Smart and effective counter-terrorism must be the response to Westgate and other terrorist atrocities

Dozens of civilians have been murdered in cold blood, both Kenyans and foreign nationals. Six Britons are among the dead, and the Kenyan President’s own nephew has been slain. The Kenyan security forces have been fighting the terrorists in the mall, next they will take the fight to Kenya’s streets in response to this atrocity. Britain should use its influence to urge a smart and effective counter-terrorism response.

We learnt too late in Afghanistan and Iraq that counter-terrorism should be primarily a political rather than a military endeavour. The golden rule of defeating terrorism or insurgency is that you must drain support from those you are fighting. When it comes to using force in support of that objective, less is usually more.

In Kenya, the authorities will feel under great pressure to respond aggressively to this horrendous act. But the Kenyans already have experience of how this approach can go wrong. In August 2012, the security forces allegedly murdered Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a Muslim activist in Mombasa and possibly a terrorism suspect. His killing prompted days of deadly riots in Mombasa, doing lasting damage to the Kenyan state’s relations with the city’s Muslims. Killing Rogo may have had some tactical value, but the wider strategic objective of winning support from Mombasa’s Muslims was undermined.

Britain and the United States have partially learnt this lesson. We know that whatever tactical value holding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay may have had, it did a great deal more damage to our moral authority around the world. It damaged our ability to fight terrorism because it prevented us from building relationships of trust and respect with partner countries and communities. And so too with rendition and torture.

In late 2012, hundreds of ethnic Somalis were detained by Kenyan security forces in Nairobi following bomb attacks – a collective punishment that alienated and stigmatised the very community whose support Kenya desperately needs in the fight against Al-Shabaab. The temptation may be to repeat this tactic, but Britain should warn Kenya against it. It is folly. Now more than ever Kenya must reach out to ethnic Somalis and Muslims in places like Mombasa. Now is the time to build alliances and solidarity.

Though Kenya is dominating the headlines right now, this problem is broader. Other British partners are contending with Islamist militancy and making the same mistakes. In Nigeria, security forces have responded to Boko Haram’s appalling terrorism by carrying out collective punishments on Muslim communities, including beatings and house burnings. In Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, the security forces have detained thousands of men and boys in secret detention centres. Many have been tortured or have disappeared without a trace, or have turned up dead.

Instead of using these tactics, we should encourage our allies to address the chronic poverty and underdevelopment that afflicts some of these communities and work with them to root out extremism. Security operations should be targeted exclusively at terrorism suspects rather than at whole communities with whom they are allegedly associated. And they must stick rigidly to the rule of law lest they provoke the sort of resentment and riots we saw in Mombasa in 2012.

It is not just Kenya’s security that depends upon an effective response to this terrorism – or Nigeria’s, or Pakistan’s. Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Taliban – they are a threat to Britain as well. It is vital for our own protection that we encourage the sort of counter-terrorism that is going to make the world a safer place, not more dangerous.

– Andrew Noakes, Chair of LCHR