On August 7, 1998, two simultaneous car bombs exploded at the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. More than 200 citizens of these countries were killed in the attacks, in addition to 12 Americans. In the ensuing weeks and months, families of the Kenyan and Tanzanian victims confronted the unspoken hierarchies in the US government’s valuation of human lives, as the compensation offered to them paled in comparison to what was offered to their US counterparts. Meanwhile, in retaliation, President Clinton authorized a military strike on Sudan’s Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory (claiming that it was producing chemical weapons), and further strikes on alleged terrorist bases in Afghanistan. The destruction of the factory in Khartoum precipitated a medical catastrophe, as economic sanctions prevented Sudan from importing the adequate medicines needed to treat malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases.1The Al-Shifa factory in Khartoum was the largest manufacturer of medicines in all of Sudan, specializing in antimalarial drugs. For many Africans, memories and experiences of the so-called War on Terror therefore date back not to September 2001, but to August 1998.
In the last 20 years, African governments have become enmeshed in a Euro-American-financed security infrastructure that has facilitated the expansion of their policing, military, and surveillance capabilities.2In 2013, the African continent saw the largest relative rise in military spending of any region in the world. See Rita Abrahamsen, “Return of the Generals? Global Militarism in Africa from the Cold War to the Present,” Security Dialogue 49, no. 1–2 (2018): 19–31. See also “Arms and the African,” Economist, November 22, 2014, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2014/11/20/arms-and-the-african. In East Africa, Kenya has emerged at the forefront: in April 2017, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that Kenyan military spending in 2016 rose to a new high of $933 million, a figure that stood at more than double the FY 2016 spending of neighboring Ethiopia and Uganda combined. See Neville Otuki, “Nairobi Leads EA Arms Race with Sh96 Billion Military Budget,” Business Daily Africa, April 25, 2017, http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/news/Kenya-shocks-rivals-with-Sh96bn-military-budget-/539546-3902752-upddpv/. Kenya has assumed a particularly prominent role in East Africa, as the theatre of operations gradually shifted westward from Afghanistan to Iraq to Yemen and neighboring Somalia. In an effort to understand the everyday reverberations of counterterror in East Africa, I conducted 15 months of ethnographic research between 2013 and 2015 in the Kenyan cities of Nairobi and Mombasa.
Beyond Eurocentric understandings of geopolitics
One of my objectives was to decenter the United States as the primary subject of the War on Terror. Focusing primarily on politicians, journalists, human rights activists, and young people in East Africa, I aim to decolonize Eurocentric historiographies of world politics, scrutinizing both the forms of knowledge that have come to dominate understandings of “geopolitics” and “international relations” and the kinds of actors that are deemed relevant to these understandings.3See also Paul Amar, The Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); Siba N. Grovogui, Beyond Eurocentrism and Anarchy: Memories of International Order and Institutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Sam Opondo Okoth, “Decolonizing Diplomacy: Reflections on African Estrangement and Exclusion,” in Sustainable Diplomacies, eds. Costas M. Constantinou and James Der Derian (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); and Meera Sabaratnam, “IR in Dialogue … but Can We Change the Subjects ? A Typology of Decolonising Strategies for the Study of World Politics,” Millenium: Journal of International Studies 39, no. 3 (2011): 781–803. Largely due to the power wielded by the US government, there remains a tendency among scholars, journalists, and activists alike to analyze dynamics in the region through the lens of US actors and entities like AFRICOM and US Special Forces.4See, for example, Nick Turse, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa (Haymarket, 2015); Jeremy Keenan, “US Militarization in Africa,” Anthropology Today 24, no. 5 (2008): 16–20. This is not to discount the extent to which American actors influence decision-making: in an investigative film produced by Al-Jazeera, for example, members of the Kenyan security apparatus report that they have received direct orders from the US government for the targeted assassinations of terror suspects.5See Al-Jazeera Investigates, “Inside Kenya’s Death Squads,” 2014, https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/kenyadeathsquads/. In many ways, the fact that Africans, rather than Americans, are the most visible agents of counterterror abuses on the ground works to obscure the actual contours of US power operating in the region. As scholars and activists have observed, this is a deliberate tactic designed to maintain plausible deniability. Yet this warscape cannot be understood simply through the lens of a US-led theatre of operations. The consequence of such an approach is that Africans are objectified and rendered to the background, understood only as victims, perpetrators, or unthinking proxies for US interests.
Relatedly, the near exclusive focus on US military bases, secret prisons, and drone strikes contributes to a spatial imaginary of discrete pockets of desert territory seemingly disconnected from everyday life in African urban centers. And yet the spatiality of violence unleashed by the counterterror apparatus is far more encompassing, as Muslims in cities like Nairobi and Mombasa are monitored and terrorized on a near-daily basis—whether in the form of police roundups, death threats, disappearances, or extra-judicial killings. The infrastructure of counterterror therefore extends well beyond the shadows of underground CIA prisons in Somalia and “train and equip missions” in Niger. What does it mean, then, to think about the War on Terror from the streets, homes, police stations, and parliamentary floors of Africa?
War and policing“Immediately following the August 1998 attacks, the Kibaki government launched a crackdown in the predominantly Muslim city of Mombasa, conducting mass raids and arrests.”
While Kenya rarely figures in the broader international imagination as a site of war or counterinsurgency, successive administrations have capitalized on the global preoccupation with “security” to normalize and legalize what some have described as a “war: police assemblage.”6The term “war: police assemblage” is intended to connote that the distinction between military and police is not only unhelpful, but an obstacle to understanding the politics of modern war. In the context of counterinsurgency strategies, militaries are often tasked with police-like duties, and civilians become objects of military operations. See Jan Bachmann, Colleen Bell, and Caroline Holmqvsit, War, Police, and Assemblages of Intervention (London, Routledge, 2015). Immediately following the August 1998 attacks, the Kibaki government launched a crackdown in the predominantly Muslim city of Mombasa, conducting mass raids and arrests.7Jeremy Prestholdt, “Kenya, the United States, and Counterterrorism,” Africa Today 57, no. 4 (2011): 2–27. Local human rights activists were at the forefront of documenting subsequent cases of extraordinary renditions (in which nearly 100 people disappeared into secret detention facilities outside of Kenya), collecting information that might help families in search of their loved ones.8Al-Amin Kimathi and Alan Butt, eds., “Horn of Terror: Report of US-Led Mass Extraordinary Renditions from Kenya to Somalia, Ethiopia, and Guantanamo Bay, January-June,” (Nairobi: Muslim Human Rights Forum, 2007). At great personal risk, they conducted critical groundwork for subsequent investigations by groups like Human Rights Watch.
Since the Kenyan government’s decision to send its own troops into Somalia in 2011, the dialectic between war and policing has become more apparent. Not only has Al-Shabaab expanded the reach of its violence into Kenyan territory (with the 2013 Westgate mall attack being the most prominent example), but the Kenyan military is also increasingly active within Kenya itself.9While the Kenya Defense Forces Amendment Bill of 2015 was not passed, the Kenyan military is active within the country. Even as Kenyans conceive of Kenya and Somalia as two separate spheres, this imaginative divide coexists uneasily with landscapes and networks of entanglement that blur previously held distinctions between the seemingly peripheral war against Al-Shabaab and everyday life in Kenyan urban centers. In April 2014, for example, Kenyan police and military deployed roughly 5,000 security actors as part of Operation Sanitization of Eastleigh in Nairobi to “weed out” non-Kenyans. The subsequent arrests and internment of over 1,000 people (including both Somalis and Kenyans of Somali descent) in Nairobi’s Kasarani stadium drew widespread concern and condemnation from international human rights organizations. Yet this was merely a spectacular form of the diffusion of militarization in everyday life.10It is important to note that the impact of militarization extends well beyond members of the Muslim minority in Kenya; in this regard, the figure of the threatening Muslim has arguably served as a cover for the expansion of policing practices more generally, with ramifications for all Kenyans. See “National Insecurity: Extra Judicial Executions in Kenya (2013–2017),” The Elephant, April 12, 2018, https://www.theelephant.info/data-stories/2018/04/12/national-insecurity-extra-judicial-executions-in-kenya-2013-2017/. Communications surveillance is conducted without oversight and intercepted content is shared and abused to spy on, profile, and track terror suspects, often leading to their arrest, torture, and disappearance.11Privacy International, March 2017More Info → One local human rights organization in Mombasa documented 80 cases of killings and disappearances on the Kenyan coast between 2012 and 2016 alone.12Haki Africa, December 2016More Info →
Counterterror and civil society
The forms of violence that have been unleashed extend beyond the domain of the military to the halls of liberal interventionism, where policymakers privilege the language of “peace and security,” despite ideological entanglements with doctrines of counterinsurgency.13See, for example, Jan Bachmann and Jana Honke, “‘Peace and Security’ as Counterterrorism? The Political Effects of Liberal Intervention in Kenya,” African Affairs 109, no. 434 (2009): 97–114. The “peacekeeping” mission in Somalia is another relevant example of liberal interventionism. See Samar Al-Bulushi, “‘Peacekeeping’ as Occupation: Managing the Market for Violent Labor in Somalia,” Transforming Anthropology 22, no. 1 (2014): 31–37. The most recent example can be found in the rhetoric of “countering violent extremism,” or CVE, which privileges a “soft” approach to counterterror. In recent years, the aid industry has redirected millions of dollars in funds to CVE-related projects in East Africa in an effort to build support for the War on Terror through “hearts and minds.”14For the fiscal year 2015–2016, the US State Department sought to provide $40 million in assistance related to countering violent extremism (CVE) in East Africa alone. In 2016, the State Department and USAID provided $7.5 million to support counterterrorism efforts in Kenya. See Michael Ortiz, “Partnering with East Africa to Counter Violent Extremism.” DIPNOTE (blog), US State Department, October 21, 2016, http://2007-2017-blogs.state.gov/stories/2016/10/21/partnering-east-africa-counter-violent-extremism.html. See also “Countering Violent Extremism: Kenya, Somalia, and East Africa,” USAID, June 2017, https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1860/CVE_Fact_Sheet_June_2017.pdf. Here, donors and policymakers emphasize the need to engage “vulnerable” populations, arguing that “the most effective barriers to the infiltration of terrorists and radical ideologies in the region are not applications of military force but the cultural and social predispositions of East African Muslims.”15RAND Corporation, 2009More Info → The aid industry has therefore worked to shift public attention away from the abuses of the counterterror apparatus to the Muslim minority community as a “problem” requiring intervention. As more and more members of Kenyan civil society have become, in the words of one NGO leader, “ambassadors of security,” they are increasingly entwined in infrastructures of policing and counterterror. The result is that there are fewer and fewer public spaces in which to engage in discussion and debate, whereby individuals who might be drawn to the ideas of terrorist organizations have an opportunity to critically evaluate those ideas without fear of incrimination. Kenyan Muslim citizens living on the coast who once turned to human rights groups and other civil society organizations for engagement or support now worry about the possibility that these entities are spying and informing on members of their own community.“Following the Mpeketoni attack in June 2014, curfews on the nearby island of Lamu brought local economies (fishing, especially) to a halt.”
The economic impact on suspect communities and regions like the coast has been equally devastating. Once a thriving tourist attraction, coastal hotels and beaches have operated much of the year at minimal occupancy. Many simply shut down, leaving up to 20,000 without work. Following the Mpeketoni attack in June 2014, curfews on the nearby island of Lamu brought local economies (fishing, especially) to a halt. In Mombasa, rumors have circulated about the so-called terrorist threat serving as cover for large-scale land dispossession, as families desperate for income have begun to accept outside offers on their properties. By looking beyond imagined geographies of threat and danger to the grounded geographies of everyday life, we can think more critically about the gradual, cumulative, and largely invisible forms of dispossession that are enabled by the War on Terror.16For a similar discussion in relation to Pakistan, see Mubbashir Rizvi, “From Terrorism to Dispossession: Pakistan’s Anti‐Terrorism Act as a Means of Eviction,” Anthropology Today 34, no. 3 (2018): 15–18.
Today, as was the case 20 years ago, we are confronted with the troubling reality that terror attacks are one of the few instances when the rest of the world turns its attention to Africa. Whether in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 attacks, or more recently with the social media hashtags #StandwithSomalia, #JeSuisKenyan, and #AfricanLivesMatter, Africans have made note of this, maximizing fleeting moments in the global spotlight to raise questions about hierarchies of humanity and grievable life.17For more on the author’s analysis of this, see Samar Al-Bulushi, “#StandwithSomalia?” Africa is a Country, October 20, 2017. At the same time, Kenyans have confronted their government about the ongoing role of their military in Somalia, arguing that Kenya is now less, rather than more secure. These appeals constitute just a few examples of the ways in which Africans are engaged in a form of what we might call “everyday geopolitics,” drawing on situated knowledge to interpret and contest the geopolitical order. This serves as an important reminder that the War on Terror is not simply happening to or on the African continent but rather is a historically situated and contingent process that is animated by a complex array of actors and interests. To the extent that scholars can recenter African ideas and experiences, there is ample opportunity to disrupt hegemonic representations of life and death on the continent.