Attack on police in northeast Kenya highlights ineffective government strategy

Attack on police in northeast Kenya highlights ineffective government strategy

Recent attacks in Kenya highlight the inability of the government to effectively combat the threat of militants. Garissa, the site of a recent attack on police, is home to Western banks and energy companies alike. 

Suspected Al-Shabaab militants ambushed Kenyan police on May 25th in Garissa County, exchanging gunfire with officers after a police vehicle hit a land mine. Exact casualty figures are unclear, though the national police service confirmed that 13 officers were missing after the skirmish in the north-eastern county.

This incident is just the latest in a string of attacks throughout north-eastern Kenya, including the storming of Garissa University College on April 2nd, during which 147 people were killed.

Despite assurances from the government that security forces will crack down on terrorist activity, this latest ambush suggests that the Kenyan government is increasingly unable to exert control over the north-east border region.

Since Kenya’s military intervention in neighbouring Somalia in 2011, attacks in north-eastern Kenya have been carried out by Al-Shabaab and its local affiliates. Ineffective police forces, the region’s rough terrain, and the long and porous border with Somalia all hinder the government’s ability to control the Kenyan-Somali frontier and to prevent future attacks.

One of the group’s most spectacular attacks occurred last month, when militants invaded a university campus in the county capital, slaughtering 147 people they believed to be Christians.

Following the April attack, which drew international condemnation, President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to respond in “the fiercest way possible.” However, militants have continued to stage attacks, against both security forces and villages surrounding the municipal hub of Garissa.

In response to the President’s statement, Al-Shabab vowed to extend their campaign into other Kenyan cities, threatening to wage a “long, gruesome war” in a statement released two days after the attack on the university.

Nairobi’s assurances about the capabilities of the national security forces and its ability to keep the peace in the north-eastern region therefore appear to be under question. Already, the international medical charity Medicenes Sans Frontiers (MSF) has evacuated its personnel from the Dadaab refugee camp, located 100km north of Garissa, citing “deteriorating security conditions” and the presence of armed groups in the area.

Public social services have been withdrawn from the countryside and are now available only in Garissa town, suggesting that the authorities are unable to protect public officials outside of the municipal capital.

Despite the increased presence of troops and police forces, al-Shabaab militants have briefly occupied villages less than 100km away from Garissa, warning residents not to cooperate with the government.

Local media reports describe groups of fighters, which have travelled unhindered throughout the county for weeks, armed with rocket launchers, vision cameras, and hand-held radios.

Using similar weapons in previous attacks, al-Shabaab militants have been able to organize sophisticated assaults, using carefully coordinated tactics to surprise and overwhelm security forces. In Garissa County, the thick forests and presence of sympathetic locals will make combating these bands of fighters extremely difficult for the authorities.

Already, the government has faced severe criticism over its perceived inability to prevent terrorist attacks. A poll conducted in early April suggests that the President’s approval ratings have dropped from 67% in December to 48%, primarily because of the government’s lacklustre response to Al-Shabaab attacks.

Last month’s assault on Garissa University College does not appear to have effectively galvanized the authorities into instituting the reforms and action necessary to improve security in the region.

Future attacks in and around Garissa town therefore appear increasingly likely. In the past, al-Shabaab has targeted security forces and government buildings, as well as crowded areas, particularly those with large numbers of tourists, such as restaurants, shopping centers, and public transportation.

In addition to serving as the county’s capital, Garissa is home to a number of Western banks, and acts as the county’s commercial hub. Furthermore, in 2013 and 2014, exploratory wells drilled have confirmed the presence of oil in the region.

Western energy companies such as Camac Energy and their personnel may be targeted by militants, who have killed foreigners in previous attacks. Garissa town also sits on the A3 highway, one of the principal links between Nairobi and the coast with the north-east which crosses one of the few bridges spanning the Tana River.


About Author

James Fargher

James studied history and international politics at Drew University in the United States, before moving over to London to earn his MA at King's College London. James focuses on the history and politics of East Africa, and he will be beginning doctoral research at King's this coming autumn on naval strategy and seapower in the Red Sea. James has worked in a number of political risk firms in London, including the Risk Advisory Group and AKE Intelligence, and is currently working as a market intelligence researcher in the United States.