Lamu is, in one way, where Kenya’s current conflict with al-Shabaab really started: it was the centre of a series of events that triggered Kenya’s full-scale military invasion of Somalia. In September 2011, a British couple on a sailing holiday were kidnapped from a hotel near Lamu Island by al-Shabaab. Three weeks later, a French woman was taken by the group from a different hotel. Although Kenya’s intervention in Somalia was planned well in advance, these and other kidnappings along Kenya’s border with Somalia proved to be the trigger for the launch of Operation Linda Nchi (‘protect the country’) by Kenya’s Defence Forces (KDF) in October 2011.

While the Kenyan Government had previously supported militias fighting in Somalia against al-Shabaab, Linda Nchi was a full-scale military intervention aimed at creating a buffer zone along Kenya’s border, prising al-Shabaab from its control of the economically important Somali port city of Kismayo, and, ultimately, at eradicating the group. Lamu has felt the blowback from this intervention, witnessing the complex entanglement of multiple conflict drivers and a heavy-handed security response from the state.

The intervention was partly about protecting the investments and development in Lamu that were a critical piece of the LAPPSET project. As Anderson and Mcknight argue, ‘After many decades of neglect and disregard, Kenya is now pursuing the economic integration of its northern region, and the security of southern Somalia is a critical element in this.’ [37]

Kismayo port was captured after a year of fighting, and the intervention, integrated into the African Union’s Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in 2012, significantly reduced the territory al-Shabaab held. However, it also had a number of shortcomings and counter-productive effects – as profiled in our 2016 report ‘Barbed wire on our heads’. While Somalia’s story rumbles on, the military confrontation with al-Shabaab intensified on another front – increasingly to be played out inside Kenya.

Al-Shabaab – using locally recruited Kenyans – launched attacks in Kenya within the first week of the intervention. It had formed a Kenyan franchise, named al-Hijra (previously the Muslim Youth Centre). Likewise, as already noted, another al-Shabaab-affiliated faction in Kenya, Jaysh Ayman was involved in a number of attacks in Lamu.

Al-Hijra turned its attention to attacks within the country and creating propaganda in Swahili directed at Kenyan Muslims, including non-Somalis, playing on ‘the many disadvantages faced by Muslims, and on their history of political alienation and exclusion in Kenya, seeking to harness their long-standing disaffection and dissent.’ [38] This was delivered through recordings, DVDs, and well-produced magazines. As another study notes,

The magazine Gaidi Mtaani as well as videos such as ‘Mujahideen Moments’ feature Swahili-speaking Kenyan militants who emphasise themes such as the humiliation suffered by Muslims in Kenya, Christian ‘occupation’ of coastal land, revenge for the killing of prominent preachers, and the liberating potential of violence. [39]

By 2012 it was clear that Kenya’s problem with al-Shabaab was not only an external issue, but also a ‘home-grown’ one. [40]

While al-Shabaab and some local allies existed and were active in Kenya well before the invasion, they came to play a more prominent role in the next chapter of the country’s domestic war on terror. [41] Al-Shabaab evolved:

Leaner and less restricted, al-Shabaab no longer contests a full-scale war of attrition against a better-supplied enemy in Somalia […]. An insurgent al-Shabaab now exploits divisions among the peoples of the borderlands, targeting Christians and non-Muslims, while radicalising and mobilising Kenya’s Islamic youth. Freed of their responsibility to govern [in Somalia], al-Shabaab have become ‘spoilers’.’ [42]

As is customary with ‘wars on terror’, Kenya’s has not been going well. Over 1,000 Kenyans have been killed in terror attacks between 2008 and 2016, [43] making Kenya one of the 20 countries most affected by such attacks. [44] Attitudes towards terrorism and the way to deal with it have changed as attacks have continued. In 2011, 82 per cent of Kenyans held a favourable opinion of their government’s handling of the threat posed by al-Shabaab. By 2014, this declined sharply, with ’51 per cent of Kenyans indicating that their government is doing ‘very badly’ or ‘fairly badly’ in the fight against violent extremism.’ [45] Although it was ‘ostensibly launched to enhance domestic security’ in fact ‘Al-Shabaab attacks have worsened since the Operation Linda Nchi invasion in 2011.’ [46] The number of attacks shot upwards in 2012 and 2013, as this chart shows: [47]

Number of terror attacks in Kenya 1996-2015

Source: Global Terrorism Database

In September 2013, al-Shabaab attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi, detonating explosives and going on a horrific killing spree that took 67 lives, making it the most devastating attack up until that point. The immediate security response from the government was confused and blighted by poor coordination between different security branches. In this sense:

The horrors of the civilian deaths at Westgate, and the seeming incompetence of their security forces… made the Kenyan public come to terms with the fact that they really were at war. [48]

Following years of propaganda aimed at Kenyans, in May 2014 an al-Shabaab media release declared that its struggle had turned fully to Kenya. [49]
Kenya’s Anti-Terrorist Police Unit (ATPU) has led the government’s response at home to al-Shabaab. It is alleged that the unit is responsible for extra-judicial killings and the disappearance of suspected militants as well as Islamic activists in Kenya. [50] For example, security forces are suspected of involvement in the killing of Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohamed, an extremist preacher in Mombasa who originated from Lamu and who was linked to al-Hijra. His death provoked riots at Kenya’s coast.

Indeed, killings of suspected supporters of al-Shabaab and its Kenyan branches became most concentrated in Kenya’s coastal towns and cities. One human rights organisation estimated that at least 21 Muslim clerics were killed by security agencies between April 2012 and July 2014. [51] Militants have also been accused of killing moderate preachers and Imams seeking to counter radical ideology in tit-for-tat attacks. [52] By the end of 2014, ‘this cycle of murders and counter-murders, demonstrations and harsh policing, had generated a climate of widespread suspicion and tension at the coast.’ [53]

Following a wave of attacks on churches and buses in 2014, the Kenyan government launched operation Usalama Watch (‘peace watch’) in April of that year. Over 6,000 police and other security services rounded up people from the Somali-populated Eastleigh neighbourhood in Nairobi. The government stated that over 4,000 people were arrested within the first week. [54]

The Kenyan Government justified the operation as a counter-terror measure to identify and remove ‘foreigners’ from the country. Yet according to one researcher:

[The] arrests appeared random and unregulated, and were accompanied by the mistreatment and abuse of suspects, the stealing of their personal property, and widespread bribery and corruption in the checking of their documentation. The ethnic targeting of Somalis and the victimisation of Muslims were two dominant aspects of the operation. [55]

The operation was strongly criticised by Somali and Muslim leaders. While seeking to demonstrate its resolve in the face of insecurity, the operation arguably only further alienated Kenya’s Somalis and Muslims. At best, this has undermined prospects for cooperation between communities and the security forces. At worst, the Kenyan Government’s securitised response has played directly into al-Shabaab’s strategy (jujitsu again). Indeed, it was quick to release a Swahili video in May 2014 presenting Operation Usalama Watch’s victimisation of Kenya’s Muslims. As one study concludes:

The behaviour of the Kenyan Government, and especially its security forces, towards the country’s Muslim population, in both the past and the present, provides fertile ground in which al-Shabaab, and now Al-Hijra, can sow the seeds of further dissent and disaffection. By continuing to alienate and victimize the Muslim population, the Kenyan Government is making matters worse, their actions only likely to prolong and deepen the struggle that lies ahead. There are no better recruiting agents for al-Shabaab than the poorly trained, ill-disciplined, and corrupt soldiers and police who carried out Operation Usalama Watch. [56]

Operation Usalama Watch was all the more jarring against the backdrop of historic marginalisation and unequal citizenship rights of Kenya’s Somali populations, and the sense of injustice this has engendered. [57] Somalis have long had a contested and bitter relationship with the Kenyan state and its security apparatus, dating back to colonial times, and in contemporary Kenya Somalis often feel like a marginalised community whose citizenship is under question. [58]

51 per cent of Somali-Kenyans believe that their ethnic group are often or always treated unfairly by the government – more than twice the rate of any other ethnic group in Kenya.[59] Non-Somali Muslims too, especially at the coast, have also historically felt marginalised from a predominantly Christian country in what is seen as ‘a Christian state, its political culture infused with Christian language and imagery’ and its politics increasingly influenced by Pentecostalism. [60] Moreover, drawing on narratives of marginalisation from the centre, the majority-Muslim coastal region of Kenya has also witnessed the rise of calls for greater levels of devolution or, more radically, full secession from the rest of the country. [61]

The deepening polarisation in Kenya following terror attacks and security responses was not helped by condemnation and open xenophobia towards Somalis in the Kenyan media. One prominent paper declared that:

Every little, two-bit Somali has a big dream to blow us up, knock down our buildings and slaughter our children… We are at war. Let’s start shooting. [62]

That many in the Kenyan public supported the operation and shared this suspicion of Somalis and Muslims illustrates the extent of divisions within Kenyan society. [63] These divides do, however, cut both ways: Somali-Kenyans are also three to four times more likely than other Kenyans to dislike having a neighbour of a different ethnicity or religion. [64] These divisions and dynamics are an important backdrop to understanding what happened in Lamu following the attacks.


37., p 7
38., p 546
39., p 18
40., p 545
42., ppp 536-538
43. Cherono, S (2016) ‘War on terror being won by brain power, not gun power, Security bosses reveal’, The Daily Nation, 28 November
45., p 2
46. p 17
47., p 6
48., p 17
49., p 17
50., p 17;
52., p 20
53., p 15
54., p 6
55., p 547. ; also see
57., p 25.
58. For an historical exploration of Somalis in Kenya, see, p4
59., pp 2-6
60., p 11.
61. p, pp 15-19
62. The Daily Nation, March 2014 cited in, p 22
63., p 26
64., ppp 2-6


Header photo: Jimmy Kamude/IRIN