In 2003, the women of Tononoka, an ethnically and religiously diverse neighborhood in Mombasa, Kenya, organized security to protect themselves after a series of violent rapes had gripped the community. This movement, which they dubbed Sauti Ya Wanawake (Women’s Vioces), has spread nationally to prevent sexual violence, and the precedent has inspired Tononoka to mobilize repeatedly for its own security, including during the violence that followed the 2007 Kenyan elections. Today, this resilience is at play again as the community works to resist violent extremism.

Friends and family of victims of the Westgate Mall attack during a memorial service and tree planting for the victims at the Karura Forest in Nairobi, Kenya, Oct. 21, 2013. The four-day siege, which the Islamist extremist group al-Shabab has taken credit for, left more than 60 people dead and scores more wounded. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Friends and family of victims of the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Kenya during a memorial service. The siege by the Islamist extremist group al-Shabab left more than 60 people dead and many wounded. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Tyler Hicks

In the case of the election-related violence, citizens in Tononoka heard that ethnically based vigilante groups on the payroll of political parties were on their way to incite the community’s youth. Citizens mobilized to guard the community’s perimeter and repelled them. This same vigilance about security has allowed the community to resist violent extremism, as mosques, community watch groups and the local administration (elders and chiefs) work together to report on newcomers, screen religious speakers and manage mosque events.

Such citizen-led security organizations that work together and cooperate with the government are one of the key factors that build a community’s resilience to—or ability to resist—violent extremism, based on a comparative research study I conducted for USIP with Sahan Research and Development Organization in Kenya. The study looked at six urban communities (Eastleigh, Pumwani, Tononoka, Majengo in Mombasa, Kisuani and Kongowea) that were equally at risk for violent extremism, but exhibited different levels of violent extremist activity. 

“Communities similarly at risk, but with less violent extremist activity, had high degrees and varieties of connections across religious groups.”

As the head of the research team, I selected Kenya as the study site because it is accessible and relatively safe and because it has a growing extremist problem.  Since the Kenyan military’s invasion of Somalia, Kenya has seen an increase in activity, including violent attacks, by Somali-based Harakat Al-Shabab Al Mujahideen, commonly known as al-Shabab. Recruitment for the war in Somalia, the radicalization of youth, the infiltration of local mosques and illicit financial transactions linked to extremist groups also have risen. 

At the same time, the heavy-handed response of the country’s security forces to growing levels of violent extremism has antagonized Kenya’s local communities and angered youth, increasing their vulnerability to radicalization and recruitment. Kenya’s experience demonstrates the need for effective alternatives to traditional law enforcement and intelligence approaches to prevent violent extremism and terrorism.

With this research, I really wanted to understand how communities on the frontlines undermine and rebuff violent extremist groups. If the study could identify core capabilities and successful strategies that could be compared with similar studies across different communities and geographies, it could provide solid evidence for how to prevent violent extremism.

Deep Social Bonds

Previous research on how communities resist other types of violence had identified specific capacities and strategies to test on the ground in Kenya. Seminal works like Ashutosh Varshney’s Ethnic Conflict and Civil Life:  Hindus and Muslims in India, while focused on communal rather than extremist violence and not formally described as resilience research, identified key resilience factors. They included bonds among different societal groups that specifically work together on projects across ethnic and religious divides, rather than simply meeting at sports games and at markets. That distinction, Varshney concluded, has a direct relationship to the ability of a community to manage violence. 

We wanted to test whether similar dynamics were at play in communities facing violent extremism. In addition to social cohesion, the Kenya study looked at other resilience factors drawn from other research. For example, collective efficacy—the belief that a community has the power and ability to successfully confront problems—and citizen participation, or the ability to work with the government to make change, were some of the resilience capacities that were tested in the six urban neighborhoods in Kenya. 

A key challenge for the research team was security.

“We had to take measures to ensure the security of the surveyors and the respondents, since we were asking questions about violent extremist activity in their community,” Scofield Muliru, who managed the two surveys and one focus group discussion organized in each neighborhood.

The resilience research team also considered how to translate the resilience capacities identified in the literature review and describe them in ways that made sense to survey participants. By asking how communities responded to other crises and incidents of violence, such as the 2007-2008 unrest after national elections and a cholera outbreak not long before the study, survey participants were able to identify the key factors that they believed helped them resist violent extremism. 

The key factor they cited was Christian-Muslim association. Communities similarly at risk, but with less violent extremist activity, had high degrees and varieties of connections across religious groups that allowed them to stop cycles of retributive violence and build greater levels of trust across religious lines. That trust allowed Christian leaders to assure their congregations that Muslim leaders were doing everything they could to prevent radicalization and recruitment.

Another capacity that existed in communities with less aggregate extremist violence of various types was community-organized, but unarmed, security groups that worked together and with the government to report violent extremist activity. The groups might be young people performing community watch-like patrols, or religious leaders sharing information, or tribal elders maintaining contacts with their communities.

Risks of Bribery, Informant Networks

The configuration of these groups was critical – there had to be more than one group sharing information, or community members would manipulate it. Also, if there was only one existing security group, it would have to rely on informant networks and bribes to cover enough territory to be effective, decreasing its legitimacy with certain populations. Multiple security groups, on the other hand, could verify information with each other, and they were in a better position to protect community members who made reports from being arrested or being subject to retribution from extremist groups. 

Andia Kisia, who lead the Sahan research team, noted that communities that experienced heavy-handed police action – detentions, unwarranted arrests and beatings—stopped talking about violent extremism in their community. When these conversations “went underground,” it severely impeded a community’s ability to identify the violent extremist threat and develop successful strategies. 

The study showed us that police brutality not only increases levels of recruitment and radicalization, it undermines a community’s resilience—its ability to act. It hits them on both sides by making them more vulnerable and less resilient.

The study’s recommendations are limited to urban communities in Kenya, because rural communities might have different dynamics. But non-governmental organizations and government officials trying to prevent or counter violent extremism in such areas should prioritize Christian-Muslim association in their activities, and support coordinated, community-led security organizations that work with the government to resist violent extremism.

The research results were briefed to Kenya’s National Counter-Terrorism Center and to participating community members. A leader in Pumwani said his community was preventing violent extremism by tapping into the same capacity they used to resist electoral violence in 2007-2008 – high levels of social cohesion based on widespread inter-religious and inter-ethnic marriage, which reflected the community’s tolerance and also strengthened its resistance to the electoral violence, much of which was based on ethnic divisions.

Perhaps communities that recognize the strengths they have and know how to use them can develop resilience strategies for different shocks, such as the potential risk of repeat electoral violence in Kenya in 2017.

Lauren Van Metre, the former head of USIP’s Center for Applied Research on Conflict, teaches at George Washington University and conducts research on community resilience.

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