East Africa Needs a Regional Counterterrorism Center
In January of 2019, five militants stormed the dusitD2 hotel compound in the Westlands neighborhood of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. The militants, who belonged to the Somali insurgent group and al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab, launched a shooting and suicide bomb attack killing 21 and injuring 28 people during a siege with Kenyan security forces that lasted through the night. Following the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in which al-Shabaab killed 67, it was the worst terror attack in Nairobi in seven years.
As an intelligence analyst advising companies on geopolitical risk, I was surprised to see a well-coordinated and heavily armed group of five terrorists successfully strike in a wealthy and Westerner-populated area of Kenya’s capital. After Westgate, Kenya had made well-documented improvements to its security forces, buttressed by Western assistance. Yet, during the aftermath, it became clearer that despite advancements in reactive capabilities, as well as years of counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation initiatives in East Africa, largely funded by the African Union and US State Department, East African security failed to proactively operationalize a key security measure: sharing. “Information sharing, particularly across borders, is a chronic issue. [Somalia and Kenya] are essentially not having direct communication on threats […] there’s a huge delay,” according to a former National Intelligence Officer for Africa at the US National Intelligence Council (NIC), with whom I spoke.
This gap requires a new regional institution that can bring together East African analytical, intelligence, and counterterrorism units in a more functional proximity-based restructuring to ensure proper and timely intelligence sharing on wanted terrorists.
Calling all Spies? Missed Opportunities for Intelligence Sharing Failed to Prevent Terrorist Organizing
Collaboration efforts leading up to the events of January 2019 were incomplete, transactional, as well as lacking depth of trust or mutual concern. Despite the mutual threat and the magnitude of attacks in wider East Africa, the same issue of weak collaboration befell Kenyan efforts ahead of the 2013 Westgate attack. While holes in communication are likely somewhat attributable to poor diplomatic relations between Somalia and Kenya and a reportedly Kenyan distrust for Somali intelligence officials, the incidents point to costs to East African collective security that requires rethinking. After the attack, Somali intelligence noted they had warned Kenyan authorities in November 2018 that five militants were planning an attack inside Kenya on an unspecified target but likely a hotel, church, or tourist attraction in Nairobi or Mombasa. Later accounts indicated that Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania failed to share intelligence.
East African Officials admitted to Reuters that current intelligence sharing was ad hoc, unsystematic, and relied on personal relationships. The Dusit D2 suicide bomber lived in Tanzania for some time and was reportedly tracked by Kenyan officials, yet collaboration with Tanzanian authorities appeared thin or altogether nonexistent.
Inspiration from a Similar Threat: Looking to the European Regional Counterterrorism Center Model
The task of rethinking East African counterterrorism cooperation has gone through many phases but remains limited in scope. Kenyan, Tanzanian, and African Union counterterrorism centers exist, but they are principally research and policy centers or local one-country interagency apparatuses. Other limitations are highlighted by the lack of multi-country intelligence operations uniquely designed for East African counterterrorism writ large, i.e. tackling the regional al-Shabaab threat in a simultaneous permanent fashion at one location.
In view of this, East Africa requires a successful historic counterterrorism-specific model to follow as a guideline. One such model is the European Counter Terrorism Center (ECTC), created in 2016 in response to a wave of major Islamic State (IS) terror attacks across Europe, especially in France and Belgium. Once a stronger collective security argument for counterterrorism existed—made critical by the scale of IS attacks for several years—and under the auspices of the European Union’s law enforcement arm, Europol, a common counterterrorism center could be designed.
After the ECTC began its work, terrorism information sharing increased ten-fold and the ECTC conducted an additional 50% of counterterrorism cases, to Europol’s overall investigations. Additionally, and, the steady decline of terror attacks across Europe 2016- 2019 is likely a sign that more information sharing, and more cooperation works. Both the drop-off in terror-related incidents and a correspondingly steep increase in terror-relate arrests likely point to successful attributes of the institution (while linked to an overall massive counterterrorism effort across Europe). The ECTC’s politically central and permanent location in Brussels, Belgium, explicit counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing mission, and full-time staff of 81 contrast with the various counterterrorism initiatives put forth in East Africa. East Africa’s cooperation initiatives have usually amounted to temporary meetings with intelligence officials promptly returning home to their own centers.
In terms of mission and capabilities, the ECTC contributes to counterterrorism investigations and operations in its own right, rather than performing as a communications shell for liaisons for other, independent national agencies. The ECTC harnesses collective intelligence gathering/sharing of its member countries to maximize these activities, and likely increasing collective defense.
Toward the First East African Regional Counterterrorism Center, with EU Blueprints in Hand
Nonetheless, European advantages exist that more easily allow for the conduction of such a regional center. There is not a similar arrangement in East Africa like the European Union and the legislative grounding is not the same, e.g. extradition treaties or formal intelligence sharing legislation are not signed by everyone. Also, Europeans have enough resources to be mostly self-reliant on the issue, unlike East Africa, which draws heavily from US diplomatic and defense coffers, and spends toward deployed conventional forces and dyadic one-on-one intelligence fusion shops with the US as a part of the AMISOM mission in Somalia. East African countries have also focused their limited resourced on internal security issues, which is their chief focus: Security services [in Africa] are doing dual duty. They’re internal focused, dealing with internal threats, like elections. [Regional cooperation] is a perception issue and a political will issue, as much as a capacity issue,” added the former NIC officer.
However, some of Europe’s advantages can be repeated. And it is these aspects, which are essentially organizational designs, that could spell success for an East African variant of the ECTC. Even if small or slowly paced at first, a counterterrorism center based inside one of East Africa’s political hubs with real-time operational and intelligence capabilities and full-time staff prepared to wield them, would better meet the immense task of stopping al-Shabaab. For many of us in the world of geopolitical threat analysis, the January al-Shabaab attacks in Nairobi have marked a shift in how we view Kenya as a threat environment. Moving forward, I will be closely watching for how both Kenya and the region’s institutions evolve or not evolve their capacity for intelligence sharing, with a reinvigorated awareness of the existing faults. I will also be looking out for a future, but so far hypothetical, East African Counterterrorism Center, which could help reduce these faults, and better mitigate the risk of Al-Shabaab terrorism.