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Violent extremism in the Horn: Regional dynamics and public opinion

Over the past two decades, violent extremism has grown to become the central security concern of several African states. East Africa, and the Horn in particular, are especially vulnerable to the spread of both indigenous and international terrorism and, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, became a strategic focal point for the American-led “War on Terror.” Porous borders, poor governance, corruption, as well as a history of enduring ethnic conflict have created conditions in which terrorist groups have been able to thrive.

Al Shabaab originated in 2005 out of the now defunct Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. However, in the decade since, its operational reach has expanded throughout the Horn. The group’s first major international attack was a twin suicide bombing in July 2010 in Kampala, Uganda, that left 76 dead and 70 injured. The group stated publicly that the attacks were retaliation for Ugandan support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – a regional peacekeeping force mandated to support transitional government structures and assist in improving the security environment. Since then, Al Shabaab has targeted regional troop-contributing countries to AMISOM and has carried out attacks in Djibouti, Kenya, and Tanzania. Attempted Al Shabaab attacks have also been thwarted in Ethiopia.

It is increasingly clear that security forces, trained to fight in conventional wars, are poorly equipped to deal with the diffuse and clandestine nature of modern terrorism. The large-scale deployment of armed forces in weak states has done little to reduce the threat and has, in several cases, been counter-productive. Security forces have had to adapt their way of operating with an increased focus on intelligence gathering, enlisting and maintaining local support, and the use of special operations units rather than conventional expeditionary forces.

In 2011, for example, Kenya launched Operation Linda Nchi (“protect the nation”), a combined military operation between Kenyan and Somali forces to take “coordinated pre-emptive action” against Al Shabaab in southern Somalia[1]. Before 2011, there had been no significant al Shabaab attacks on Kenyan soil. However, in the subsequent period, Al Shabaab attacks within the country have increased year on year. In 2015, 16% of all Al Shabaab attacks occurred within Kenya, resulting in 250 civilian deaths and hundreds more injured[2]. Furthermore, a considerable portion of Al Shabaab militants are currently believed to be recruited in Kenya, including both nationals and immigrants/refugees[3].

Governments and regional bodies around the world are in the process of developing strategies for countering violent extremism (CVE) that will define their national and foreign policy for years to come. In April 2015, following a Washington summit, the American government drafted an action agenda that outlines its approach to CVE internationally. The European Union has laid out its CVE steps in the EU Strategy on Prevention of Radicalization and Recruitment.

The subsequent shift in international donor funding has seen several targeted CVE initiatives take shape in Africa. In Kenya, the USAID-funded Kenya Transition Initiative (KTI) has launched a specialized CVE programme that targets vulnerable communities along the country’s east coast. Several other initiatives have been developed throughout the Horn.

It is perhaps too early to tell if this new approach to combating the spread of violent extremism has been or will be effective. The preventative focus of CVE means that results will be difficult to quantify, other than a gradual reduction in the appeal and spread of violent extremist groups.  In order for CVE to have the best possible chances of success, it needs to be implemented in the most “at-risk” communities. Furthermore, it needs to be instituted from the bottom up, rather than taking a top-down approach, and be informed by the public rather than forced upon it.

Public opinion and security in East Africa

Public opinion data provide important insights into the impact of violent extremism on ordinary citizens by presenting the prevailing attitudes, evaluations, and policy preferences in a given country. Recent analysis from the Afrobarometer survey indicates that security is not a top priority for most Africans: On average, only 15% of citizens across 32 countries cite “crime and security” as one of the top three problems in their respective nations[4].

East Africans’ views vary widely by country: While crime and security is the leading national priority for Kenyans (40%), it is not in the top three for Burundi (18%), Uganda (8%), or Tanzanians (5%) (Figure 1). However, this proportion increases considerably in Burundi if one also includes other security-related concerns, such as political violence and civil war (to 34% of citizens).

Figure 1: Most important problems | crime and security | East Africa | 2014/2015[5]



Respondents were askedIn your opinion, what are the most important problems facing this country that government should address?[6]

Public views of investment priorities follow a similar pattern: More than one-third of Kenyans believe that security (e.g. police and military) should be either the first (18%) or second (15%) priority for any additional government spending, followed by Burundians (20%), Tanzanians (14%), and Ugandans (12%) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Support for prioritizing security investment | East Africa | 2014/2015


Respondents were asked: If the government of this country could increase its spending, which of the following areas do you think should be the top priority for additional investment? And which would be your second priority?

Public trust and confidence in security forces has a profound effect on the chances of success or failure of security-led initiatives to combat violent extremism. Local communities are often best situated to understand the distinct dynamics of conflict in their region and are an important source of information.

Afrobarometer data indicate that East Africans’ confidence in security forces is highest in Burundi and lowest in Kenya (Figure 3). Generally, the army enjoys considerably higher public trust (79%, on average) than the police (57%). The largest gap in the proportion of citizens who say they trust the army “a lot” or “somewhat” and those who say the same for the police is in Kenya (32 percentage points), followed by Uganda (22 points), Tanzania (21 points), and Burundi (16 points). Less than a quarter (23%) of Kenyans think that “none” or only “some” police are corrupt, the lowest proportion in the region. However, 60% of respondents say the same for members of the Kenyan Defence Force (KDF).[7]

Figure 3: Confidence in security forces | East Africa | 2014/2015


Respondents were asked:

  1. How much do you trust each of the following, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say:
    • The police?
    • The army?

(% “somewhat” or “a lot”)

  1. How many of the following people do you think are involved in corruption, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say: The police? (% “somewhat” or “a lot”)

The most recent Afrobarometer surveys in Kenya and Uganda asked respondents to assess the government’s efforts at fighting terrorism in their respective countries. Ugandans are significantly more satisfied with government efforts than their Kenyan counterparts. While eight in 10 (83%) Ugandans say their government is doing “fairly well” or “very well” on fighting terrorism, only 44% of Kenyans say the same, while half (51%) give these efforts a negative rating.

Figure 4: Evaluations of counter-terrorism efforts| Kenya vs. Uganda | 2014/2015


Respondents were asked: How well or badly would you say the current government is handling the following matters, or haven’t you heard enough to say: Fighting terrorism in [country]?

CVE, as a departure from the security-led response exemplified by Kenya’s Operation Linda Nchi and Operation Usalama Watch, needs to take into the account the socioeconomic and political drivers of violent extremism. However, it is often difficult to determine which factors contribute the most. The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) uses a data set of more than 125,000 terrorist incidents to analyse global patterns and determine correlates of violent extremism. The GTI (2015) identifies poverty, intergroup cohesion, group grievance, marginalization by the state, and state-sponsored violence among the top correlates.

Public opinion and potential drivers of violent extremism in Kenya

Cross-national analysis of levels of “lived poverty,” an experiential measure of poverty based on the frequency with which citizens or their families go without basic necessities, indicates that material deprivation has declined in a large number of African countries, including Kenya, since 2011/2013[8]. Furthermore, Kenyans’ levels of lived poverty are lower than the average for 35 countries. As with most other nations, the lack of a cash income is the most prevalent form of lived poverty in Kenya (74%), followed by medical care (48%), food (46%), clean water (42%), and cooking fuel (30%)[9].

In 2014, 30% of respondents or their family members lacked these five measures of material deprivation at least “several times” in the previous year (Figure 5). Further analysis by province (Kenya’s administrative unit until 2013) indicates significant differences in levels of lived poverty across the country. While only 15% of residents of Central province went without these basic necessities, six in 10 (59%) residents of North Eastern province did so. Average material deprivation in the other six provinces ranged from 27% (Western) to 36% (Coast).

Figure 5: Average material deprivation| by province | Kenya | 2014


Respondents were asked: Over the past year, how often, if ever, have you or anyone in your family gone without:

  • Enough food to eat?
  • Enough clean water for home use?
  • Medicines or medical treatment?
  • Enough fuel to cook your food?
  • A cash income?

(average % who went without these five necessities “several times,” or “often,” or “always” )

Al Shabaab has managed to exploit and gain support within certain populations of Kenya’s North Eastern province. The territory was carved out of the Jubaland region of present-day Somalia by the British colonial administration and is primarily inhabited by ethnic Somalis. Analysis of Kenyans’ evaluations of government counter-terrorism efforts, public attitudes toward the intervention in Somalia, and key potential drivers of extremism provides preliminary evidence that ethnic Somali citizens hold views distinct from those of other Kenyans [10].

Opinion data show that Kenyans’ levels of social tolerance are high: Only 8% of survey respondents say they would “strongly dislike” or “somewhat dislike” having a neighbour of a different ethnicity, while 10% say the same for those of different religions and 19% for different nationalities (Figure 6). Buchanan-Clarke and Lekalake (2015) show that intolerance levels are significantly higher among Somali Kenyans for ethnic and religious differences (by approximately 20 percentage points)[11].

Figure 6: Social tolerance | Kenya | 2014


Respondents were asked: For each of the following types of people, please tell me whether you would like having people from this group as neighbors, dislike it, or not care:

  • People of a different religion?
  • People from other ethnic groups?
  • Immigrants or foreign workers?

Analysis of Kenyans’ perceived marginalisation by the government shows that ethnic Somali citizens are the most likely to believe that they are “always” or “often” treated unfairly (51%, compared to an average of 23%) (Figure 7). These perceptions are borne out by reports from Human Rights Watch (2015)[12] showing that government security initiatives to combat violent extremism within the country, such as Operation Usalama Watch, have unfairly targeted Somali Kenyans and resulted in gross human rights violations. These reports include instances of extortion, arbitrary arrest, forced relocations, torture, and extra-judicial killings.  

Figure 7: Perceived government marginalisation | by ethnicity | Kenya | 2014


Respondents were asked: How often, if ever, are [respondent’s ethnic group] treated unfairly by the government?


Public opinion data show that security is a leading concern for ordinary Kenyans and that only 44% were satisfied with government counterterrorism efforts in 2014. The findings also show that although there is high overall social tolerance, there are significant inequalities in economic outcomes and in different groups’ perceptions of marginalisation. Ultimately, the success of CVE as a new strategy to combat violent extremism will be determined by governments’ ability to address these perceived root causes.

Rorisang Lekalake is assistant project manager for Afrobarometer in Southern Africa, based at Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). She may be reached at

Stephen Buchanan-Clarke is an MA candidate in security studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a consultant in the Justice and Reconciliation in Africa programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town, South Africa. He may be reached at


[1] Al Jazeera (2011). Kenya says making gains against al-Shabab. Published: 19 October 2011. Available at:

[2] Institute for Economics and Peace (2016). Global Terrorism Index 2015. Available at:

[3] Botha, A. (2014). Radicalization in Kenya: Recruitment to al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council. Institute for Security Studies Paper 265. Available at:

[4] Afrobarometer is a non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys in 36 countries across the continent. This publication primarily employs data from the Round 6 survey in Kenya. The survey, led by the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Nairobi, interviewed 2,400 adult Kenyans between 12 November and 5 December 2014. A sample of this size yields country-level results with a margin of error of +/-2% at a 95% confidence level. Previous surveys have been conducted in Kenya in 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2011.

[5] Fieldwork dates: Burundi (September-October 2014), Kenya (November-December 2014), Tanzania (August-November 2014), Uganda (May 2015).

[6] NB: Respondents could list up to three problems. This chart provides the sum of multiple responses.

[7] This question was only asked in Kenya.

[8] Mattes, R., Dulani, B. and Gyimah-Boadi, E. (2016). Africa’s growth dividend? Lived poverty drops across much of the continent. Afrobarometer Policy Paper No. 29. Available at:

[9] Ibid.

[10] Buchanan-Clarke, S. and Lekalake, R. (2015). Is Kenya’s anti-terrorist crackdown exacerbating drivers of violent extremism? Afrobarometer Dispatch No. 37. Available at: the small size of the Somali Kenyan subsamples (5% of the total 2014 sample,

n=124), the resultant wider margin of uncertainty surrounding generalizations about Somali

Kenyans calls for caution in interpreting associated numerical results.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Human Rights Watch. (2015) Kenya: Counterterrorism Operations Undermine Rights. Published: 29 January 2015. Available at:

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