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Kenya’s Twin Burden: Balancing the Security of Tech Infrastructure Against its Role in Online Extremism

Kenya’s Twin Burden: Balancing the Security of Tech Infrastructure Against its Role in Online Extremism
15th January 2024 Fredrick Ogenga
In Insights

Introduction

While terrorists commonly exploit online platforms for radicalisation, planning, fundraising, organising, and even executing attacks, a puzzling emerging trend in Kenya sees them destroying the technological infrastructure that would otherwise facilitate their terror activities. Destroying telecommunication masts has become a common tactic for al-Shabaab in frontier counties bordering Somalia, namely Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa. On 28 December 2023, gunmen attacked and demolished a communication mast in the Dasheg area of Wajir County, as confirmed by police and residents. The latest in a series of similar incidents in the region, al-Shabaab assailants used explosives to destroy the area’s only communication mast, significantly disrupting local communication services. 

But why is this the case? The destruction of communication masts, which were reportedly being guarded by police reservists, significantly hinders counterterrorism activities in a region marred by repeated attacks. Fears of similar attacks loom after dozens of militants crossed from Somalia to Kenya on the Garissa border. The border region has borne the brunt of repeated attacks from the militants, sometimes aided by locals due to Somalia’s political instability since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991. Terror groups sometimes breach security zones in areas near the Somalian border, crossing at will and staging attacks before escaping, leaving dozens of civilians and security officials in Kenya dead and wounded. 

This Insight explores the salience of online and offline (geographic and cultural) variables regarding preventing and countering violent extremism in Kenya, exposing how terrorists are simultaneously exploiting and destroying telecommunication technologies. This creates a twin burden for the state, necessitating the need to safeguard technological infrastructure and mitigate the associated threat of online extremism.

Technology and Control over Extremist Narratives 

One possible explanation for the destruction of communication masts is that the telecommunications infrastructure in remote areas aids authorities in tracking terrorist activities, responding to distress calls, and coordinating security operations and surveillance, therefore impeding al-Shabaab’s agenda in the region. These telecommunication devices also allow online internet access through mobile phones, with many people in remote villages owning a cellphone and accessing the internet, making it difficult for extremists to be the de-facto controllers of extremist narratives, content or ideologies online. This holds true for al-Shabaab, even though the terror group has a Twitter account and website to disseminate its content and ideology. 

Digital infrastructures are, therefore, a critical element to control terrorist narratives, whether they are used for good or for bad. As established during a recent unpublished UNDP-Code for Africa Review of Kenya’s Digital Peacebuilding Architecture conducted in Wajir, Mandera and Garissa to explore the status of digital peacebuilding in Kenya, young people have their own set of offline vulnerabilities (geographic, cultural and socio-economic variables) that lure them into extremism that have nothing to do with technology and online spaces. These range from unemployment, marginalisation, poverty, and cultural complexities like the mistrust between the youth and elders in solving peace and security threats using traditional structures like the Village Baraza. The latter are informal peace and security mechanisms at the grassroots level consisting of chiefs and village elders linked up to the national peace architecture through National Government Administrative Officers.

Tech and Terrorism in Garissa, Mandera and Wajir 

Even though the United Nations Development Program-Code for Africa Review focused broadly on digital peacebuilding, terrorism in online platforms featured prominently. At the start of the consultations, the Wajir County Commissioner highlighted the importance of digitisation and understanding how digital platforms operate to harness them for peacebuilding and prevent them from being weaponised by terrorist and violent extremist groups like al-Shabaab. Digital platforms are instrumental in radicalising individuals and inciting violence. It is, therefore, paradoxical that al-Shabaab is destroying the very infrastructure it relies on. At the same time, it also reveals the group’s foresight in understanding how social media can counter their agenda. To counter this foresight, digital transformation in Kenya should include digital peacebuilding, where various platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, WhatsApp, and even artificial intelligence should be applied.

Infrastructure is a critical offline variable that ultimately depends on offline dynamics related to the geographical location and cultural orientation of communities in which the infrastructure is located. In this case, the telecommunications masts are located in the northeastern region of Kenya where peacebuilding, in the context of violent extremism and terrorism, is traditionally reserved for older generations. This is often to the exclusion of young people, despite them being more tech-savvy. Traditional approaches primarily focus on culture-based mediation efforts requiring historical knowledge to advocate for peace between conflicting tribes or communities. Young people tend to lack this contextual background knowledge for capacity-building programs and coordination between local, county and national peacebuilding structures enhanced and championed by local peace committees.

Young peacebuilding advocates are, nevertheless, pushing back against the assumption that they cannot play a leading role in P/CVE both online and offline due to the strategic role of elders. Participants, including local peace actors, village elders, youth representatives, county commissioners, and police commanders, recommended that youth be encouraged to engage in digital peacebuilding initiatives, using technology to complement offline strategies of preventing and countering violent extremism and terrorism implemented by leaders and elders. In this scenario, elders should work jointly with young people for the cross-fertilisation of ideas and knowledge so that as the young people learn about offline traditional approaches to prevent and counter violent extremism, the elders also learn about online approaches and how they can use digital tools to amplify their messages.

However, poor connectivity and the high price of data bundles in the Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa regions could impede such efforts, as local communities, comprised mainly of lower-income families, cannot afford to access the internet. When al-Shabaab destroys this infrastructure, it not only cripples communication networks in the region but also prevents peace actors from using digital resources such as social media tools, SMS platforms, and toll-free emergency numbers to reach people in vulnerable and remote areas. Addressing this twin burden requires a multifaceted approach that strengthens security, promotes digital literacy, and fosters inclusive peacebuilding initiatives.

Physical security around existing infrastructure should be bolstered through increased armed police presence, modernising surveillance technology and diversifying communication for security forces, which may include the introduction of satellite phones. Such efforts can significantly outmanoeuvre al-Shabaab’s disruption tactics. The benefits of such technologies can be extended to trusted local networks under the National Government Administrative Officers (NGAO) as an Early Warning Early Response mechanism, enabling effective terrorism responses to online and offline threats. 

Conclusion and Recommendations

Protecting connectivity infrastructures and reducing the cost of internet access in the region is essential to democratise access to the online space as a platform for positive engagement and for promoting peacebuilding in communities affected by violent extremism. Technology will continue to play a dual role in peace and security going forward; the earlier innovative ways of incentivising both the production and circulation of positive counternarratives are put in place, in collaboration with multiple stakeholders, the better. 

Engaging young people in digital peacebuilding activities such as posting from trusted sources, fact-checking, positive intervention online, listening and de-escalating conversations online, and creating change from within is crucial. Equipping young people in northeastern Kenya with the skills necessary to identify and flag harmful content, understand the workings of social media, and recognise the positive and negative impacts of content creation is critical. This requires a collaborative effort involving tech companies, civil society groups and state authorities in charge of security. 

Ultimately, addressing the twin burden of the destruction of critical communications infrastructure by terrorist groups in the region involves strengthening security, providing equal access to the internet, and equipping young people with the tools to navigate it responsibly. This will not only improve the overall safety of the communities but also open up new opportunities for youth, combating the despair that makes them vulnerable to online recruitment. With access to education, jobs, and a sense of agency, the aching void exploited by extremists will be replaced with hope and the promise of a brighter future.

Fredrick Ogenga is an Associate Professor of Media and Security Studies and Director of the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security both at Rongo University. He is also the CEO of the Peacemaker Corps Foundation Kenya and a Senior Research Associate at Swisspeace, University of Basel. Ogenga is a member of the GIFCT Blue Teaming Working Group, a Letsema Visiting Fellow, University of Johannesburg and a SVNP member, Wilson Center, Washington DC.