In Responding to Terrorism and al-Shabaab, Kenya Cannot Afford a New McCarthyism


Uhuru hosts iftar dinner in 2014 via Kenyan State House media

26 April 2015 – After the horrendous attack that was carried out by the sanguinary militia, al-Shabaab, which claimed the lives of at least 147 innocent students at Garissa University, the Kenyan government took a bold step to crush suspected terrorist financiers.

The effort, much like the U.S. Operation Green Quest in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, has arbitrarily frozen many banks accounts owned by Muslim organizations, Somali businesses and individual Muslims scholars.

This is Kenya’s version of McCarthyism.

Operation Green Quest

In March 2002, six months after 9/11, U.S. federal agents conducted sweeping raids which were code named ‘Operation Green Quest’. The federal agents raided non-profit Muslim organizations, Muslim think tanks and homes of individuals.

The operation was part of anti-terrorism measures, and they confiscated hard disks that contained a treasure trove of data, confidential files and among other information. According to Jeremy Scahill in his film Dirty Wars, he stated that the raid had filled five hundred boxes. It was deemed as a ‘witch hunt’ by civil liberty groups and mainstream Muslims.

The raids were the turning point of the late Anwar Al Awlaki. He was a moderate and eloquent Imam who was against al-Qaeda and spent most of his time denouncing what happened in 9/11 as un-Islamic. But he started changing his stance after these raids and ended up in AQAP leadership in Yemen.

Similarly, the Kenyan government’s effort to hunt suspected al-Shabaab financiers may make new enemies out of old friends.

It is counterproductive to charge everyone guilty until proven innocent. I was shocked to see a vocal anti-Shabaab cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Umal, in the list of Shabaab financiers. Umal is known to condemn every heinous attack that is carried out by al-Shabaab whether it is in Somalia or in Kenya. Adding him may change his stance just like Al-Awlaki, and this risks losing an important force for deradicalization.

Witch Hunt

The list of suspect of terror financiers was published without any critical analysis. The devil is in the details. If you closely look at the names of the suspects, you will find that some of them are dead, unless the Kenyan government is telling us that their spirit is planning and financing terror attacks.

This is a pure witch hunt.

Somalis are the victims of Kenya’s McCarthyism and the media often is leading the McCarthyite witch hunt against them. For instance, out of the four terrorists that were killed at Garissa University College, only one was identified publicly. So, the question remains: why are the others not revealed? Would a revelation that there was involvement of any non-ethnic Somalis invalidate the narrative that the threat knows no ethnic bounds? 

This would be a narrative that the Kenyan government may not be prepared to address.

Scapegoating the Refugees

Amid serious institutional failure to prevent and respond to terrorism, the Kenyan government’s scapegoating of its own soft targets has become the modus operandi.

The ultimatum that the deputy president William Ruto issued for refugees to be repatriated within three months was a purely political statement and, like past similar statements, did not have any legal basis.

Nevertheless, some ethnic Somali Kenyan politicians gave the same recommendation to expel refugeesThe majority leader Aden Duale and others finger pointed refugees immediately after the attack so as to absolve their constituents in northeastern KenyaSo they are just playing politics and scapegoating innocent people who are languishing in camps. They are not dealing with the issue they are facing with the seriousness it deserves.

Ruto doesn’t have the authority to deport the refugees at this whim. The refugees are not illegally there. They are under the protection of the UN and it is illegal to deport asylum seekers to unsafe places under international law and the tripartite agreement between UNHCR, Kenya, and Somalia. Therefore, it’s immoral and inhumane to forcefully deport more than half a million refugees. This will not solve the terrorism menace that Kenya is facing, but instead, will exacerbate a human tragedy.

War On Terror

Kenya must stop offering superficial solutions to terrorism that are not effective at preventing or responding to threats on the ground. Otherwise, we can expect more attacks like those at Westgate and Garissa University College to occur in the future.

Some countries shouted “death to communism” to get support from the West during the height of the Cold War.  If getting that same support in the 21st century means shamelessly bellowing about the “war on terror” without any intent to seriously address the root causes, then Kenya should not waste its breath.

Ahmed Hassan is a social activist and critic interested in Somali politics. You can find him on Twitter at @pansomalist.

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