A matter of trust: Reducing violent extremism in Kenya

International Alert’s new research argues that strengthening relationships is key to reducing violent extremism in Kenya.

A young Kenyan child at home
 © Christopher Olssøn/littleimagebank

While attacks in Kenya linked to violent extremism date back at least to the attack on the US embassy in 1998, attacks – and public concern – have been on the rise since the Kenyan military deployment to Somalia in 2011.

This precipitated a series of armed attacks by the Somali armed group, al-Shabaab. These include the high profile attacks on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi in 2013, on the village of Mpeketoni in coastal Lamu county in 2014 and on Garissa University College in 2015.

The response to these attacks has been widely criticised for focusing on hard security approaches, ethnic and religious profiling, and restrictions of freedoms. In many cases, these approaches have only served to exacerbate the perceptions of marginalisation and persecution that have allowed violent extremism groups to operate.

Earlier this month, President Kenyatta launched Kenya’s long awaited National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism, possibly signalling a change of tack. The strategy reflects an increase in discussion within civil society, government and the international community of the need for a wider range of non-coercive and preventive approaches to the issue of violent extremism.

This involves approaches with more in common with the development and peacebuilding sectors, such as inter-religious engagement, community dialogues or livelihoods. In Kenya, such interventions have tended to focus on areas considered ‘at risk’ of violent extremism, particularly the northeastern and coastal regions and the urban centres of Nairobi and Mombasa. Yet, there is increasing recognition that the issue of violent extremism is not limited to these areas.

There are ongoing debates in Kenya over this (relatively) new field of countering violent extremism – even its definition. Questions such as how it overlaps with ‘counter-terrorism’ approaches and priorities as well as how or if communities and individuals should be identified for programming and interventions. The respective roles of civil society and the government are also subject to debate.

In June and July of this year, International Alert Kenya, in collaboration with our partner the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance, conducted a rapid assessment in Nairobi and Mombasa of the factors that have fuelled or mitigated violence. The findings are summarised in our new report, We don’t trust anyone.

On embarking on the research, our hypothesis was that resilience to violent extremism can be linked to the strength of three kinds of relationships: between and within communities; between generations; and between citizens and the state.

This seems to be the case. In fact, we found evidence that the erosion of all three relationships correlates with reduced resilience. Conversely, the existence of stronger relationships has helped reduce the risk of radicalisation and violence.