Terrorism in Kenya

By Koome Gikunda

(Graduating senior)


Kenya has been the battlefield of tragic terrorist attacks on western interests twice since 1998 – once in 1998 when the US embassy was attacked and a second time in 2002 when a Israeli-owned Paradise hotel was bombed. In 1980, Jewish-owned Norfolk hotel was attacked by the PLO. Every single attack shared a common thread of irony: the majority of the lives lost were Kenyan, even though the ideology behind the attacks suggests that Kenyan and Kenyans were not involved in the political dynamic that precipitated the attacks. 

The paper seeks to understand the political, social and cultural variables that have thrown Kenya into the geo-political limelight insofar as the so-called ‘War on Terrorism’ is concerned. The paper ends by discussing the security and economic implications of Kenya’s foreign policy positions as they relate to the evolving Middle-East conflicts.


Precipitating events

The following are the major events that have been categorized as terrorist activities in Kenya. These are the events that actually transpired. There could conceivably be more that were and still are on the drawing board but never executed.

In 1976, the famous Entebbe hostage crisis was witnessed in neighboring Uganda. Members of the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) seized an Air France airliner and its 258 passengers.They forced the airplane to land in Uganda. During a 35-minute battle, 20 Ugandan soldiers and all seven hijackers died along with three hostages. when Israeli commandos rescued the passengers. Uganda’s President and dictator Idi Amin arrived at the airport to give a speech in support of the PFLP and supplied the hijackers with extra troops and weapons. Idi Amin was humiliated by the surprise raid. He believed Kenya had colluded with Israel in planning the raid and hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda were massacred soon afterwards. [1]

In 1980 terrorists linked to the Palestinian Liberation Organization attacked the Jewish-owned Norfolk hotel in Nairobi killing 15 people, most of them Kenyans.

In 1998, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya and the one in neighboring Tanzania were bombed. According to official Kenyan government figures, 213 people were killed in the blast that gutted the U.S. Embassy building in downtown Nairobi. That included 12 American workers and 34 of their Kenyan colleagues, called "foreign service nationals [FSNs]." More than 4,000 Kenyans were also injured in the explosion.

In 2002, three suicide bombers attacked an Israeli-owned hotel, killing 11 Kenyans, 3 Israelis and wounding dozens. Almost simultaneously, at least two missiles were fired at - but missed - an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombasa airport. A previously unknown militant group calling itself The Government of Universal Palestine in Exile, The Army of Palestine, issued a statement in Lebanon claiming responsibility saying the operations were timed to mark the eve of the anniversary of the Nov. 29, 1947, decision by the United Nations to partition Palestine and allow creation of a Jewish state.[2]

More recently, in May 2003,  warnings of possible imminent attacks in Kenya were issued on by officials in Washington, London and Berlin. Britain ordered British airlines to halt flights to Kenya due to fears of attacks in the east African country. Later, London told its citizens to avoid visiting Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda due to what it called a "clear terrorist threat." The U.S. and German governments issued similar warnings about travel to east Africa after Kenyan authorities reported sighting a known Al-Qaeda terrorist in neighboring Somalia.

On a personal note, my father is a landlord in Kenya. He owns and operates residential apartments in the heart of Nairobi. One of his tenants was of Somali origin and occupied a one bedroom apartment for 6 months. It was never furnished and very frequently occupied by the tenant. Two weeks after rent was due last year, the tenant had completely disappeared. Fearing the worst, my father obtained a court injunction to seize the apartment. He proceeded to have the locks broken in an attempt to inspect the apartment. They walked in and found all sorts of illegal explosives mounted in the corner of the near empty room. One can only speculate as to the intent of this tenant, but suffice it to say, the intentions were anything but humanitarian. The insight in this instance is that for every major reported terrorist incident, there are countless that go unreported.


Political History

East Africa has been at the nexus of many political events that revolve around the political conflicts of the middle east.

The first instance of this was the proposal for the  forceful creation of a Jewish state in Uganda and Kenya earlier in the twentieth century.  Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary at the time, had offered Theodor Herzl, the leader of the Zionist movement, a piece of Uganda and a piece of Kenya at the beginning of the twentieth century for the creation of a new Jewish state.  (The boundaries of Uganda early in the twentieth century included parts of present-day Kenya). Had the Zionist movement accepted the offer, and a permanent Jewish state been established in East Africa, it is conceivable that African anger against the West today would be comparable to anti-Western rage in the Middle East.  But the Zionist movement in 1903 could not reach consensus about creating "Israel" in East Africa -- and therefore the postcolonial situation in Africa today involves no permanent loss of territory.[3]

Since its creation in 1895, Kenya has remained an ally of western governments. Kenya is specifically host to sensitive Western interests, including US and British military bases and training grounds. Several other foreign troops operate at the Kenyan coast including a German surveillance team. The US has also over the years, apart from last year, given selected African countries, including Kenya, grants and low-interest loans through the US defence Security Co-operation Agency, to finance arms purchases from America.In 2001, Kenya received Sh76 million, the third highest funding after Nigeria's Sh760m and Guinea's Sh228m.[4]

Kenya is the only African country that has a formal agreement with Washington for the use of local military facilities. The agreement, signed in February 1980, allows US troops to use the Port of Mombasa, as well as airfields at Embakasi and Nanyuki. These facilities were used to support the disastrous American military intervention in Somalia – an Islamic state -  in 1992-94, and have been used in the past year to support US and other coalition forces involved in counter-terrorism operations.

Cultural and Historical Context

Around the year 500 A.D., the first Arab traders docked at this corner of the Indian Ocean and launched their long colonization process during which they introduced their culture, their mosques, their religion, their bazaars, ...

Cushitic-speaking people, who occupied the area from about 1000 B.C., traded with Arab  merchants by the first century A.D.. Kenya’s proximity to the Arabian Peninsula invited colonization, and Arab and Persian settlements were established along the coast by the 8th century A.D. By then, Bantu and Nilotic peoples had moved into the area. From the 9th century, cities like Pate, Lamu and Malindi were founded, giving rise to a new civlization which was Bantu-Arab in origin but developed its own personality, including a new language. Swahili or Kiswahili was born as a blend of the Bantu grammar and the Arab vocabulary, and was initially written with Arab characters.

Arab dominance was eclipsed by the arrival in 1498 of the Portuguese, who gave way in turn to Islamic control under the Imam of Oman in the 1600s. Britain established its influence in the 19th century. The colonial history of Kenya dates from the Berlin Conference of 1885, when the European powers first partitioned east Africa into spheres of influence. In 1895, the British Government established the East African Protectorate and, soon after, opened the fertile highlands to white settlers. In 1920, Kenya officially became a British colony. From October 1952 to December 1959, Kenya was under a state of emergency arising from the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule after which it attained independence from British in 1963.


Analysis of events

In July 1976 during the Entebbe hostage crisis, Kenya briefly served the function which Pakistan has served in the American war in Afghanistan – as a disloyal neighbor serving the larger interests of the international community.  Pakistan has been a staging ground for the fighting forces of the United States and its allies. Kenya in 1976 briefly served as a refueling stage for the Israeli C-130 Hercules transport planes on their way back to Israel after the Entebbe raid. Kenya played to the Israeli raiders of Entebbe the supportive role which Pakistan has played to American anti-terrorist forces in Afghanistan.  It goes to show that even loyalties of neighbors can be hijacked by more powerful external forces.[5] The Norfolk bombing, apart from targeting Israeli interests, was seen as punishment to Kenya for its good gesture to the Israelis.

Mohammed Sadeek Odeh, an Al Qaeda agent arrested after the1998 Nairobi blast. told interrogators that he was willing to carry out a terror attack in Kenya because he did not like Kenyans.[6]

In geo-political terms, it is important to look at Kenya’s relationship with its neighbors in order to understand its perception among all sides of the ideological divide. For years, predominantly Muslim Somalia, which borders Kenya to the east, had been home to a number of al Qaeda terrorist training camps and was known to have links to al-Ittihad al-Islami, a fundamentalist Muslim group. The Kenya-Somali border is extremely porous due to the refugee crisis that followed the Somali invasion by the US in 1994.  U.S. troops withdrew from the country in 1994 after efforts to safeguard delivery of humanitarian aid evolved into an unsuccessful campaign against a Somali warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid. The effort climaxed in a bloody street battle in October 1993 that left 18 American Special Forces troops and hundreds of Somalis dead. Kenya was again considered disloyal to its neighbors by supporting a foreign power.

Kenyan Government Reaction

Poverty, weak borders, corruption, inept police, failed governments and rising disillusionment among young Islamists have made Kenya and other African nations easy targets and potential havens for global terrorists.


The new coalition government of Mwai Kibaki inherited a country that was mired with a plethora of national issues: corruption, massive foreign debt service payments, poor infrastructure, low commodity prices and a tourist industry that was crippled by exogenous political issues.

The IMF and World Bank and other multilateral organizations have stepped in and promised to renew negotiations on much needed foreign aid. In addition to multi-lateral aid, the Kenyan economy depends heavily on bi-lateral assistance offered by the EU, Japan and most notably the US.  Very often, foreign aid is tied to various political and economic conditions. The strong Nigerian opposition to the war in Iraq, for example, led to the withdraw of military assistance from the US.


After the 1998 bombing, the internal security docket created the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit which is now made up of 400 officers.[7] However, the docket is far too small to be effective against a growing extremist minority in East Africa. The government has had little economic leeway to deal with the myriad of factors that have contributed to poor internal security and susceptibility to terror attacks on its soil.

Compared to countries like Egypt and Israel which receive billions of dollars annually in military and OAD assistance from the US for aligning their foreign policy positions with those of US interests, Kenya receives a paltry amount. The corollary of this argument is a growing school of thought among the political elite that questions the economic and strategic prudence of blindly aligning Kenyan interests with those of the US.

Therefore, Kenya’s position on the Iraq was going to be a litmus test for its stand in world politics.  After being non-committal for a number of weeks leading up to the second Gulf war, Kenya finally supported the African Union position with regard to the disarmament of Iraq through the UN Security Council.[8] Kenya is a member of Non Alignment Movement.

International Reaction: Inductement, Persuation etc

The 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania came at a very opportune time for the then US President Bill Clinton who was embroiled in the Monica-Lewinski scandal and faced impeachment by the US congress. The bombings came as a welcome diversion from domestic issues. The first course of action was to order air attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan. Cruise missiles hit six sites in Afghanistan that allegedly housed supporters of purported terrorist Osama bin Laden. Missiles also struck a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudeanese capital of Khartoum that the U.S. believed housed chemical weapons. An Oct. 27 New York Times report says the U.S. attack was "one of the most debated military actions undertaken by the administration." The IAC sent a delegation to investigate the attack in Sudan. The delegation was led by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and the resulting report admitted that "Within days, Western engineers who had worked at the Sudan factory were asserting that it was, as Sudan claimed, a working pharmaceutical plant. Reporters visiting the ruined building saw bottles of medicine but no signs of security precautions and no obvious signs of a chemical weapons manufacturing operation." [9]

Sudan is one of Kenya’s northern neighbors. The Kenyan government made no official comment on the illegal US attack on the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan.

"The bombing of the U.S. embassies was aimed at Americans ... America is hitting back," said an editor at The Nation, the newspaper with the largest circulation in east Africa. "What they do is up to them ... we can't say good or bad." [10]

Economic Ramifications of Attacks

With about one million visitors per year, international tourism contributes 10% of Kenya’s exports. The tourism industry in Kenya is the third most important sector in the economy, accounting for nearly 12 per cent of GDP.

Kenya’s vital tourism industry, which suffered a severe downturn over the past few years as a result of the combined effects of el Nino, civil unrest, the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi and a negative international image, has been making a determined effort to recover and even to expand. With a united front from all sectors of the tourism industry, the government was firmly committed to promoting tourism, as tourism in Africa has been seen as a key means of revitalising the economy. The signs prior to the bombing were that the industry was over the worst, with the Kenya Tourism Board projecting a growth of 10 per cent for the next four years. [11]

Naturally, there were direct economic costs accruing from all the terrorist attacks. Arising from the 1998 embassy bombing, the U.S. government ‘donated’ $48 million dollars: “From figures given by the Counsellor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Mr. Thomas G. Hart, his government out of humanitarian compassion and not because they were responsible for the attack donated about $ 43 million. According to Mr. Hart, this money went to medical and psychological treatment, retraining people for employment, school fees and paying for destroyed buildings.”[12]

The U.S. government refused, much to the ire of the Kenyan community, to compensate Kenya victims directly. There are currently many cases lodged against the U.S. government demanding compensation for negligence and demanding up to $1 million per casualty.






Kenya and Kenyans have been commonly categorized as the innocent, unfortunate bystanders in a war waged by Islamic militants on US interests. Popular wisdom will suggest that poverty, weak borders, corruption, inept police and rising disillusionment among young Islamists have made Kenya and other African nations easy targets and potential havens for global terrorists. It is difficult to refute any of these arguments.


It is equally important to look to political and social history to understand why Kenya, not Angola for example, is being used as a base for Islamic extremists. Kenya’s history of aligning itself with the US and Israeli interests also explains the frequency of attacks on its soil and the ostensible disregard for Kenyan life.


Kenya’s pro-Israeli stance during the Entebbe hostage crisis was perhaps the definitive moment in its foreign policy history. That single decision has had its benefits and costs.

Any understanding of terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil must put the events in their correct historical context.


Kenya foreign policy strategists must calculate the political, economic and security costs of certain policy positions especially given the religious and cultural heterogeneity of the country. The final foreign policy decisions must be in line with the most favorable long-term interests of the country.




1.       “On this day: 4th July 1976”: BBC online

news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/ july/4/newsid_2786000/2786967.stm


2.      CNEWS, Thu, November 28, 2002:     http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/WarOnTerrorism/2002/11/27/5849-cp.html


3.       “Political Violence and Air-safety: The aviation industry after September 11th”, by Ali Mazrui, Institute of Global Cultural Studies


4.      “Kenyan Military Ponders Role in Gulf War”, The Nation (Nairobi) March 23, 2003


5.      “Political Violence and Air-safety: The aviation industry after September 11th”, by Ali Mazrui, Institute of Global Cultural Studies


6.       “How the Kenya government invites terrorist attacks”, by Chege Maina: http://www.kenyanews.com/exp24/sto_15.html


7.       “Queries Over Kenya's Capacity to Deal with Terror” The Daily Nation (Nairobi), 1 December, 2002.


8.      “The Mombasa Attack could Damage the Process of Tourism Recovery in Kenya” Professor Thea Sinclair  and Dr. Guntur Sugiyarto, Christel DeHaan Tourism and Travel Research Institute


9.         “Sudanese plant bombed by Pentagon was civilian” by Sarah Sloan, Worker's World Newspaper



10.     “An analysis of reactions to a U.S. government policy regarding compensation for African victims.” by Anthony Kuria, Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, www.africanconnections.com/AnthonyKuria.html

[1] BBC “On this day: 4th July 1976”:

                news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/ july/4/newsid_2786000/2786967.stm


[2]CNEWS, Thu, November 28, 2002:                                                                                  http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/WarOnTerrorism/2002/11/27/5849-cp.html

[3] “Political Violence and Air-safety: The aviation industry after September 11th” by Ali Mazrui, Institute of Global Cultural Studies

[4] “Kenyan Military Ponders Role in Gulf War”  The Nation (Nairobi) March 23, 2003



[5] “Political Violence and Air-safety: The aviation industry after September 11th” by Ali Mazrui, Institute of Global Cultural Studies

[6] “How the Kenya government invites terrorist attacks”, By Chege Maina:                                                              http://www.kenyanews.com/exp24/sto_15.html

[7] “Queries Over Kenya's Capacity to Deal with Terror” The Daily Nation (Nairobi), 1 December, 2002.


[8] “US War With Iraq Could Be Averted” The East African Standard (Nairobi), March 2, 2003


[9] “Sudanese plant bombed by Pentagon was civilian” By Sarah Sloan, Worker's World Newspaper


[10] “Sudanese plant bombed by Pentagon was civilian” By Sarah Sloan, Worker's World Newspaper


[11] “The Mombasa Attack could Damage the Process of Tourism Recovery in Kenya” Professor Thea Sinclair  and Dr. Guntur Sugiyarto, Christel DeHaan Tourism and Travel Research Institute

[12] “An analysis of reactions to a U.S. government policy regarding compensation for African victims.” by Anthony Kuria, Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, www.africanconnections.com/AnthonyKuria.html