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How 9/11 and Its Aftermath Continues to Frustrate Local Intervention Efforts in Kenya

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— 8 minutes reading time

Above: Nairobi, Kenya

Dominic Pkalya, Senior Programme Manager, PROACT

Dominic Pkalya is a Senior Programme Manager for SCN, working across SCN’s counter-extremism initiatives in Kenya and the Eastern Africa region as a whole. Dominic also supports the policy development, research, education and monitoring and evaluation methods to measure the impact of counter-extremism programmes off and online.

Dominic is managing the PROACT – Community Based Interventions Program as well as supporting the SCN and YC initiatives in Kenya. He ensures that SCN interventions in Kenya complement each other, support national and sub national (county) counter-extremism and hate strategies.  He represents SCN in formal and informal engagements with government and other stakeholders.

He was previously the Chief of Party for the Strengthening Community Resilience against Extremism (SCORE), a USAID Kenya and East Africa funded counter-extremism project that was being implemented in the coastal region of Kenya by Act Change Transport (Act!) and 17 local partners. Previously, he worked with UNDP Kenya where he was seconded to National Drought Management Authority, a government agency, where he provided technical support in addressing Armed Violence reduction efforts amongst pastoralists communities in Kenya. He holds a Masters in Arts (Media, Conflict and Peace studiers) from University for Peace (Costa Rica) and a Bachelors of Arts (Government and Public Administration) from Moi University (Kenya).

Akyar Maalim – Associate, Strong Cities Network


The following opinion piece and the views expressed in it are the authors’ own and cannot be attributed to the Strong Cities Network.

The events of 11 September 2001 and the ensuing ‘global War on Terror (GWOT)’ made terrorism a top peace and security agenda globally. Having been a victim of Al-Qaeda’s twin bombing of the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, Kenya was a natural ally of the U.S. in the Horn of Africa region for this fight.

Yet while the GWOT was initially seen as a U.S. foreign policy mandate, the furore that surrounded it gave room for national governments to use it as a shield to clamp down on opposition, suppress freedom of expression, and use violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’. This was true of Kenya, which in the 2000s was accused, among other things, of extrajudicial killings and disappearances of terrorist suspects and use of counter-terrorism measures against independent civil society groups and political opponents.

Naturally, this has made many Kenyans suspicious of counter-terrorism agendas and hindered genuine efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism efforts on the ground which depend in many respects on the existence of a modicum of trust between national and local, and security and non-security actors. This impeded the progress of a number of well-intentioned preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) programmes, including PROACT[1]. These efforts were further damaged by the perception that the largely Western, donor-funded P/CVE programmes and international aid more broadly are part of a hidden foreign-imposed agenda[2] with which Kenya is ‘forced to cooperate[3].

Despite this, the country does face an undeniable violent extremist threat in the form of Al-Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist group with ties to Al-Qaida located in neighbouring Somalia which, between 2017 and 2020, conducted 176 attacks in Kenya resulting in 376 fatalities. As a result, it has been consistently ranked by the Global Terrorism Index amongst the top 25 countries most affected by terrorism, with the attacks devastating the country’s tourism[4] and agriculture sectors, and forcing the closure of hundreds of schools in the north-east of the country.

Kenya faces an undeniable extremist threat in the form of Al-Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist group located in neighbouring Somalia which, between 2017 and 2020, conducted 176 attacks in Kenya resulting in 376 fatalities

This threat notwithstanding,  violent extremist groups are not viewed by the Kenyan public as the top threat to life and cause of insecurity. For example, a survey conducted by the Strong Cities Network in Kwale, Nakuru and Isiolo counties in Kenya in 2020 found that public concern about ordinary crime and violence outweighs issues of radicalisation and violent extremism. Another study found that, in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack, the aggressive counter-terrorism operations conducted by security forces would target ethnic minority groups, further damaging relations with local authorities[5].

Moreover, Kenya’s response to terrorism and violent extremism, in particular the heavy-handed tactics that have alienated, and in some cases contributed to, the radicalisation of, segments of the population, is viewed by some as a greater threat than that posed by the violent extremists themselves. These tactics have led to increased distrust and resentment against national government and the security services and police in particular. Counter-terrorism efforts are often viewed by the country’s Muslim minority as being intrinsically anti-Islamic, deepening this divide.

Nevertheless, there have been some important milestones in addressing the threat. In 2016, the Kenyan government elaborated a National CVE Strategy – the first of its kind on the African continent  – which called for a ‘whole of government’ and ‘whole of society’ approach that extended beyond security measures and focused attention on some of the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism in the country. The plan was then complemented at the local level by the County Action Plans (CAPs), each one designed by local authorities, often in collaboration with civil society organisations, and tailored to their individual context. To date, these CAPs have achieved some credible and vital successes that should not be overlooked.

Most importantly, the CAPs have given county governments and civil society the mandate to contribute to the P/CVE efforts in their respective counties. Initially, P/CVE, and security more broadly, was seen as the remit of national government despite the many investments by the sub-national units to address some of the root causes of polarisation and security such as the lack of education.

Moreover, since the launching of the CAPs, P/CVE has become more of a priority in these counties as evidenced by the establishment of functional P/CVE Directorates in the county governments (such as those in Mombasa, Mandera and Wajir), new county government offices specially tasked with devising P/CVE strategies catered to the local context. These counties have since mainstreamed P/CVE in five-year development blueprints known as County Integrated Development Programs (CIDPs). Other counties (such as Isiolo and Garissa) are also directly funding P/CVE activities through their own budgets.

However, given the lingering negative perceptions of P/CVE and counter-terrorism more broadly, and due to the lack of trust of security forces, the implementation of the CAPs also faces significant barriers.

For example, while county governments have reputedly invested heavily in initiatives to address vulnerabilities to radicalisation and extremism, the comparative lack of investment in the CAPs has left them almost entirely dependent on international donors. Further, control over which actors can operate in this sphere is tightly maintained by the central government in Nairobi, which has severely restricted the input of civil society and other local actors so necessary for the continued success of the CAPs.

Given the lingering negative perceptions of P/CVE and counter-terrorism more broadly, and due to the lack of trust of security forces, the implementation of the County Action Plans also faces significant barriers

While these and other obstacles to advancing the P/CVE agenda at the local level in Kenya are significant, they are not insurmountable. There are a number of possible ways to gradually overcome them.

Firstly, local government, counties and other stakeholders can use data-driven evidence to demonstrate the threat that terrorism and violent extremism pose to all Kenyan society, regardless of ethnicity or religion, and push for unity in opposing and preventing it.

Secondly, non-state stakeholders should also tap the opportunities within the private sector to support P/CVE work in the country.

Thirdly, counties, through policy and legislation, should plan and budget for P/CVE-related interventions, including by tweaking their CIDPs to address the relevant structural drivers of terrorism and radicalisation to violence such as youth unemployment and uneven distribution of devolved resources within the counties.

Fourth, and building on PROACT’s pilot in Kwale, Nakuru and Isiolo, Local Prevention Networks (LPNs) – communities of local actors, religious leaders and policymakers working together to identify and tackle emerging issues within communities – should be established across all Kenyan counties. These LPNs can be especially useful in the Kenyan context given the variety of grievances local populations face, as they can address issues beyond violent extremism such as gang recruitment and drug-related and gender-based violence.

And lastly, there needs to be greater scrutiny of security forces in how they conduct themselves so as to prevent further degradation of relations with the population. A law enforcement unit that is accountable, transparent and human rights-grounded can be a powerful force for change in the country.

20 years on from 9/11, it is clear that the endeavour to prevent violent extremism cannot be won through military means alone, but rather through a ‘whole of society’, locally-owned approach. Nor is the struggle against violent extremism against a single enemy, but against all factors – economic, structural and cultural – that lead individuals to turn to violence upon others. Local authorities, community leaders and civil society are uniquely placed to help ensure a comprehensive approach to addressing extremist violence in Kenya is realised and is effective and sustainable over the long run. In the third post-9/11 decade, these stakeholders deserve more  recognition and support than they received in the first two if the country is to overcome the challenges posed by violent extremism.


[1] PROACT is a community based intervention program being implemented in Kwale, Nakuru and Isiolo counties in Kenya. It is being led by ISD and directly implemented by local partner organizations.

[2] Lind, Jeremy and Howell, Jude. 2008. “Aid, Civil Society and the State in Kenya since 9/11.”, Non-Governmental Public Action, London School of Economics and Political Science.

[3] Lind, Jeremy and Howell, Jude. 2010. “Counter-terrorism and the Politics of Aid: Civil Society Responses in Kenya.” International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague 41:335-353

[4] UNDP Kenya, 2017, Articulating the pathways of the impact of terrorism and violent extremism on the Kenyan economy, Policy Brief Issue No: 1/2017, UNDP Kenya.

[5] Daisy Muibu & Suat Cubukcu (2021): Assessing the impact of terrorism and counter-terrorism on public perceptions among ethnic minorities in Kenya, Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, DOI: 10.1080/18335330.2021.1923786