Just as Lamu’s al-Shabaab conflict reflects broader issues within Kenya, it is also connected to international dynamics. The county neighbours Somalia, and the situation is linked to the Kenyan government’s intervention there. Everything we heard about addressing Kenyan grievances goes double for Somalia, where the focus on fighting terrorism [132] has led the international community to neglect public grievances and participation in short-sighted ways.

Unfortunately, anger about international strategy in Somalia will play a role in feeding violence in Kenyan counties such as Lamu against both Kenyan and Western targets for the foreseeable future. As one local politician argues, “It’s not our issue – it is the issue of the Kenyan government, of the USA, of the UK, and their fight in Somalia. We are just here.” [133]

While the Kenyan government’s intervention in Somalia was reportedly resisted at first by its international partners, they have since proved ready to lend it significant political, financial and security support. [134] While often voicing concerns, Western countries have also been consistent supporters of Kenya’s domestic counter-terrorism efforts. Indeed, as recently as November 2016, the US Ambassador announced the delivery of a further US$ 14 million for counter-terrorism cooperation. Speaking from Lamu Island, the ambassador told journalists:

I have also enjoyed the security in Lamu. This brings out the efforts that the Kenyan government is really working hard on matters security [sic]. We shall continue partnering with the government in ensuring Lamu and the whole nation is well secured. [135]

Then, in January 2017, the US Government approved the sale of US$418 million of aircraft and arms to Kenya for use against al-Shabaab.

Lamu has long been an important site of Kenya-US security cooperation. After 2001, a number of US military operations in Somalia were coordinated from Lamu. [136] The US military also delivered humanitarian and development projects within Lamu, for example building wells in hard-to-reach villages. As one observer recalled:

most of their efforts have met with the approval of target populations, since the US military brings critical services to areas neglected by the central and provincial governments. At the same time, local communities are suspicious of the American presence because many presume that less altruistic motives – intelligence gathering, for instance – lie behind the aid. [137]

The US since appears to have stopped active operations in Lamu.

Nonetheless, Kenya has received increasing US military assistance for its operations in Somalia, including on the border. In 2015, total US military aid to Kenya was US$100 million – up from US$38 million in 2014. [138] The US has provided training to maritime forces in Lamu specifically since 2009. [139] Kenya has also remained among the top five recipients of US State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance, averaging at US$8 million annually, which has been spent on building police capacity and other areas of the security sector. [140]

US Counterterrorism aid to Kenya since 2010

[Source: Security Assistance Monitor]


When then-President Obama visited Kenya in 2015, he stated that “On security, the United States and Kenya are already strong partners … and today we reaffirm that we stand united in the face of terrorism.” [141] Despite the boost in funding to the Kenyan military that year, the president seemed to acknowledge the challenges being created by Kenya’s heavy-handed security response to terrorism, encouraging the Kenyan Government not to persecute or alienate minority groups in its efforts to crack down on terrorism: “We need to make sure the approaches taken in rooting out potential terrorist threats don’t create more problems than they solve”. [142]

Photo: U.S. Embassy Nairobi

Photo: U.S. Embassy Nairobi

Even though US efforts do focus on improving the rule of law framework for countering terror in countries like Kenya, [143] including the issue of accountability, [144] this still struck us as strange: on the one hand the US expresses concern at the highest level about Kenya’s counter-productive security approach to countering terror; then on the other, it ramps up the kind of assistance that at best reinforces these approaches, and at worst adds to the perverse incentive not to solve the problem.

At the same time, since 2012, the US has also provided support for CVE efforts at the coast. This included the Kenya Transition Initiative (KTI), a pilot initiative providing small grants to local organisations and networks engaged on the push and pull factors for recruitment. The KTI aimed at “creating communication channels for discussion of sensitive topics, empowering local youth through reinforcing community leadership and positive identity formation, and bolstering links between youth and skill-building opportunities.” [145] As one report notes, ‘the initiative was launched in Eastleigh and its environs and, in 2012, expanded to the coastal regions of Lamu, Kilifi, Kwale, Malindi and Mombasa – all Muslim majority areas.’ [146]

Following the KTI’s end in 2014, US$ 5 million has been allocated for a new project entitled Strengthening Community Resilience against Extremism (SCORE). This involves 17 civil society partners at the coast, including several in Lamu, and will support local civil society and communities to address the drivers of extremism. [147]

Other international actors have also supported CVE efforts at the coast. In 2015 the UK launched a project to improve employment prospects for youth in Mombasa. [148] The European Union, too, supports a regional project to understand drivers of radicalisation and help youth address relevant problems at community level. [149]

Taking stock of this support, on the positive side, many of the CVE efforts we saw did appear to be quite flexible to context: the NGOs we spoke to seemed to have a lot of room to design their programmes and engage on local conflict issues. In addition, as noted, local people clearly do appreciate projects that address concerns in marginalised areas. [150]

At the same time, the lack of clarity we found in some CVE projects about the need to confront the big conflict drivers in Lamu also raises important questions. Can the international focus on CVE possibly succeed if heavy-handed security force behaviour remains the norm? Wouldn’t a stronger international focus on development in marginalised communities and human rights be much more effective than CVE? While counter-terror assistance is ever welcome, in December 2016 the government cancelled a US-backed civic education fund – but one illustration of how CVE is displacing rather than advancing rights and development issues as a centrepiece of international aid and diplomatic strategy in Kenya. If political tensions turn once again to violence in Kenya in 2017, as many fear, this loss of focus could prove a costly mistake.

Another key question for the US, UK and others is whether they have thought through what their economic investments could mean for conflict in Lamu. Jockeying for position with Chinese and Middle Eastern investors, the US is reportedly “very excited about LAPSSET” and “want[s] the American package to be considered”. [151]

With continued strife in South Sudan, low oil prices and an unfavourable international financing environment, it is not clear how fast the LAPPSET project will progress. Some fear that if it does, and local people lack relevant skills, “LAPPSET jobs will go to outsiders, then they will feel marginalised. When someone comes with a radical option, they will be interested in this.” [152]

Al-Shabaab draws on international factors in its propaganda, seeking to encourage recruits to see themselves as part of a global insurrection. [153] For this reason alone, international investors would be wise to be sensitive to the risks of clumsy investment in Lamu – which could be seen as depriving local people of land, jobs and rights, triggering further resentment and violence. If so, the solution lies in careful community engagement to understand the concerns that new projects could trigger, as a basis for investment strategies that redress potential issues in advance.


132. http://www.saferworld.org.uk/resources/view-resource/1032-barbed-wire-on-our-heads
133. Key Informant Interview with politician, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
134. https://afraf.oxfordjournals.org/content/114/454/1.abstract
135. http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2016/11/11/us-donates-sh15-billion-to-fight-terror-in-kenya_c1454289
136. http://journals.sfu.ca/jd/index.php/jd/article/viewFile/62/52
137. https://www.academia.edu/2413503/Fighting_Phantoms_The_United_States_and_Counterterrorism_in_Eastern_Africa
138. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/us-to-expand-support-in-kenya-somalia-for-counterterrorism-operations/2015/07/25/b6f386f0-3210-11e5-97ae-30a30cca95d7_story.html?utm_term=.5696059aa10f
139. http://www.africaknowledgeproject.org/index.php/ajcjs/article/view/1569
140. https://globalpublicpolicywatch.org/2014/05/14/kenyas-battle-against-terrorism/
141. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/us-to-expand-support-in-kenya-somalia-for-counterterrorism-operations/2015/07/25/b6f386f0-3210-11e5-97ae-30a30cca95d7_story.html?utm_term=.dbeef8077128
142. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/us-to-expand-support-in-kenya-somalia-for-counterterrorism-operations/2015/07/25/b6f386f0-3210-11e5-97ae-30a30cca95d7_story.html?utm_term=.5696059aa10f
143.  https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2015/257514.htm
144.  https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2015/257514.htm
145.  https://www.usaid.gov/countering-violent-extremism
146. http://life-peace.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/IJR20Violent20Extremism20in20Kenya20final20web2028129.pdf
147. https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1860/SCORE%20Draft%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf
148. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/counter-violent-extremism-communities-beat-terrorism
149. https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/strive-brochure-20150617_en.pdf
150. https://www.academia.edu/2413503/Fighting_Phantoms_The_United_States_and_Counterterrorism_in_Eastern_Africa
151. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-07-26/kenya-u-s-companies-in-talks-on-multibillion-dollar-port-deal
152. Key Informant Interview with county government officials, Lamu County, 30 November 2016
153. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17531055.2015.1082254, p 546


Header photo: UK in Kenya