For Nigeria and Kenya, counter-terrorism lessons from other countries

Soft or hard? Counterterrorism approaches need to fit a country's specific context.

AS Nigeria and Kenya’s citizens are plagued with attacks from Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab militants, the question being asked is what the government are doing or can about it. In both cases, as the death tolls continue to soar, the national governments appear to be losing the “war” against the militant groups, along with the confidence of their people, as the leadership grapples to organise their security forces and adopt effective counter-terrorism strategies needed to battle the extremist groups. 

Nigeria and Kenya are not alone, according to the Global Terrorism Index, in 2013 terrorist activity increased substantially with the total number of deaths rising from 11,133 in 2012 to 17,958 in 2013,  a 61% increase. Over the same period, the number of countries that experienced more than 50 deaths rose from 15 to 24 - though more than 80% of lives lost occurred in only five countries; Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria. 

Through decades of experience, the Index has found that the two most successful strategies for ceasing the operations of over 80% of terrorist groups since the late 1960s have been either policing or through the initiation of a political process. Only 7% were eliminated by full military engagement. 

A fundamental point that the report also made is that counter-terror strategy needs to have short, as well as long, term goals. Efforts should not just be concentrated in stopping specific terrorist attacks, but also disrupting, breaking up, and eventually ending terrorist groups.

Understanding why terrorism happens

Therefore, according to the Index, to combat terrorism effectively it is crucial to carefully consider military action, understand why the terrorism perpetuates and address the root causes through long-term goals.

In the case of Nigeria, one of the root causes of is poverty. The exact number of Boko Haram members is unknown though estimates put the figure at around 9,000. The recruitment process has targeted disaffected youths in the poorest areas of Nigeria, and the 12 most northern states where Boko Haram operates have almost double the poverty rates and four times the child malnutrition rates of the rest of the country. 

The Global Terorrism Index reported that members are often disaffected youths, unemployed graduates and members of Almajiris which are homeless youth supposedly under religious guidance. In recognising these factors, in October, the Nigerian government launched a new counter-terrorism strategy which emphasised a non-military approach, and placed more emphasis on “Counter Radicalisation” (which focuses on education and community engagement), “De-radicalisation” and “Strategic Communication”. This included policies for job creation in several states. However, while the government is taking the right steps in seeking to address the root cause of terrorism through long-term policies, in the short term the loss of life is huge. 

This is because Boko Haram, whose aim it is to bring about strict Sharia law in the country, is an intolerant militant group that promotes isolation and sectarian attitudes its method is violence. 

Soft approaches not enough

The “soft” approach may not be enough. In the case of Algeria the government sought a “hard” approach in isolating and combating AQIM after 2007, and then a “soft” policy of reconciliation with former terrorists. Saudi Arabia also employed this tactic between the rehabilitation and civilian “intellectual security” programmes and the “hard” military repression of al‐Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula after 2007.  

In the Kenyan case, the government appears to be taking a stance based on “hard” military action. The President reinforcing this with statements urging Kenyans to unite in the “war against a common enemy”. Excursions using heavy military action can be counterproductive. In Iraq, heavy handed military action, such as the assault on Falluja in the wake of the lynching of four American security contractors in April 2004, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, including many women and children, and served to fuel further insurgency. This could have the same impact in Kenya’s case since this conflict is driven in part by moral objections to policies and actions which are considered unjust or unlawful by Al-Shabaab and, according to Larry Attree, Head of Policy, Saferworld & David Keen, Political Economist and Professor of Complex Emergencies, London School of Economics, part of the strategy for achieving sustainable peace in a circumstance such as this should be to reconsider those policies and actions. This could mean a re-evaluation of Kenya’s policies in their invasion of Somalia. 

What is clear in both “hard” and “soft” approaches is that intelligence, policing and government cohesion are key. A report by the RAND Corporation, which looked at terrorist groups over a forty year period, found that the majority of terrorist groups ended by either joining the political process or were destroyed by policing and intelligence agencies breaking up the group and either arresting or killing key members. 

Military force in itself was rarely responsible for ending terrorist groups. This was the case for Turkey that embraces international cooperation in its counter-terrorism operations, developing a large intelligence network. To date the Turkish National Police has signed 99 Security Cooperation Agreements with 59 countries. Turkey also places high importance on its counter-terrorism units, rather than full military force, which they claim have foiled attacks by several terrorist organisations. These units are supported in turn by highly developed counter-terrorism institutions, such as TEMAK (Counter-Terrorism Academy) and the Intelligence Academy (ISAK) which provides training to the intelligence department and has even “published more than 100 books on intelligence and terrorism by evaluating its operational experiences and using scientific methods.” 

Kenya’s case

In Kenya’s case,  the government created an anti-terrorism police unit in 2003, but rights groups have criticised it heavily for “enforced disappearances” and the “mistreatment or harassment of terrorism suspects” - all factors which could perpetuate terrorism. 

However, this is not to say that Kenya has not had sufficient help in preparing its defence forces. Kenya is a central partner in the East African Counter-terrorism Initiative (EACTI) which has made it a major beneficiary of training, including joint military exercise, and funds for police training and to improve the National Counter-terrorism Centre. What clearly lacks are the tight institutions and oversight, that could be adopted from countries such as Turkey. 

What makes Nigeria’s case more complicated is that Boko Haram are employing unusual tactics more akin to that of organised crime gangs, focusing on armed assaults using firearms and knives - which have claimed 85% of deaths in Nigeria - while bombings or explosions account for 5% of deaths. This kind of activity is difficult to track and requires vast amounts of intelligence and cooperation to counter. The problem is, there is a low level of regional cooperation and confusion with north-south political rivalries within the country. Algeria is also a large state, more than twice the size of Nigeria, but they recognised that without a general strategy that involved a substantiated effort to improve national cohesion their efforts would be futile. 

Religious terrorism

Another factor, key to both Kenya and Nigeria, is effectively dealing with the religious ideology as the motivation for the terrorism. In the cases of Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, their ambitions are both linked to religious and political motivations. In order to counter this, certain countries have used more moderate theologies, whether Islamic of not, and advocate for non-violent methods of addressing grievances. Morocco’s national strategy in 2013 for example, promoted intra-religious and inter-religious dialogue. What this did was to allow the government to help build trust within societies and within public institutions. This approach in Morocco was considered “effective in preventing radicalisation and the abuse of religion for terrorist purposes.” 

Algeria took a similar approach, developing religious guidance programmes that aimed to promote tolerance and peace and respect for human rights. This sought to counter the ideologies that exploited disenchantment within society and addressing root causes. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is demonstrating signs of using this approach as in his address to the country on December 2nd, he urged Muslims to stand together with the country, also stating that “Islam is a religion of peace - Allah is all gracious and merciful”. Fortunately, as one of the countries in Africa with some of the most moderate Muslim factions, this approach could create a platform to sustain terrorist penetration. 

Rule of law

Attree and Keen also speak of the importance in using the law as an important option for approaching this type of conflict. This could be useful in the cases of both Nigeria and Kenya. Instead of making broad statements emphasising the killing of militants, by punishing those responsible through proper channels this will act as a violence deterrent and also show that the government respects all groups - “when due process is applied and the rights of defendants to fair trials are visibly upheld…it dispels perceptions of discrimination against particular groups.” 

It is crucial to the longevity of peace, and the undermining of terrorist factions, that the state protects those that may feel marginalise and use violence as a last resort. One country that upholds this precedence is the United States which has seen trials against individuals accused of terrorism, including that of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was sentenced to life in prison for acting as al-Qaeda’s spokesman after the September 11 terror attacks. Terror trials however are by no means an easy feat, for example the ongoing trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, widely considered as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks”, who was captured a decade ago but still has not been convicted of anything due in part to revelations of confessions under torture. 

The examples and experiences of countries across the world provide both Kenya and Nigeria with ample examples for combatting terrorism - the issue lies with their ability to identify the suitable approach and ensuring that they have strengthened their political systems and legitimacy to prevent the continued rise of these organisations. 


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