Dateline, Sunday, October 11, 2015. Eight men creep into sprawling Dadaab refugee camp and head to block F2 where they are met by their handlers. The handlers not only accommodate them, but also organise for them to acquire Kenyan identity cards for their journey to Nairobi.
Together with the eight men were some other five who had also sneaked into the expansive complex, mixing with genuine refugees and other terrorists.
“Dadaab is not a joke,” Dr Karanja Kibicho, the Principal Secretary in the ministry of Interior told the Nation in an interview. “That this is a haven for terrorist is not academic.”
Dadaab has become a complex issue on the balance between the rights of refugees and national security.
It is well known within security circles that sympathisers and supporters of al-Shabaab militia have set camp here – and according to Kibicho, this is what recently informed the government’s decision to close the refugee camp before the High Court in Nairobi reversed this decision.
“We will obey the court order as of now, but we are not going to compromise on national security,” says Dr Kibicho.
The export of religious extremism from Somalia is an existential threat to Kenya. The country’s security apparatus believes that refugee camps, where unscreened aliens get into the country, are conduits for bringing in fighters, weapons and intelligence.
Some 18 months ago, at Block-8 within Hagadera refugee camp, the security agents stumbled upon a chemist who supplied medicine – mainly amoxicillin and tetracycline – and other medical supplies including bandages to al-Shabaab.
The chemist, touted as a relief store, was owned by an al-Shabaab operative who helped the terrorists plan the Yumbis attack, in which more than 20 police officers were killed in Garissa County.
A security source told the Nation says that these operatives “used to facilitate al-Shabaab militiamen hiding within Hagadera refugee camp and providing the militia with medical supplies.”
Also in Block M-6 within Hagadera refugee camp, was a woman who collaborated with one of the militia leaders, who later masterminded the Garissa University attack in which more than 147 people, most of them students, died during the dawn attack.
The terrorists have taken advantage of Dadaab’s population. The refugee camp is home to about 300,000 refugees, most of whom escaped the post–Siad Barre wars in Somalia since 1990.
With nowhere to turn to, desperate youths born here have become easy targets and Dadaab has become a “fertile ground for recruitment for al-Shabaab” and “where operatives organise youths to join the group”, according to the government.
But critics have accused the government of violating the right of refugees not to be returned to places where their lives would be threatened.
The High Court dismissed Kenya’s desire to close the camps as “blanket condemnation”, with Justice John Mativo ruling that Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery and Dr Kibicho acted beyond their powers in ordering the closure of the world’s largest refugee camp.
“We did not just wake up one morning and made a hasty decision. We considered lots of issues before reaching that decision,” said Mr Kibicho, frustrated that there are people who want Kenya to maintain a camp “which is a security threat”.
“I don’t understand why a Kenyan would think that the government is malicious when trying to secure its nationals,” says Mr Kibicho.
The High Court seemed to differ with the government’s decision with Justice Mativo claiming the move was “discriminatory and unconstitutional.”
The fight against extremism is a generational one, it will be fought many decades to come.
Kenya’s security posture was largely based on the dismantling of the camps and improved screening of visitors to ensure that fighters do not get in. The court order sends Kenya’s security managers back to the drawing boards.
Dadaab is composed of five camps, namely Ifo-1, Ifo-2, Dagahaley, Hagadera and Kambioos, and Somali refugees form the majority of its population. Other refugees in Dadaab come from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Congo, Burundi, Uganda and Syria.
With the court order stopping the forced closure of the camp, the government has been carrying out a voluntary repatriation exercise and so far close to 50,000 refugees have returned home.
“We have had discussions with United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and they are meeting the cost of ferrying those refugees who are going to other countries,” Dr Kibicho says.
Before the US elections that saw Donald Trump become President, Washington had agreed to accommodate another 15,000 refugees from Dadaab.
That may not happen after President Trump listed Somalia refugees as among those who are no longer allowed in the US. Others are from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Libya.
In the last year of President Obama, more than 9,000 Somali refugees were resettled in the United States, many coming from Dadaab. But the election of President Trump and his plan to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of America has complicated matters.
“We don’t want them here...We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country, and love our people deeply.”
Kenya, like the US, has been criticised by the human rights groups for its moves against the refugees.
“It is ludicrous because there is no data to support the view that refugees – Muslim or otherwise – pose more risk of committing acts of terrorism than citizens. A refugee is not a person who commits acts of terrorism,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International.
The view was shared by Justice Mativo, who said that the government had not given evidence to show that refugees were involved in acts of terror on Kenya.
But Dr Kibicho says that critics should separate refugee rights with national security issues.
“The intelligence has a lot of information on Dadaab and how al-Shabaab operates from there,” says Dr Kibicho.
The majority of the refugees are unwilling to return to their countries of origin citing instability, while others claim the $200 offered by UNHCR is insufficient to sustain them. Many parts of Somalia are relatively stable and peaceful.
Others such as Somaliland are even democratic. Somalia has not had a proper government for 25 years and it is unclear whether it will have one any time soon.
The question is whether it is reasonable to grant refugees open-ended right to stay in the hope that a miracle will happen and stability restored in their country.
Dadaab has also become the main conduit for the smuggling of contraband sugar, an issue that Dr Kibicho says is “secondary”.
At the camps, nosy Kenyan security officers and NGO workers have been attacked or kidnapped either for ransom or to intimidate them according to a security brief.
“Al-Shabaab fronts disguised as businesses that support and fund al-Shabaab operations both in the country and in Somalia have been established in the camps.
“These are usually chemists, supermarkets, schools, money transfer businesses and Madrassas such as Al Haramain and Masjid Najah Madrassas that have been associated with the late Mohamed Gaamadhere Kuno,” said the security source.
The late Kuno was the Shabaab commander behind the Garissa University College attack.
In these camps, the chemists provide funding and transportation of medicines to operatives in areas like Boni forest in Lamu or to Somalia.
“The retail businesses receive contraband goods such as sugar, cooking oil and powdered milk from Somalia and the Middle East. The goods are brought in by trucks which pay taxes to al-Shabaab militia to be able to move through Shabaab-controlled territory in Somalia.
Interestingly, the collection of these taxes is done from Dadaab and then sent to Al-Shabaab through hawala system,” says the brief.
The government has already mapped the transport routes and identified the Dadaab camps as the place where a communication network that uses a VHF radio is based.
From here, “the operator is able to connect to operatives masquerading as herders on the Kenya Somalia border. The role of the herders is to act as scouts who are tasked with establishing where the security patrols are at any particular time.
Thus an operative or smuggler coming from Afmadhow would communicate with someone in places such as Hosingow who would then relay the message to Dadaab”.
“What we know is that there are so many other busy-bodies who rely on these camps for their daily bread.
“But as a government, we are resolute that Dadaab will have to close down,” said Dr Kibicho.
It was in Dadaab that known al-Shabaab recruiters such as Eric Ogada and Ramadhan Kufungwa took cover.
According to a security brief, Kufungwa managed to have his wife, Rukia Mbarak Faraj, who is on the most wanted list with a Sh2 million bounty on her head, escape a police dragnet through Hagardera Refugee Camp into Somalia.
But it is the Westgate attack of 2013 that showed the connection between the camps and the terrorists.
It is now known that some of the operatives who carried out this attack were Somali refugees who initially came from Hagardera and Kakuma refugee camps before they got recruited into al-Shabaab.
The arms used during the attack were also sneaked in from Somalia to Nairobi through Dadaab.
Whether the government will ultimately close Dadaab remains an open but important question for Kenya’s security. But with the High Court order, the government will only have to wait.
“Our responsibility is to secure Kenya first, anything else is secondary,” says Dr Kibicho, highlighting the complex balance between national security and refugee rights.