The government has continued to flex its security muscle in Lamu. In July 2016, 700 additional security personnel were deployed in the county. [103] However, this is not the only approach the government has taken. In September 2016, the Kenyan government launched its long-awaited National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism. President Kenyatta announced that the new strategy:

… will add prevention and counter radicalisation to the more traditional security approaches to fight the vice … Together, in coordinated fashion, we must as a people drain the swamp of violent extremism and deny it room to radicalise Kenyans. [104]

Some government departments appear to be working on CVE in Lamu. For example, an Education Ministry official noted training for teachers on peace education and the risks of extremism, as well as support for peace clubs in schools.

Only time will tell how the government’s new strategy impacts on the situation in Lamu. One staff member at an NGO working on CVE is already concerned that the strategy may simply end up “on the shelves”. [105] Other civil society actors working on these issues clearly wished that opportunities to work constructively with government on the problems had been quicker to emerge: “the only thing the national government brought us after the attacks was a curfew and more security.” [106]

Others took a more positive view. The county commissioner’s office has supported engagement with youth through football tournaments, engaged them in committees and worked with groups such as the Kenyan Muslim Alliance and the Muslim Youth Alliance on events and projects. It is also developing a county-level CVE strategy which builds on the national plan.

Several local NGOs are working on CVE across Lamu. Most projects focus on building resilience of communities, countering extremist messages, engaging with young people and dealing with broader inter-community grievances. Some believe their work on alternative livelihoods has been useful, while others feel that their work in schools has had a measurable impact on changing attitudes. [107]

CVE efforts tend to focus on stopping individuals becoming tangled up in violent groups. But in Lamu, the scale of the challenge and the priorities seemed far from clear. We heard a range of opinions about the extent of support for and recruitment into al-Shabaab from Lamu. Most people think rates of recruitment are higher in other coastal areas, especially Mombasa. However, one government official affirmed “we have youth who have been radicalised.” Another agreed – but again in slightly vague terms that further illustrate the trust gap between authorities and the Muslim community:

We have been told some young people have left, but we don’t have that much information. The community does not provide much information because the Muslims won’t report on one another. [108]

Regarding the links between local religious ideology and violence, one religious leader attempted to reassure us that “No Imam or preacher in Lamu has ever taken an extreme view.” [109] An obvious counter-example is Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohamed, tied to al-Hijra and killed in Mombasa, who was from Lamu and whose sermons used to proclaim “Tutawapiga na tutawatoa Lamu”  (“we will beat them and remove them from Lamu”). [110] At the same time, one NGO worker suggested that the tone of sermons used to be more political, [111] while another observed:

Lamu is not a major recruitment centre for al-Shabaab. We have lost a few boys here and there. We might have a few hard-core Islamists. And a lot of hard-line preachers were trained in Lamu, but they went on to radicalise in other places.” [112]

This uncertainty about the scale of the problem was matched by the difficulty pinning down the most significant causes. In interviews and focus group discussions, people from across Lamu advanced a number of different reasons why people, especially young men, might be drawn to al-Shabaab:

  • Economic issues: “Many young men don’t complete their education or have opportunities”, one businessman explained, so “the money offered by al-Shabaab is tempting”. [113] Studies by Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and Life and Peace Institute (LPI) question this, as does the fact that some recruits have come from relatively affluent coastal families.
  • Politics: “The political system means that people are isolated and ignored. People take an opportunity to be heard and retaliate”. [114] ISS research endorses this as important: only four per cent of al-Shabaab members in a survey said they have trust in the political process to bring change; 99 per cent agreed with the statement that the ‘government only looks after and protects the interests of the few.’ [115]
  • Security force behaviour: “People get executed [by security forces] and this makes the young blood boil, they want to get revenge”. [116] Such statements are in line with studies indicating that al-Shabaab recruits see security forces as abusive towards Muslims and join as a reaction to the government’s counter-terror strategy. [117]
  • Socio-economic injustice: “People study hard, they have the qualifications, and they still can’t get jobs because of corruption.” [118] Meanwhile, al-Shabaab is telling local young people: “you have no land, your father has no land - but the Kikuyu do!” [119] This connects our story back to the deep divisions configured around the acquisition of land and investment as demographic and economic change spread their uneven impacts on the people of Lamu. Studies by ISS and the Journal of East African Studies have drawn the same conclusion: that ethnic and religious difference overlaid with inequality has created fertile ground for violent rebellion.
  • The need to believe in something: al-Shabaab’s religious messaging, spread through networks, social media and DVDs, “presents an ideology that can be very attractive to people who are frustrated”. [120] ISS suggests that 87 per cent of al-Shabaab members join primarily for religious reasons. [121] The draw seems to be its ‘framework for making sense of, and articulating their grievances.’ [122]
  • Individual factors: These included drug-use, troubled families, and ‘boys who want to be Rambo’. [123] Such explanations chime with a study on radicalisation in Eastleigh, Nairobi that ‘demonstrated that radicalisation is most strongly predicted by psychological determinants, above all historically troubled social relations, and process-oriented factors, particularly high levels of religiosity and exposure to radical networks.’

Looking back on this list, it fits the many studies which argue that a range of factors combine to lead individuals to join violent groups, who of course ‘take recruits from where they can best be found’. [124] Despite the large volumes of analysis that have been done, those working in NGOs delivering CVE projects were open about the challenges they faced in knowing where to focus their efforts. One was still trying to understand the context and test out different approaches, though was sceptical about some of the mainstream ones, such as dialogue with youth: “What is the end of dialogue? People talk about their issues, but so what?” [125]

Others were also open about the fact that they may not be engaging with the right people. [126] This was not helped by the fact that the security situation in Lamu had closed the space for open discussion: “People don’t have real conversations about violent extremism because they’re scared of al-Shabaab and the KDF. No-one knows who the informers are.” [127]

In this sense, CVE efforts seem to be hindered by the idea that the ‘extremists’ represent a completely illegitimate perspective that simply requires changing. This way of seeing the situation risks obscuring the reality: that Lamu is a conflict situation in which big issues to do with politics, land, jobs, equality and human rights need to be fixed.

As with ambiguity over what causes it, many interviewed struggled to define clearly what violent extremism is in the first place. For example, one agreed that “violent extremism is hard to define - I suppose it is that some youth are drawn to the idea of Jihad?” [128]

This is revealing of the extent to which CVE is an imposed framework that is failing to connect with the big challenges in Lamu as people see them. As LPI has pointed out, in Kenya, there is:

No intuitively equivalent term for ‘violent extremism’ in Kiswahili or Somali, and when asked to provide their own understanding of it, respondents tended to define the term based on the most pressing causes of insecurity in their communities. [129]

The implications of this are that:

CVE initiatives run the risk of defining violent extremism without input from, or in contrast to, how affected communities conceptualise the term. Subsequently, initiatives may fail to address local communities’ most pressing security concerns. [130]

At its worst, then, CVE could be ignoring local priorities in favour of international ones, and relying on problematic assumptions about the problems to be addressed rather than developing a more grounded analysis and agenda. Those conceptualising conflict as violent extremism are struggling to counteract what they see as an evil ideology contaminating misguided individuals. Because of this, the issues people in Lamu see as central – unequal access to jobs, land and politics – have become peripheral and obscure rather than clear and central to an overall problem-solving strategy.

This is why Lind et al see existing counter-radicalisation approaches as “fundamentally flawed”: they ‘treat’ radicalisation in isolation of “more systematic reforms in the state’s treatment of Somalis and Muslims.” The problem is that this:

Conveniently ignores the root causes of radicalisation, including institutionalised discrimination of Kenya’s Somalis and Muslims and marginalisation in the development of Muslim-majority counties in north-eastern and coastal areas of Kenya.

For this reason, they argue, “counter-radicalisation efforts are destined to fail in the absence of a wider reform effort to address these drivers”. [131]

This matters greatly for Lamu: if local grievances over identity, land and politics continue to provide fertile ground for al-Shabaab, the group may continue to use violence to polarise and divide, making constructive solutions that promote unity and equality less and less likely. Thus it is vital that grievances and the sense of identity-based exclusion are recognised as fundamental priorities in Lamu, and indeed across Kenya. Ultimately, the state and society need to demonstrate to marginal communities that they are able and willing to recognise and address grievances, rather than allowing violent movements to claim this role.

A real danger at present is that the opposite will transpire: legitimate grievances will become conflated with ‘extremist’ views – justifying inaction, entrenching the status quo and locking in a future of deepening marginalisation and intensifying violence.


105. Key Informant Interview with NGO, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
106. Youth focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
107. Key Informant Interview with NGO, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
108. Key Informant Interviews with county government officials, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
109. Key Informant Interview with group of religious leaders, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
110. Key Informant Interview with group of religious leaders, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
111. Key Informant Interview with NGO, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
112. Key Informant Interview with NGO, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
113. Key Informant Interview with businessman, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
114. Key Informant Interview with NGO, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
115., p 13
116. Key Informant Interview with businessman, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
117., p 20;, p xi
118. Youth focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
119. Key Informant Interview with politician, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
120. Key Informant Interview with NGO, Lamu County, 1 December 2016
121., p 10
122., p 1
123. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
124., p 544
125. Key Informant Interview with NGO, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
126. Key Informant Interview with NGO, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
127. Key Informant Interview with NGO, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
128. Key Informant Interview with journalist, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
129., p X
130., p X
131., p 37

Header photo: Thomas Wheeler/Saferworld