U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) reportedly sought expanded authorities to launch drone strikes against al-Shabaab fighters in portions of eastern Kenya, according to the New York Times citing unnamed American officials. The new authorities, which need to be approved by the U.S. defense secretary and president, were requested in response to the January 5, 2020 attack that killed three Americans at the U.S.-Kenya Manda Bay Airfield. Though the United States has carried out a sustained drone operation in neighboring Somalia, military officials currently lack guidelines on such conduct in Kenya. There are approximately 200 American armed forces and 100 U.S. Department of Defense civilian employees and contractors in Kenya engaged in training and assistance, most of whom are stationed at Manda Bay Airfield. (Source: New York Times)

On January 5, 2020, al-Shabaab militants launched an attack on the shared U.S.-Kenyan Manda Bay Airfield, near Kenya’s border with Somalia. The attack, which involved indirect and small-arms fire, killed three Americans. Among those killed are U.S. service member Henry Mayfield Jr., and two Department of Defense contractors. Two U.S. military contractors were also injured. The assailants managed to destroy six civilian aircraft and three military vehicles before being repelled by Kenyan Defense Forces and U.S. African Command. The attack was the first al-Shabaab attack against U.S. forces inside Kenya. On September 17, 2020, a military court in Somalia sentenced one of the perpetrators, al-Shabaab member Farhan Mohamud Hassan, to life in prison for his role in the attack. On January 7, 2020, al-Shabaab militants opened fire near Saretho village in Garissa county. The attackers killed four children and wounded three others before being repelled by security forces. The assailants were targeting a telecommunications mast. Kenyan authorities later claim to have seized bomb-making materials following the attack. (Sources: Washington Post, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Military Times, New York Times, ABC News, BBC News)


Kenya has been a frequent target of terrorist attacks. The largest, most high-profile attack occurred in 1998 when al-Qaeda operatives bombed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, killing more than 220 people. In recent years, the Somali-based al-Shabaab has perpetrated two largescale attacks in Kenya: the September 2013 siege of Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall that left 67 people dead, and the April 2015 attack on Garissa University in northeastern Kenya in which militants killed 148 people. The Somali terror group has increased attacks in Kenya in order to dissuade the country from sending its military to help stabilize neighboring Somalia. (Sources: CNN, Reuters, Reuters, Reuters)

Al-Shabaab is the most active extremist group in Kenya, but is not solely responsible for the country’s extremist violence. The separatist organization Mombasa Republican Council, for example, has used violence in its quest for the city of Mombasa’s secession from Kenya. Police have accused the group of planning attacks including an attack on a casino in March 2013. Separately, ISIS is not believed to have a foothold in Kenya, though Kenyan citizens have traveled abroad to join the international terror group. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters, Reuters, Reuters)

The Kenyan government has taken an aggressive approach to countering extremism at home and abroad. As terrorist forces have grown in strength, the central government in Nairobi has invested more resources to disrupt terrorist financing and thwart their operations. In April 2015, the Kenyan government began construction of a wall along Kenya’s Somali border to keep out al-Shabaab militants and illegal immigrants. Northeastern Regional Commissioner Mohamud Saleh said in January 2018 that the construction of the wall had helped lower border attacks to “almost zero.”  However, lack of payment for construction workers and political quarrels between the Kenyan and Somali governments have slowed development of the wall. The counter-extremism agenda has also suffered from government corruption. Security services have been accused of rampant abuse and torture in the conduct of their operations and detainment policies.  (Sources: Human Rights Watch, Guardian, Telegraph, Shanghai Daily, Premium Times)

Radicalization and Foreign Fighters


Kenya has become a prime location for al-Shabaab radicalization and recruitment amid the terror group’s rise in Somalia. As early as 2012, reports indicated that al-Shabaab was attracting a large number of Kenyan converts to Islam. By December 2014, it was estimated that Kenyans comprised around 25 percent of the terror group’s ranks. Al-Shabaab has primarily recruited within Muslim communities along the Kenyan coast. School heads in these communities have said that al-Shabaab militants have infiltrated their institutions, influencing students and recruiting youth to their cause. In December 2017, Kenyan police raided an Islamic school in Likoni, Mombasa, arresting two to four teachers and taking 100 students into protective custody. The children were being indoctrinated to an extremist Islamist ideology, according to authorities. (Sources: Global Post, BBC News, BBC News, Reuters, The Star, Jamestown Foundation, Reuters)

Al-Shabaab recruiters with links to both Kenya and Somalia pose a major security threat to Kenya. For example, well-known al-Shabaab militant Abdukadir Mohamed Abdukadir is a Kenyan national of Somali origin and an effective liaison between extremists in the two countries. Abdukadir, also known as Ikrima, is able to travel freely between the two countries and leverage his linguistic and cultural knowledge to radicalize young Kenyans and convince them to enlist with al-Shabaab. A 2018 study by U.S.-based NGO PeaceTech Lab found that al-Shabaab had expanded its recruitment inside Kenya to include Kenyan Muslims as well as the Somali diaspora. (Sources: BBC News, BBC News, PeaceTech Lab)

Kenyans have perpetrated violent extremist attacks inside Kenya. Kenyan national Elgiva Bwire Oliacha, for example, carried out an al-Shabaab grenade attack in Nairobi in 2011 that wounded over two dozen people. Oliacha pled guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment, though his sentence was later reduced to 15 years. In April 23, 2014, Kenyan national Abdul Hajira attacked a Nairobi police station with a car bomb, killing two police officers—though media outlets have not linked Hajira to any specific group. More recently, in August 2016, a police raid targeting a former police officer who had deserted the force recovered three AK-47 rifles and 178 rounds of ammunition. The suspect was reported to have been planning an attack on an elite police force and was believed to have been radicalized by al-Shabaab. (Source: Global Post, The Nation, STRATFOR, Standard Digital News, The Star)

Kenyan youth face economic, religious, and social coercion to convince them they have no alternative to joining extremist organizations, Lambert Mbela, a Christian pastor in Mombasa, told Religion News Service. According to Mbela, some youth convert to Islam for the promise of economic benefits or even just food. A June 2018 report by PeaceTech Lab report found that increased economic opportunity was one of the primary reasons for conversion to Islam among the region’s Christians. The report noted that east African Christians who convert to Islam are often more at risk of radicalization due to social isolation. PeaceTech Lab researchers focused on the area of Mombasa and found that the families and friends of Christian converts to Islam tend to break their ties, increasing the converts’ isolation and susceptibility to recruitment. (Sources: Religion News Service, Xinhua)

Foreign Fighters

Hundreds of young Kenyans comprise the largest contingent of foreign fighters in al-Shabaab. Kenyan authorities continue to arrest Kenyan citizens on their way to join the terror group. In June 2017, for example, authorities arrested five Kenyan youth—all below the age of 20—on suspicion of attempting to join al-Shabaab in Somalia. (Sources: Associated Press, Standard Media)

In recent years, Kenyans have also sought to join ISIS in the group’s strongholds abroad. In October 2016, Kenyan authorities arrested a female microbiology student and convert to Islam for attempting to join ISIS. That incident preceded the high-profile arrest of attempted foreign fighters in October 2017, when South Sudanese security agents arrested three Kenyans for allegedly attempting to join ISIS in Libya. Two days after that arrest, three Kenyan girls returned home after escaping ISIS in Libya. More recently, in March 2018, Kenyan terror suspect Mohamed Shukri Abdiwahid Yerrow successfully joined ISIS in Yemen, according to Kenyan security sources. (Sources: News 24, Associated Press, Nairobi News, Standard Media)

Major Extremist and Terrorist Incidents

DusitD2 Compound Attack

On January 15, 2019, five Somali militants stormed the DusitD2 hotel and business complex in Nairobi where they opened fire and detonated an explosive. The 19-hour siege claimed the lives of at least 26 and injured another 28. The attack was aimed at wealthy Kenyans and foreigners as the upscale complex contained the offices of multiple international companies. In addition to sixteen Kenyans, one British national and one American were among the casualties. The five militants were killed by security forces with another 12 suspects being held for questioning. (Sources: Al Jazeera, Reuters)

Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that the attack was carried out in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As Kenya continues to support U.S. airstrikes against al-Shabaab, the insurgents have increased the frequency of their attacks throughout the country, particularly on Kenya’s border with Somalia. Furthermore, Kenya, and Nairobi in particular, hosts international high-value targets—from two U.N. agencies to multiple international media houses—that al-Shabaab can target to quickly gain international coverage. (Sources: BBC News, Washington Post, Voice of America, Al Jazeera)

Garissa University

On April 2, 2015, al-Shabaab militants launched a 15-hour attack on Kenya’s Garissa University, killing 148 students and faculty. The Islamist group targeted victims on the basis of their Christianity, and said the attack was a direct result of Kenya’s military presence in Somalia. The massacre was the country’s deadliest attack since the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings. (Sources: Time, Wall Street Journal)

Al-Shabaab swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack, exclaiming: “Our Mujahideen brothers today managed to carry out a successful operation in Garissa town. We told the Kenyans to withdraw their army from Somalia. They did not want to listen us, so this is our message to them.” Garissa University is located 90 miles from the Somali border. The porous Kenyan-Somali border allows for the relatively free flow of al-Shabaab militants between the two countries. Garissa County also hosts Dadaab—one of the largest refugee camps in the world with over 336,000 Somalis—making the area is especially vulnerable to al-Shabaab attacks. (Sources: Time, Wall Street Journal)

The Kenyan government did not immediately respond to the attack, but launched retaliatory airstrikes against al-Shabaab camps in Somalia several days later. The government also clamped down on businesses and individuals suspected of providing material support to al-Shabaab and announced that it was planning to construct a wall along the Kenya-Somalia border to cut off the flow of al-Shabaab fighters. Construction of the wall began in mid-April 2015. (Sources: BBC News, Time, Time, Telegraph, Shanghai Daily)

Westgate Mall

Al-Shabaab’s second-largest massacre in Kenya came in September 2013 when gunmen attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. Al-Shabaab claimed the attack was in response to Kenya sending troops to neighboring Somalia in support of the U.N.-backed government. Between 10 and 15 gunmen stormed the mall on September 21, shooting indiscriminately and moving store to store to take approximately 36 hostages. According to witnesses, the gunmen specifically targeted non-Muslims and told Muslims to flee before executing other hostages. On September 24, security forces retook control of the mall and the Kenyan government announced the end of the hostage crisis. Security forces had allegedly killed five terrorists and arrested 11 people suspected of involvement. Not including the attackers, 67 people were killed and 175 were injured during the siege. In 2015, the U.S. targeted and killed Somalia-based Adan Garar, the mastermind behind the attack. (Sources: BBC News, Telegraph, Associated Press, Independent, International Business Times)

Critics charge that the Kenyan government was unable to respond effectively and immediately to the attack because of poor cooperation between the army and police. For example, Kenya’s Special Forces soldiers shot the commander of an elite police unit in a friendly-fire incident during the attack. The government response was also hindered by corruption. Video footage taken during the siege shows soldiers looting stores in the mall for goods. The attack was Kenya’s worst since the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. (Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC News, Guardian


Domestic Counter-Extremism

Kenya launched its National Strategy to Combat Violent Extremism in September 2016. President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed that the plan would pool resources from government, civil society, and the private sector in support of counterterrorism efforts, and would emphasize de-radicalization over military tactics. The effort is headed by Kenya National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) director Martin Kimani. Three county governments—Lamu, Kwale, and Mombasa—have established their own CVE strategies as well. (Source: Jamestown Foundation, U.S. Department of State)

In March 2017, Kenya announced it had formed a committee to spearhead efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism. The group is reported to include all principle secretaries and the Inspector General of Police. A government spokesman termed the effort a “cross-cutting, multi-agency national campaign” and said it would include “preventative, mitigation, and rehabilitative measures” to complement ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The committee operates under the country’s CVE strategy announced in September 2016. In 2018, the NCTC began work with Kenya’s Ministry of Education on a school program on countering violent extremism. (Sources: Xinhua, Daily Nation)

In 2018, Kenyan security experts noted that Kenya’s military strategy had led to a general decrease in al-Shabaab’s violent activities but there had been a simultaneous increase in online radicalization. In September 2018, the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (CHRIPS) and the Institute of Development Studies jointly launched the Countering Violent Extremism Research Hub, an online library to support CVE research. The government-funded resource tracks extremist incidents in Kenya and details active CVE programming. (Sources: Institute of Development Studies, Countering Violent Extremism Research Hub, Xinhua)

The Kenya-Somali Border Wall

Kenya announced plans in March 2015 to build a wall along its border with Somalia to keep out illegal immigrants and al-Shabaab militants. Construction of the wall began in mid-April 2015 in the coastal city of Lamu, Kenya. The 440-mile planned wall, which will stretch from the Indian Ocean to the city of Mandera where the borders of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia converge. The proposed wall will consist of concrete barriers, fences, ditches, and observations posts. In March 2016, both countries ultimately agreed to establish shared exit and entry ports along the border so as to better monitor those moving between the two countries. Northeastern Regional Commissioner Mohamud Saleh said in January 2018 that the construction of the wall had helped lower border attacks inside Kenya to “almost zero.” Kenya suspended construction of the wall in March 2018 after tensions arose over more than 60 houses along the proposed route. Talks between Kenya and Somalia collapsed that August after Somalia accused Kenya of restarting construction without an agreement. (Sources: Guardian, Telegraph, Shanghai Daily, Premium Times, The Star, MENAFN)

Security Measures

Since the April 2015 terrorist attack on Garissa University, Kenyan police have increased their presence in vulnerable areas including on college campuses. Kenya has also retaliated vigorously against al-Shabaab forces, sending fighter jets to bomb the terrorist group’s camps in Somalia. Kenyan military spokesmen claim uncertainty about what effect, if any, the bombing campaign has achieved. (Source: Wall Street Journal)

While Kenyan authorities have expanded their campaign to stop violent extremists, the harsher aspects of its implementation have exacerbated historical conflicts between the Kenyan government and Kenyan Muslims. Kenya’s sizable Muslim population has borne the brunt of these security measures. Some counterterrorism efforts have also enabled human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, and torture by government security forces. (Source: Human Rights Watch)

Counterterrorism Legislation and Human Rights Controversies

The Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) has allegedly been responsible for extrajudicial executions, disappearances, and mistreatment of individuals arrested on terrorism charges. Instead of responding to these concerns, Kenyan lawmakers passed the Security Laws (Amendment) Act No. 19 of 2014, which further empowers security forces and inhibits the freedom of the media and other sources of independent scrutiny. This new legislation also allows Kenyan police to hold terror suspects for nearly a year, and gives authorities the power to monitor and tap phones. (Sources: Human Rights Watch, Al Jazeera)

While Kenyan officials state that these measures are necessary to counter terrorism effectively, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding this legislation. Opponents claim that it is unfairly infringing on basic human rights. The law places restrictions on the media, for instance, that arguably violate the freedom of expression. In addition, the law strictly limits the number of refugees permitted to reside in Kenya, which critics argue also violates constitutional provisions. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society groups, and opposition leaders have called the bill “suppressive” and “draconian.” (Sources: Al Jazeera, The Jurist, AllAfrica)

On March 15, 2017, London-based Privacy International released a report accusing Kenyan security agencies of violating individual privacy rights and using information collected to commit human rights abuses, including targeted killings. Reports by other groups, including Human Rights Watch, claim that dozens of Kenyans suspected of links to extremist groups have disappeared and some were found executed. (Sources: Human Rights Watch, Guardian, Telegraph, Shanghai Daily, Star Tribune)

International Counter-Extremism

On July 10, 2019, Kenya partnered with the U.N. to convene a two day Pan African Counter-Terrorism Summit in Nairobi. The forum devised new strategies in combatting the war on terror and violent extremism with specific focus on a “whole of society” approach. In February 2012, the U.N. Security Council authorized Kenya to join the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Kenya contributed about 4,000 troops to the mission. Later that year through AMISOM, Kenya’s military forces captured Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, which had served as a revenue source for al-Shabaab. Following an al-Shabaab ambush on Kenyan forces in El Adde, Somalia, the Nigerian and Somali governments expressed their preparedness to collaborate with Kenya to combat terror groups in the region. Kenya continues to participate in AMISOM. (Sources: Global Times, United Nations, Congressional Research Service, Daily Nation, Capital News)

Cooperation with the United States

Kenya is one of six countries participating in the United States’ Security Governance Initiative (SGI), focusing on management, oversight, and accountability of security services. Kenya’s SGI priorities include border security, administration of justice, and police human resource management, with each area having a special focus on countering violent extremism. Kenyan civil society organizations are actively engaged in countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

U.S. aid to Kenya—approximately $1 billion annually—has been intended to help Kenya develop economically and combat extremism militarily. The military portion of this aid seeks to enable Kenya to carry out more successful counter-extremist operations in the Horn of Africa. In July 2015, the U.S. government provided the Kenya Defense Force (KDF) with nearly $100 million to combat al-Shabaab. The Kenyan government used the funds to purchase equipment, training, and improve intelligence and logistics capabilities. (Sources: (Sources: Congressional Research Service, Daily Mail, AllAfrica)

On a visit to Kenya in 2015, then-U.S. President Barack Obama discussed increasing U.S. assistance to Kenyan security services to "improve intelligence capabilities." Part of $95 million in U.S. aid to the Kenyan military in 2015 was used to "enhance" intelligence and help Kenyan security forces "identify and target" al-Shabaab operatives. In December 2016, the United States gave the Kenyan government six of eight promised Huey II helicopters for use in counterterrorism activity by the Kenyan Air Force. (Sources: The Cipher Brief, SecurityAssistance.org, Congressional Research Service, Daily Mail, AllAfrica, Daily Nation, Government of Kenya, Defense News)

On February 10, 2020, the U.S. Department of State and the FBI announced that they have partnered with Kenya to establish the first ever Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) outside of the United States. The Kenya-led team will be based in Nairobi, will follow the U.S.-based JTTF structure of a multi-agency counterterrorism force, and receive continued support from an FBI Special Agent mentor. The creation of the Kenyan Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF-K) was initiated following an al-Shabaab attack on the DusitD2 Hotel in Nairobi on January 16, 2019 that left over 20 people dead. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington Post)

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) reportedly sought expanded authorities to launch drone strikes against al-Shabaab fighters in portions of eastern Kenya, according to the New York Times citing unnamed American officials. The new authorities, which need to be approved by the U.S. defense secretary and president, were requested in response to the January 5, 2020 attack that killed three Americans at the U.S.-Kenya Manda Bay Airfield. Though the United States has carried out a sustained drone operation in neighboring Somalia, military officials currently lack guidelines on such conduct in Kenya. There are approximately 200 American armed forces and 100 U.S. Department of Defense civilian employees and contractors in Kenya engaged in training and assistance, most of whom are stationed at Manda Bay Airfield. (Source: New York Times)

Cooperation with the United Kingdom

The British army has trained 1,000 Kenyan military and police officers in the disposal of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) since 2015. During an August 2018 visit to Kenya, British Prime Minister Theresa May signed an agreement to further expand cooperation between the two countries. The agreement includes the expansion of a joint Kenyan-United Kingdom counterterrorism installation into a regional training facility on IED disposal. The facility is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2020. Under the agreement, the United Kingdom will also provide funding and material resources for Kenya to enhance its border and aviation security procedures. (Sources: Daily Nation, Gov.uk)

Cooperation with Somalia

Al-Shabaab fighters have been reportedly crossing into Kenya through neighboring Somalia’s Bula Hawa border region. In early April 2016, local government representatives from both countries’ affected border regions met to discuss the issue. Both governments pledged to work together to fight terrorism and prevent cross-border crimes. Representatives of the respective governments met again the following year to continue discussing enhanced security relations and other bilateral issues. The two countries agreed to open two new border crossings and resume flights between Mogadishu and Nairobi. Kenya also committed to training Somali nurses and teachers, and to supporting technical training for at-risk Somali youth. The sides also agreed to continue regular meetings on bilateral relations. (Sources: Republic of Kenya Ministry of Foreign Affairs, AllAfrica, Daily Nation)

Cooperation with Israel

In February 2016, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to seek Israel’s support for Kenya’s counterterrorism efforts. Kenya was specifically interested in having Israel conduct “more overt” counterterrorism operations in the country and East African region. Cooperation between the two countries dates back to Operation Entebbe in 1976 when Kenya provided operational support to Israel during a hostage rescue mission in Uganda. Kenyatta was concerned about the safety of his country since the United States closed its drone base at Arba Minch in 2015 and stopped flying drones from Djibouti. Rivlin and Kenyatta agreed to further cooperation in the war against terrorism. Israeli Deputy Ambassador to Kenya Nadav Peldman stated that “Israel is ready and willing to assist Kenya…to fight terrorism.” Israeli security advisers reportedly provided Kenyan forces with strategic assistance during the 2015 Westgate Mall siege. (Sources: Guardian, Geeska Afrika, Haaretz, AllAfrica, Reuters)

Public Opinion

Public opinion is difficult to gauge in Kenya given the lack of public polling. Nonetheless, some basic trends can be discerned about how Kenyans assess the threats arising from Islamist violence. Compared to other African nations, Kenya is greatly concerned about the dangers posed by Islamic extremism.

A survey released by Aga Khan University’s East African Institute in January 2016 suggests that the majority of Kenyan youth would do “anything to generate money and wealth regardless of its legality as long as they are not caught.” This is particularly worrisome as unemployment is one of the main factors luring Kenyan youth to join al-Shabaab. A State of National Security Annual Report to Parliament in 2016 found the terror group capitalizes on Kenya’s youth unemployment and feelings of marginalization to recruit. (Source: News24 Kenya)

In a Pew Research Center survey published in March 2013, approximately 55 percent of Kenyans believe that terrorism constitutes a major threat to the country. According to data from 2014, 66 percent of Kenyans support Kenyan military presence against al-Shabaab in Somalia. When asked to evaluate their government’s performance in fighting terrorism, however, 51 percent of those surveyed believed their government was handling it “Very/Fairly badly.” (Sources: Pew Research Center, Afro Barometer)

According to press reporting in June 2017, there were signs of increased public frustration with al-Shabaab’s continued ability to mount deadly attacks in Kenya. After a wave of attacks on security forces and civilians in northeastern Somalia between mid-May and early June 2017, five local officials in Garissa County threatened to arm civilians and blamed the national government for failing to protect them. A local member of parliament, Barre Shill, called on the national government to arm “the community” to defend itself against al-Shabaab because “we are not being protected.” Teachers and health workers who failed to report to work due to security fears added to the officials’ concerns. (Source: VOA News)