On the evening of 15 June 2014, a large group of armed men commandeered several vehicles and entered the town of Mpeketoni – a town on the mainland in the Kenyan coastal county of Lamu. They started burning buildings and chanting Islamist slogans. They selected only male non-Muslims for killing, leaving 47 dead by the end of the night. As one woman from Mpeketoni recalls:

It was around 9pm. I was with my son. We heard gunshots. We could see the bright lights. First we thought it was just gangsters and police. But then they selected and took people from the hotel nearby and I heard them shouting “get out, get out”. I heard one person say “what is your name?” A man replied “Paul”. Then the man said “let’s show people what they do to our men in Somalia.” He screamed. Then he was killed. Their intention was to create fear. [1]

The following night, attacks occurred in a nearby village, killing 15 people. Another village was attacked on 23 June 2014. On 5 July, similar attacks by large groups of armed men were launched in Hindi and Gamba (in neighbouring Tana County) – both urban centres mainly populated by Kikuyus – Kenya’s dominant ethnic group, who are largely viewed as outsiders by Lamu locals. Then on 19 July a bus on the road between Malindi and Lamu was attacked, killing 30 passengers. In only one month, Lamu and nearby areas had witnessed over 100 killings. [2] Many of the victims were Kikuyus, though non-Kikuyu Christian men were also killed, including people from ethnic groups indigenous to the coast – and no witness saw the attackers question their victims about ethnicity. [3]

Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks, explaining that they were revenge for the Kenyan government’s actions in Somalia. But local tensions also loomed large in its propaganda celebrating the attacks, which included a video entitled ‘Reclaiming Muslim lands under Kenyan Occupation’, released in Swahili and English. This included footage of radical Kenyan Imams from the coast preaching about land in Mpeketoni stolen by ‘disbelievers’. [4]  A sign placed on the road after the Hindi attacks criticised Kenya’s leader and mainstream political opposition, stating: ‘Muslims, it’s your land. Your land is being taken away. Wake up and fight.’ [5]

The message illustrated al-Shabaab’s emerging strategy – to entrench divisions and mobilise support over localised issues – which it applied in several parts of Kenya over the following year. It targeted teachers and civil servants in a bus attack in Mandera County in November 2014, then killed 36 Christian workers at a quarry in December. Again at Garissa University in April 2015 it identified and killed 147 people – primarily non-Muslims.

As terrorism expert Tom Parker has explained, groups who carry out terror attacks are typically attempting a kind of ‘political jujitsu’:

By crafting attacks designed to provoke a draconian state response, terrorists hope to exploit the resultant societal polarisation to attract new recruits. [6]

As we will see, in Lamu as elsewhere in Kenya, al-Shabaab was picking targets and making statements to inflame grievances and polarisation that already existed, drawing them into its struggle.

Al-Shabaab was so adept in situating its violence on Lamu’s faultlines of identity, land and politics, that whether the group was even behind the attacks was hotly contested. Government officials initially blamed the attack on criminals and bandits, but Kenya’s President then offered a more incendiary explanation in a televised address to the nation:  

The attack in Lamu was well planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community, with the intention of profiling and evicting them for political reasons. This, therefore, was not an al-Shabaab terrorist attack… Evidence indicates that local political networks were involved in the planning and execution of the heinous attacks. [7]

The Governor of Lamu, Issa Timamy, was arrested for allegedly being complicit in the attacks, though the case was thrown out of court for lack of evidence. Police also briefly blamed a secessionist group, the Muslim Republican Council (MRC), for the second wave of attacks in July. However, Kenyan military and intelligence agencies later concluded that the attacks were, after all, the work of al-Shabaab. [8]

It is clear that al-Shabaab was involved in the attacks. Witnesses stated that the majority of the attackers were Somali men and the police later identified a Kenyan convert to Islam as the local al-Shabaab leader who organised the Hindi and Gamba attacks. [9] Yet the precise nature of local involvement is more obscure. For example, a businesswoman resident in Mpeketoni told us that “in other attacks in following days it was obvious locals were involved because [the attackers] called people by names”.

...in Lamu as elsewhere in Kenya, al-Shabaab was picking targets and making statements to inflame grievances and polarisation that already existed, drawing them into its struggle.

In Witu, the same person told us, a group of settlers who were leading a court case over a land dispute “were specifically targeted – and they had been threatened with serious consequences for their legal challenge before.” [10]

A local journalist investigating the attack also notes that “in the Hindi attacks a specific Kikuyu landowner was targeted. His wife told me that when the terrorists came they said “Hey, [name], we’ve told you that you’ve occupied our land and we warned you about this - now it is your last day.” [11]

In focus groups we heard not only that some of the attackers knew the area well, but also that many spoke Kiswahili. Others we spoke to asserted that while local ‘indigenous’ people may not have joined in the attacks, they do in some cases support the group, in both moral and material terms. As we heard from one focus group:

A woman living next to Boni forest… would go to cook and fetch water for al-Shabaab… When they came to arrest her she took off and never returned to date.

Others went further, pointing their finger directly at local politicians seeking to chase Kikuyu voters away from the area. But this was not the only view. Some local people see the attacks as orchestrated entirely by the central government to justify military occupation of Lamu, with one focus group participant stating that “the attacks have nothing to do with us – it is the government creating the stories so that the land is properly taken.” [12]

Others shared this view. A focus group participant in Lamu said that: “I suspect the government and big people are involved. It’s not small people like us involved in the attacks – they were well organised, well equipped and well financed.” [13] Others are simply suspicious, concluding only that “there’s a hidden agenda”. [14]

It is impossible to come to any firm conclusion. It appears that the attacks were carried out by a Kenyan branch of al-Shabaab named Jaysh Ayman. The attackers may have included not only foreign and Somali fighters but also local recruits, with some of the latter actively taking the opportunity to pursue local vendettas. The identities of the attackers may have differed between attacks. And some attacks may have been localised copy-cat attacks, independent of al-Shabaab control. Whatever the reality, in the words of one study:

[The] attacks on Mpeketoni, and in the area around it, apparently represent an alarming intersection of different strands of violence, and different drivers of conflict. To seek an absolutely exclusive categorisation of the violence – as solely al-Shabaab or as ‘MRC’, or as the work of national politicians – is probably mistaken. [15]

The inconclusive debate over the attacks raises other issues. First, it reminds us that what people believe in conflict situations can easily become more important than the truth. Here, perceptions and fears of who the enemy is are likely to shape future behaviour and the potential for violence. Second, this means that categorising the violence – as ‘political’, ‘local’, or ‘terrorist’ – and apportioning blame for it ‘can itself be a technique of power’ – serving to manipulate public perceptions and shape future events. [16] Third, the extent of local involvement matters: it reflects the capacity of al-Shabaab to mobilise local support, with important implications for future conflict risks in Lamu.

Moreover, the fact that the attacks did not result in a show of unity across the country, but instead exposed divisions at the highest political levels and within society, suggests that al-Shabaab was at least partly effective in its strategy to divide people. As one Christian who lost her brother in the attacks argued, “let the Muslims tell us why they are attacking us Christians”. [17] Another responds that “tribalism has now come to Lamu even more. It used to be peaceful”. [18] A politician sums it up well:

They wanted to start a civil war – that was their plan … The words about historical injustice are al-Shabaab propaganda – al-Shabaab do not care about land or tribe, they just want to exploit grievances. [19]


1. Key Informant Interview with businesswoman, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
2. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17531055.2015.1082254, p 548
3. https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/06/15/insult-injury/2014-lamu-and-tana-river-attacks-and-kenyas-abusive-response
4. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17531055.2015.1082254, p 548
5. http://www.ids.ac.uk/publication/tangled-ties-al-shabaab-and-political-volatility-in-kenya, p 21
6. https://rusi.org/publication/rusi-journal/it%E2%80%99s-trap-provoking-overreaction-terrorism-101, p 38
7. http://www.nation.co.ke/news/Uhuru-blames-massacre-on-tribalism--hate-politics/-/1056/2352306/-/wyy1laz/-/index.html
8. https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/06/15/insult-injury/2014-lamu-and-tana-river-attacks-and-kenyas-abusive-response
9. https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/06/15/insult-injury/2014-lamu-and-tana-river-attacks-and-kenyas-abusive-response
10. Key Informant Interview with businesswoman, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
11. Key Informant Interview with journalist, Lamu Town , 29 November 2016
12. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
13. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
14.Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
15. http://www.lam.sciencespobordeaux.fr/sites/lam/files/note4_observatoire.pdf, p 21
16. http://www.lam.sciencespobordeaux.fr/sites/lam/files/note4_observatoire.pdf, p 21
17. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
18. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
19. Key Informant Interview with politician, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016


Header photo: Jimmy Kamude/IRIN