

This cycle of ill-disciplined policing accelerating anti-state violence isn't new. When the Islamic Party of Kenya was founded in the 1990s, Kenya's then-president, Daniel arap Moi, immediately accused the party of "promoting Islamic fundamentalism." Although relatively benign, "the gathering of these Muslims created an almost irrational fear by the government and over the course of the early 1990s, led to numerous violent clashes with police... [and] arguably spread the ideology of extremist views amongst Muslims in Kenya," explains Samuel L. Aronson in a recent paper on Kenya's failing security.

The spark that ignited Kenya's current fight with terrorism was Kenya's 2011 invasion of Somalia in reaction to the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from northern Kenya. Months after the unilateral incursion, Kenyan troops integrated with the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia and advanced as al-Shabab's leadership abandoned their former stronghold in the town of Kismayo, a strategic port city in southern Somalia.  

But these missions did little to eradicate al-Shabab. As Kenyan soldiers fought a war in Somalia, their enemies came to Kenya. "Al-Shabab is telling Kenya that there's a price to pay to be involved in Somalia," Hansen said. "It's not only telling Kenya this through the Westgate attack, but through the over 70 attacks that have taken place since 2011."

The accelerating pace of attacks highlights just how little Kenya's leaders have done to address some of the nation's tangible, even obvious, vulnerabilities. For instance, the four Somali gunmen who sieged Westgate are believed to have entered Kenya at the same unsecured border crossing through which illegal weapons used to attack an Israeli-owned hotel and airplane in 2002 were smuggled.

U.S. agencies are trying to strengthen Kenya's counterterrorism capabilities. The FBI has trained some 800 Kenyan security personnel over the past several years, according to the bureau's legal attaché in Nairobi, Dennis Brady. During the Westgate attack, the FBI deployed more than 80 officers in Nairobi and has since continued to assist Kenyan authorities in their investigation. 

And yet embarrassments on the part of security forces emerged even before the mall was cleared: Security footage shows ­­­­Kenyan commandos looting the mall while Kenya's government claimed that the gunmen were still at large. Reporters surveying the carnage found safes whose locks had been shot at and bars whose alcohol had been ransacked. 

For their part, Kenya's lawmakers haven't really addressed the myriad accusations of security forces' unprofessionalism. A 2013 parliamentary report largely whitewashed, despite overwhelming evidence, accusations of looting in Westgate. In March, the Associated Press revealed that Kenya's anti-terror police unit in Nairobi was operating on a budget of only $735 per month. In comparison, parliamentary salaries and allowances total about $15,000 per month -- per representative.

In a popular political stance, lawmakers are demanding the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp, which houses some 400,000 Somali refugees in northern Kenya. Calling the camp "a nursery for terrorists," the head of Kenya's Parliamentary Committee on National Security, Asman Kamama, said in September 2013 that "the U.N. must now understand the security of Kenyans comes first. Even if it is about human rights, it should not be at our expense."

The sentiment plays well among ordinary Kenyans. More concerning to the broader population than illegal detentions and other human rights abuses of ethnic Somalis is the fact that these police tactics have failed to quell the violence.

But no one in Kenya has more cause for concern than Somali-Muslims themselves: It is the refugee camps, border communities, and urban Somali neighborhoods that, in fact, have been the targets of most terrorist attacks here. "A week and a half ago there was an explosion, and Eastleigh was turned upside down [by police]," said Ahmed Mohamed, an assistant to a parliamentary representative from Eastleigh and a well-known figure here, on May 14. "[A police] operation has been going on for six weeks. And then yet another explosion happens. It's not working."

Earlier this month two bombs killed at least 10 and injured more than 70 in a crowded market in downtown Nairobi. At that same time, just a short walk away, a cleric in Nairobi's Jamia Mosque delivered a lecture before hundreds of worshipers, most of them ethnic Somalis. Sheik Mohamoud Shakul urged the crowd to separate religion from politics and to avoid associating with those who might lead them astray from a peaceful interpretation of Islam. "In some communities, ethnic profiling has taken place," he said. "We all know that is happening. I want us to go back to the basics this time."

Sitting in his Eastleigh office a few days earlier, Shakul had warned me that the "actions of the police can radicalize the youth of Kenya against the government." He and other Muslim leaders say they are trying to keep the peace. But their task is being made increasingly difficult by the counterterrorism activities sanctioned by Kenya's leaders.

"The Kenyan police are playing straight into the hands of al-Shabab," said Hansen. "By inflicting collective punishment, they are again reviving the Muslim sentiment against them."



A Diplomatic Solution in Syria Is on Life Support

Here are seven pressure points that could revive it.

It's time for all of us to face the facts: The prospects of achieving a diplomatic solution in Syria under present conditions are remote at best. The Geneva process has stumbled and, even worse, President Bashar Assad's regime believes it is on the road to a military victory. 

Such a victory is by no means assured. The best the regime can realistically hope for is to regain control over key areas of Syria -- namely, Damascus and its environs, the province of Latakia, and parts of the provinces of Deir Ezzor, Deraa, and Sweida. Any such partition of Syria would prolong instability and probably lead to renewed, if intermittent, violence. While ultimately it may take a decisive military victory to definitively stop the conflict, neither side at present is able to achieve one.

The Syrian conflict may potentially continue to fuel instability in the Middle East for some time to come. If current conditions continue, a military victory would produce either the survival of an isolated regime that is heavily dependent on support from Iran, or the emergence of a radical and heavily Islamicized power center, which would nevertheless be too weak to control much of the country. Either scenario would have negative repercussions for U.S. interests -- namely, increased threats to Israel's security, rising sectarian violence in Lebanon and Iraq, exacerbated political vulnerabilities in Jordan, and further tension in eastern Turkey. 

Leaving aside the question of material support to the Syrian opposition, there is a growing demand for a new diplomatic strategy. Though diplomacy may not resolve the conflict, a retooled diplomatic approach could shape the environment in which the military contest plays out and possibly lead to a better outcome than either of the two currently likely scenarios. Such a new diplomatic strategy would be paired with sustained support of the humanitarian relief effort for Syrian refugees and internationally displaced persons (IDPs).

U.S. leadership would be aimed at denying what the regime currently sees as its advantages and achieving better coordination among those who oppose the regime. Here are some suggestions for how to accomplish this: 

Puncture Assad's belief in his own viability.

The United States and like-minded countries could explore the feasibility of pursuing Assad and his supporters in the International Criminal Court (ICC), or in an ad hoc court established to prosecute war crimes in Syria. The May 15 statement by the London 11, the core group of countries committed to supporting the Syrian opposition, recommending referral of regime members to the ICC, is a welcome step. Such prosecutions could also include Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps elements as appropriate. At the same time, it should also include under its jurisdiction the atrocities committed by the Syrian opposition and foreign elements fighting with it.

Alternatively, a specially convened tribunal could serve a similar purpose in making clear to the regime that there is no possibility of a post-conflict return to international acceptance. Assad's single-minded focus on retaining power has so far proven highly resistant to outside pressure -- but the absence of international prosecution on the horizon has allowed him to convince himself and others that he has a viable future as head of the Syrian state. 

If the United States hopes to alter the current stalemate, it has to be obvious to Assad, his loyalists, and his supporters in Tehran and Moscow that he cannot remain in office. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has done excellent work in preparing the basis for atrocity and war crimes prosecutions.

Yes, it is likely at present that Russia would block action in the U.N. Security Council to actually begin a judicial process against Assad, but the point is to make clear that eventually there will be a reckoning -- and the prospect of that reckoning will become a factor in Assad's thinking, and that of regime supporters. 

Address the issue of alternative leadership for Syria.

The United States, working closely with like-minded allies, could seek alternative Syrian leadership that is both legitimate and credible in the eyes of Syrians.

International supporters of the Syrian opposition have worked closely with the expatriate leadership, and have also made credible attempts to maintain links to what remains of the opposition within Syria. But the Syrian opposition coalition, forged with great difficulty, still struggles with its internal cohesion and sense of purpose; its components also remain vulnerable to pressures from regional parties. The lack of a charismatic alternative leadership around which Syrians could coalesce is the result of bad luck and Syria's tortured history. 

The West has tended to view the Arab Spring in Syria as an expression of a liberal pluralistic agenda -- an interpretation that is almost certainly inaccurate. The common denominator in the Arab Spring countries has been a rejection of the ruling entity, as a result of its inefficiency in governance and its excessive corruption in power. The Syrian conflict began as a protest against excessively punitive measures by local security officials and was fueled in part by unfulfilled economic expectations. Demands for greater political freedom tied to a desire to punish poor performance in government did not equate to a wholesale embrace of Western-style political culture.

The United States and its allies may have to recognize this reality in order to allow a truly credible alternative leadership to emerge. The alternative leadership that will appear credible to Syrians may be that which projects a sense of continuity with the kind of stability the Assads delivered, rather than one that promises greater political pluralism. Many Syrians don't want a "new" Syria -- they want the old one back, just with fewer abuses of power, less corruption, and a better-performing economy.

Make clear to Iran that we are not prepared to trade Syria for a nuclear deal.

The United States could explore with other members of the P5+1 how best to make clear to Iran that the nuclear talks are taking place within the context of a wide array of regional concerns. In other words, the nuclear issue is extremely important, but an agreement on those issues does not mean carte blanche on others.

Granted, there are many issues competing for inclusion in these talks, which risk collapsing under the weight of 35 years of unresolved issues. But Iranian support to the Assad regime is a particularly crucial issue, as Tehran's assistance has been the single most important factor in the Assad regime's survival so far. Iran views Syria as a critical element in its regional security architecture, and is unlikely to accept an outcome that would be harmful to its regional posture. Even if Iran has taken a new, more conciliatory position in its nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 because of sanctions, there is no reason to believe that it is under sufficient economic pressure to also contemplate giving up a strategic relationship with a country that borders Israel and provides a vital supply line to Hezbollah, its most important regional proxy.

The sanctions that are biting Iran are related to its failure to meet its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not its behavior in Syria. As a result, Tehran may believe it can achieve an easing of the sanctions without any meaningful concessions on Syria. In fact, given the division of power within Iran, even if the clerical and civilian authorities contemplated a change of course in Syria, they would first have to overcome the objections of the Revolutionary Guard. It is important to the United States that the P5+1 negotiations succeed -- but the prospect of war, which those negotiations are meant to avert, looms equally large if a completely Iran-dependent Assad regime is left in place. 

Keep Russia from complicating Syria further.

The channel of communication between the United States and Russia is increasingly narrowing, but Syria is one issue that should remain on the table.

The prospect of effective cooperation with Moscow at the moment looks grim. There is no evidence to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the annexation of Crimea and current aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine as a tactical or strategic mistake, and the overwhelming support of the Russian public will not incline him to second-guess his decision. 

Once the Ukraine issue is decided and the long-term effects begin to sink in, however, there is a possibility -- perhaps remote -- that Russia will want to find a way to demonstrate responsible international citizenship. It is important that the United States not shut the door on an eventual shift in position by Russia in this regard. Russia's primary interests in Syria relate to security and prestige, and Russian leaders have repeatedly signaled that they are not permanently invested in Bashar Assad.

If concerns about the extremists among the opposition can be allayed, if there is reason to believe a new Syrian regime will maintain some continuity with the alignments of the Assad regime, and if the Russians can be convinced that the West is not engaged in what it views as an ideological crusade, it could be possible for Moscow to join an international consensus on a way ahead in Syria. 

Increase coordination among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

At present, GCC member states support opposition elements of their own choosing, often setting them against each other. These practices contribute to the overall sense of disunity and chaos among the opposition. The United States could lead the effort to address divisions among the GCC, seeking to bring them into general agreement on priorities in Syria.

While the London 11 framework has been useful, it may be chiefly valuable now as a way to gain European cooperation in pressing the GCC members to identify what they want to see in a future Syria, and how to achieve it. As part of this effort, high-level engagement by the United States and other P5+1 members will be critical to addressing GCC concerns regarding negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. 

In return, GCC states would need to enact meaningful curbs on the private funding of extremist opposition elements. These Gulf states have tolerated the flow of private funds into Syria, which has fueled the emergence of extremist groups that not only vindicate the Assad regime narrative that it is besieged by terrorists, but also present a future danger to U.S. interests in the region and beyond. Action on this aspect of the conflict could alleviate some Russian concerns.

Lead an international effort to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria.

The United States has already made this issue a priority, but it will need the active collaboration of GCC, regional, and European partners. Most of the necessary steps are already known as result of similar efforts to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq -- the measures required of Syria's neighbors and the "supplier" countries have already been designed. 

A sustained, focused diplomatic effort is needed in order to bring about actual implementation of these measures. Turkey is particularly important in this regard: The United States must press Ankara to determine what kind of future for Syria best serves its interests, and to recognize the risk of extremists along its borders.

Overload the Assad regime.

Because the Syrian regime's ability to manage a war and engage in diplomatic activity is limited, the United States and its allies can interrupt its internal deliberations by using all available forums to maintain diplomatic pressure. The objective would be to keep the regime on the defensive publicly, and prevent it from setting the agenda. 

The regime has a limited bandwidth for diplomatic activity. It cannot feasibly engage in more than one diplomatic effort at a time. The United States, on the other hand, has a diplomatic machine that can move in multiple venues simultaneously. Forcing the regime to engage in the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, and in negotiations with the opposition will press the regime to operate at a pace it cannot sustain. With only Iran and Russia -- and occasionally Algeria and Iraq -- to support it diplomatically, the Assad regime cannot muster the diplomatic firepower to productively engage in all of these multilateral forums.

None of these measures will instantly change the course of events in Syria -- but together, they may help us reshape the diplomatic landscape. Right now, as the Geneva process demonstrated, it is nearly impossible to move forward diplomatically. Changing the outlook of some of the key players in the Syrian conflict could give us an opportunity to find a diplomatic opening.