The magnitude of last week’s massacre at Garissa University College in Kenya, located roughly 100 miles from the Somalia border, is shocking. In the course of the day, the death toll soared from seventeen to nearly 150 by evening.

The attack, claimed by al-Shabaab, is the latest in a series of large, bold, and bloody attacks such as the September 2013 one that took the lives of over 60 shoppers in Nairobi, the June 2014 incident that killed 48 villagers in Mpeketoni, and the murders of 28 bus passengers and 36 quarry workers in Mandera at the end of 2014. Add to this list the numerous other grenade blasts and shootings that the media and Kenyan government attribute to al-Shabaab.

Suffice it to say, a deeply troubling pattern has emerged in Kenya. But the Kenyan government — while faced with no easy task of addressing these attacks, their underlying causes, and their economic consequences — has been responding to that pattern with an ineffective and counterproductive counterterrorism approach that is pushing Kenya closer to a precipice. The United States, a key contributor of security assistance to Kenya, can play an important role in helping to ensure that Kenya does not go over the edge.

In his recent State of the Nation address, President Kenyatta labelled al-Shabaab a “significant threat” and applauded the legislature for passing the new Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 — a piece of law that is the subject of ongoing litigation for its draconian counterterrorism powers.

This law is the latest in a series of counterterrorism measures demonstrating that the Kenyan government is not willing to respond to the threat of al-Shabaab with a sound strategy, or reform its security forces so they can respond in an effective manner. Indeed, some commentators have labelled the new security law a misplaced response, saying that the problem is not a lack of laws but a lack of appropriate action.

Amnesty International’s Muthoni Wanyeki concisely captured the multilayered difficulties that Kenyans face, not just from al-Shabaab but from security forces that fail to protect people from these recurrent attacks:

Citizens and public servants in the north have repeatedly expressed fears about their vulnerability to Al Shabaab attacks which the Kenyan government has failed to appropriately address. Learning institutions are meant to be safe places for students and their teachers. Their protection must be fully guaranteed.

Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper ran an editorial that described the slow response of security forces as “negligence on a scale that borders on the criminal.”

Similar concerns were voiced about the government’s poor response to the June 24 attack on Mpeketoni. These criticisms add to previous reports of other counterterrorism blunders, such as when security officers looted stores during the Westgate shopping mall attack. Kenya will also remain susceptible to violent extremism as long as it fails to tackle the corruption that allows people to cross its long and porous border with Somalia. Meanwhile, Kenya’s broader police reform agenda has been slow and marred with various political problems.

Lack of security force preparedness, capacity, independence, and professionalism is only part of the problem. As al-Shabaab conducts even more brazen attacks, Kenyan security forces are increasingly responding with a heavy handed disregard for human rights (see here, here, here, and here). This is eroding the rule of law when it is needed the most and is alienating the communities from whom the police most need support and trust. These tactics dissuade many Kenyans from reporting terrorist-related suspicions for fear that the police will brand them associates of terrorists. Tactics such as mass arrests — like those in Mombasa after an officer was shot dead last week, or during the multi-month “Operation Usalama Watch” in 2014 that resulted in approximately 4,000 arrests — also sap law enforcement resources that could be used for far more effective and targeted operations.

But, instead of learning from these missteps, the government pushes on. Today there is growing fear among Somalis and Muslims living in Kenya of sporadic crackdowns and collective punishment, as has happened in the past.


As a result of the Garissa school attack, and against the backdrop of Kenya’s troubled counterterrorism approaches, the White House announced that it is providing assistance to the Kenyan government, adding that it will “continue to partner with them as well as with others in the region to take on the terrorist group al-Shabaab.” After the Westgate attack, when the United States offered similar assistance, I wrote that the US should ensure that any assistance it provides to Kenya does not contribute to human rights abuses in the name of combating terrorism.

This remains true today; perhaps more so. Since the Westgate attacks, Kenya’s security forces have become increasingly comfortable conducting public and wide-scale counterterrorism operations rife with human rights abuses. This increases the risk that US assistance, whether for criminal investigations, detention and interrogations, kinetic ground operations, intelligence sharing, trainings, or other forms of support, will be used in an unlawful Kenyan response. What is needed is a serious reevaluation and reassessment of US security assistance to Kenya, especially where such assistance might lead to more violations.

Due to the United States’ strong partnership with Kenya — recently marked by President Obama’s announcement to travel there in July to take part in a summit connecting young entrepreneurs with global leaders — Kenya’s poor human rights record on countering terrorism puts the United States is in a particularly awkward position; a position that makes its partnership with Kenya hard to reconcile with a strong commitment to human rights.

Obama’s new National Security Strategy states, “even where our strategic interests require us to engage governments that do not share all our values, we will continue to speak out clearly for human rights and human dignity in our public and private diplomacy.” To put that sentiment into action, President Obama should use a visit to Kenya to emphasize that US support to Kenya’s counterterrorism strategy must be conditioned on real security reforms and an improved human rights track record that has accountability as its cornerstone.