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What does the Nairobi mall attack mean for Kenyan security?

By Godwin Murunga, Special for CNN
September 25, 2013 -- Updated 1114 GMT (1914 HKT)
Kenyan troops are deployed in Somalia, as part of an African Union mission fighting Al-Shabaab.
Kenyan troops are deployed in Somalia, as part of an African Union mission fighting Al-Shabaab.
  • Kenya shares a 600 kilometer border with Somalia and has many Somali residents
  • Al-Shabaab blamed the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia for its Nairobi mall siege
  • Godwin Murunga says Kenya needs to unite its citizens around a visible security strategy
  • Kenya has relied too heavily on a military approach to terror threats, Murunga says

Editor's note: Godwin Murunga is deputy director of the African Leadership Centre, Nairobi, senior research fellow, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi and a regular columnist with the Saturday Nation. Follow @GodwinMurunga and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- The hostage situation at Nairobi's Westgate Mall has raised four fundamental issues. These are Kenya's thinking on security, its state of preparedness, state responsiveness and the regional security dimensions.

Given the death toll, it is tempting to seek easy answers or adopt quick options, including perhaps withdrawing Kenyan troops from Somalia or scaling back Kenya's role in regional security matters.

Godwin Murunga
Godwin Murunga

Kenya has no option but to remain the central cog in the struggle to restore normalcy in Somalia. There are historical reasons for this -- in addition to the fact that Kenyan defense forces are already entrenched in Somalia.

For better or worse, history connects Kenya intricately with East Africa in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to separate. Not only is Kenya the gateway to several East African countries, some of them are Kenya's main trading partners.

Read more: Al-Shabaab breaks new ground with Nairobi attack

Somalia's security and political history have become a part and parcel of Kenya's socio-economic reality. As an ethnic group, Somalis are separated into five different nations in the horn of Africa. Kenya has citizens of Somali ethnicity living in its north east, a historically marginalized part of the country that at one point preferred an irredentist option. Kenya's poorly policed border with Somalia is over 600 kilometers long. Some Somali are concentrated in Eastleigh estate in Nairobi while many others have spread across Kenya for trade and related purposes.

Given the Somali refugee population in Kenya, it is difficult to differentiate citizens from non-citizens with certainty. Indeed, since Kenyan defense forces entered Somalia in October 2011, north-eastern Kenyan towns have experienced the highest number of attacks from Al-Shabaab -- to which there has been minimal government response.

Read more: How Al-Shabaab picks its targets

This complex regional story is apt for the current metamorphosis and connectedness of global terror networks. Over the years, terror networks have borrowed tactics across regions. Their attacks are increasingly synchronized and Al-Shabaab is no exception to this process. This means that the threat that faces Kenya is real and complex and withdrawal from Somalia is not an option.

But can Kenya's response be different? The tendency in counter-terrorism action has been to borrow strategies from other places and deploy them locally. Kenya has borrowed extensively from the United States and relied on Uganda to mount a counter-terror programme in which security is thought of in military and defense terms.

Here, the use of extra-judicial force is preferred and replaces intelligence and surveillance. Locally, the police still think of security as synonymous with secrecy. They therefore never mobilize communities as key pillars of intelligence gathering and community support for security provision.

Kenya's main challenge is therefore to address the lack of a visible security strategy and/or policy framework. This was apparent in the state of preparedness (or the lack of it) and responsiveness to the attacks at Westgate mall. To be certain, Kenya's security establishment is well organized and impressively presented. The problem is the absence of a clearly articulated security vision and policy framework around which its citizens can collectively rally.

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Three layers of strategic response must pave the way toward a Kenyan strategy that can potentially deal effectively with Al-Shabaab. Kenya needs to think beyond defense or purely military approaches, to ensure coherent and better use of security apparatus, and to mobilize society around a unifying security consciousness.

Read more: Al-Shabaab grew amid Somalia's lawlessness

Kenya's anti-terrorism plan is heavy with legislative action that anchors the military approach. This is important but hardly sufficient because there is an inherent danger in packaging security bills that polarize society into "us versus them."

This is the problem that has stalked Kenyan's proposed anti-terrorism legislation. Civil society and political opposition have contended the proposed law contains provisions that might roll back hard won civil liberties and sanction the profiling of innocent people. This view had a valid basis given the arrest and rendition of people to Uganda where the anti-terror law is more draconian. But such extra-judicial approaches simply lead to a dead-end.

The story of the Somali sketched above suggests there is obviously no place to chase "them" away to. Kenya needs to bring its citizens together to recognize security threats, to mobilize them into a common security consciousness and surveillance system that they trust and have confidence in.

This will require intricate work. But Kenya will not be the first country to think in such terms. Other societies have lived through decades of terror and collectively mobilized to challenge it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Godwin Murunga.

Part of complete coverage on
Kenya mall attack
October 17, 2013 -- Updated 1355 GMT (2155 HKT)
As they strolled through the mall, guns strapped to their torsos, the attackers chatted on cell phones while they sprayed bullets at shoppers.
October 22, 2013 -- Updated 1132 GMT (1932 HKT)
A leaked video footage from inside has sparked anger amid claims that it shows soldiers looting from stores as they hunted for the gunmen.
October 10, 2013 -- Updated 1908 GMT (0308 HKT)
Elaine Dang pretended to be dead, and maybe because she did, she is alive to tell her story. She moved away from the crowd because she thought it would be most vulnerable.
October 7, 2013 -- Updated 1029 GMT (1829 HKT)
U.S. Navy SEALs entered the southern Somalia stronghold of Al-Shabaab, the group behind the Kenyan mall attack, in a mission targeting one of its leaders.
September 27, 2013 -- Updated 1940 GMT (0340 HKT)
Investigators have determined the attackers or their associates rented and operated a small store in the mall a year before the Kenya mall attack.
September 26, 2013 -- Updated 2045 GMT (0445 HKT)
Propped up by strangers, a woman wails outside Nairobi's main city morgue, unable to control her grief.
September 29, 2013 -- Updated 1701 GMT (0101 HKT)
Loved ones mourn the lives lost in the Westgate mall attack. Dozens of civilians and 6 security officers died in the four-day attack.
September 24, 2013 -- Updated 2058 GMT (0458 HKT)
The attack at Westgate mall lasted for four deadly days, with store-to-store siege.
September 27, 2013 -- Updated 0038 GMT (0838 HKT)
There is evidence that replicating the 2008 Mumbai, India, attacks has become a major priority for al-Shabaab and al Qaeda.
September 28, 2013 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
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September 27, 2013 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
It was the first major terrorist attack in history in which the group that mounted the operation used Twitter to announce to the world it was responsible.
September 25, 2013 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Photos from the attack as it happened.
September 24, 2013 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
A safe distance from Nairobi's Westgate Mall, several Kenyans stare through a stand of trees at the site of one of the nation's worst terrorist attacks.
September 26, 2013 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)
British-born Samantha Lewthwaite was once seen as a kind of victim of the July 2005 London terror attacks -- the pregnant wife of one of the suicide bombers.
September 26, 2013 -- Updated 0222 GMT (1022 HKT)
Some answers may be revealed in blood-stained halls or deep in the rubble of Nairobi's Westgate Mall. Others may never be known.
September 27, 2013 -- Updated 0125 GMT (0925 HKT)
The Westgate mall's parking deck collapsed leaving a crater full of destroyed and burned cars in Narobi, Kenya.
September 24, 2013 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
Of all al Qaeda's affiliated groups, the Somali terrorist organization Al-Shabaab has over the years had the deepest links to the U.S.
September 23, 2013 -- Updated 1440 GMT (2240 HKT)
Kenyan soldiers take cover after heavy gunfire near Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 23, 2013.
It's hard to imagine a softer target than an enclosed, easy-to-enter space with large numbers of civilians milling about.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked militant group based in Somalia, is believed to be responsible for the deaths of aid workers and peacekeepers
September 24, 2013 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
What the mall looked like before the attack.