Making Sense of the East African Warscape

Samar Al-Bulushi, University of California, Irvine

In January 2020, the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab launched an attack on Manda Bay, a military base in northeastern Kenya that houses Kenyan and American troops and that serves as a launch pad for U.S. drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen. Three Americans were killed when the Shabaab fighters fired a rocket-propelled grenade on a plane piloted by contractors from L3 technologies, an American company hired by the Pentagon to carry out surveillance missions in Somalia. Due to Kenyan government secrecy about the loss of its own troops in the war with Al-Shabaab, it remains unclear how many Kenyans lives were lost.

This was unprecedented: Al-Shabaab had never launched a large scale assault on a military installation within Kenyan territory. While the group has targeted military sites within Somalia, most of its targets in Kenya have been on civilian spaces, with the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall as the most notable, and the 2019 Dusit hotel attack (also in Nairobi) as one of the more recent. As analysts familiar with the region have observed, Al-Shabaab’s actions are a likely response to the United States’ rapidly expanding undeclared war in Somalia, where American drone strikes have killed between 900-1,000 Somalis  in the past three years alone, and where the American troop presence now exceeds 500.[1]

More broadly, the January attack directs our attention to the growing U.S. military presence on the continent. As of 2019, the U.S. Military Command for Africa (AFRICOM) maintained 29 bases in 15 different countries or territories in Africa.[2] Analysts increasingly acknowledge that violence and instability have been on the rise since the founding of AFRICOM in 2007.[3] Yet mainstream reporting continues to attribute violence and militarism to ‘local’/African forces, obscuring the ways in which the ‘local’ is irrevocably tied to wider patterns and practices. The very fact that Kenya’s Manda Bay military base serves as host for U.S. drone and surveillance operations points to wider entanglements, and is an important reminder of the Kenyan state’s imbrication in America’s expanding war on Somalia.

 Geographies of the East African Warscape

East Africa is the birthplace of the so-called War on Terror. As Faisal Devji traces in Landscapes of the Jihad, it was in the aftermath of the 1998 attacks at the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that Al-Qaeda first emerged as a global network, and it was not long before Kenya and Tanzania were ushered into a different global network, the anti-terror coalition led by the United States.[4] My research has focused primarily on Kenya’s relationship to the U.S.-led War on Terror. Already a regional hub for multinational corporations and the United Nations, Kenya’s position on the Indian Ocean afforded the U.S. unhindered access to South Asia and the Middle East. In the wake of the embarrassing exit of U.S. forces from Somalia in 1993, Kenya’s shared border with Somalia was of equal interest to American leaders. The Kenyan government was quick to capitalize on this interest: at $88 million USD, Kenya received the biggest share of President Bush’s East African Counter-Terrorism Initiative (EACTI)—representing  nearly ninety percent of the total for the region.[5]

The U.S. deployed Marines to the Kenyan naval base at Manda Bay in 2003. Following the 2002 Paradise Hotel bombing in the coastal city of Mombasa, American security officials grew increasingly preoccupied with potential threats emanating from the Kenyan coast, and from the northeastern provinces. The small Marine contingent in Manda Bay was soon augmented with military advisors, civil-affairs units, and Special Forces teams, all serving under the command of the Defense Department’s Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa, or CJTF-HOA.

Kenya’s security partnership with the United States has led it to participate in transnational policing and militarized counter-terror operations in the wider region. Following the U.S-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006, Kenya temporarily closed its borders to civilians fleeing the violence and worked closely with U.S. officials to arrest and interrogate over one hundred and fifty people who managed to cross over into Kenya, in some cases facilitating their rendition to detention sites in Mogadishu and Addis Ababa. At this time, American forces in Kenya also began to use the military base at Manda Bay as a launch pad from which to conduct air and ground operations in Somalia. [6] The U.K. based monitoring group Airwars reports that the first known U.S. airstrikes in Somalia occurred in 2007 under President George W. Bush, but it was under the Obama administration that drone strikes increased significantly.

Just as the U.S. military began to police Somalia from above, the United Nations authorized an African Union-led “peacekeeping” mission known as AMISOM.  While AMISOM’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counter-terror operations.Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, however, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the displacement of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers in Somalia “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region.”[7] What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers progressively transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 as the architects of the intervention soon battled a problem of their own making.[8]

AMISOM’s donors (including the U.S., E.U., and other actors) have been able to offset the expense and public scrutiny of maintaining their own troops in Somalia by relying on private contractors and African forces. This dispersal of power has enabled the U.S. in particular to replace images of its own, less credible, military adventurism with seemingly benign actors that are focused on ‘state-building.’ Entities like Bancroft Global, Adam Smith International, Dyncorp, Pacific Architects and Engineers, Engility, and the Serendi Group have tactically positioned themselves for contracts focused on logistics, capacity building, and security sector reform. Like the private contractors, troop contributing states (Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti, Burundi)  have financial incentives to maintain instability in order to justify the continued need for foreign intervention: AMISOM troops are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages in the name of fighting Al-Shabaab.[9]

Kenya is an important example of a ‘partner’ state that has now become imbricated in the business of war. The combination of political, economic, and military support from the U.S. has emboldened the Kenyan state to engage in its own ‘war on terror’ at home and abroad. In October 2011, the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invaded southern Somalia with the declared intention of addressing the threat posed by Al-Shabaab. The African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into its so-called peacekeeping mission was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining a military presence in Somalia. [10] To this end, the Kenyan state has actively worked to cultivate an image of itself as a regional leader in multilateral peace and stabilization efforts.[11]

In practice, however, Kenya has become increasingly invested in war. [12]  In 2016, the government purchased a Boeing-manufactured ScanEagle drone and acquired eight Huey II military helicopters in what was described as the UnitedStates’ “largest single security cooperation initiative ever undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa.”[13]  That same year, Kenyan military spending rose to a new high of US$993 million, a figure that stood at more than double the spending of neighboring Ethiopia and Uganda combined.[14] Meanwhile, the military has maintained a separate contingent of troops in Somalia that act unilaterally. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan air strikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22 month period between 2015-2017. [15] In an earlier report, the non-profit Journalists for Justice observed that Kenya’s allies in the UN, U.S., and U.K. were “very frustrated” withthe fact that “the KDF network is facilitating Al-Shabaab’s profiteering from illegal charcoal and sugar smuggling in contravention of United Nations sanctions and Kenyan law.”[16] But because American and European forces rely on Kenya to grant them access to military bases in the region, they “cannot force the issue;” the United Nations is compelled to “work around the problem, sponsoring Somali government efforts to interdict smugglers, withholding intelligence from KDF and pursuing al-Shabaab targets on their own or with Somali Special Forces.”[17] These realities serve as a crucial reminder of the divergent interests that often characterize security alliances, as the Kenyan government—much  like other actors that currently operate in Somalia—has  continued to pursue its own political and military objectives.[18]

Within Kenya, the security apparatus has overseen the disappearances and extra-judicial killings of Kenyan Muslims who are deemed to be suspicious. As the hunt for Al-Shabaab militants has spilled over into Kenyan territory, Muslims living in Nairobi, on the coast, and in northeastern Kenya have been subject to the whims of the Anti-Terror Police Unit, a Special Branch of the Kenyan police that was erected in 2003 with funding and training from the governments of the United States and United Kingdom.[19] The ATPU has since become notorious in Kenya for its plain-clothed death squads that operate with impunity. On good days, missing relatives or neighbors eventually appear in court; on bad days, their bodies are found in unmarked graves outside of town. What I refer to as the East African warscape therefore turns critical attention to the spatiality of the so-called “War on Terror” in East Africa, as targeted operations against purported terror suspects are unfolding not only in the ‘war zones’ of Somalia, but equally in ‘peaceful’ urban centers like Nairobi and Mombasa. [20]

Transregional Dynamics

Anthropologist Catherine Besteman characterizes Somalia as a space of imperialist experimentation—as   a site of multiple, interlinked security regimes that are designed to protect U.S. security concerns.[21] Without disputing the argument that the U.S. is actively working to secure its own interests, the grounded geographies of this warscape point notto a unitary power that is at work, but to overlapping, often competing players and political formations.  In particular, this warscape bridges conventional imaginative divides between Africa and the Middle East in ways which demand attention to transregional dynamics.

Although the United States continues to control the vast majority of world’s foreign military bases, it is facing stiff competition in the Horn, where political leaders are involved in what Paul Amar would describe as a transregional pattern of ‘military capitalism,’ renting out public land to foreign militaries.[22]  Foreign military bases increasingly define the landscape of countries located along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, with Djibouti hosting more bases than any other country. [23] China has set up its first overseas naval base in Djibouti alongside Japan, France, Italy, the U.S. and the European Union. The United Arab Emirates maintains a base in the self-declared republic of Somaliland and operates a hub for its Yemen operations from the Eritrean port of Assab, while Turkey has set up its largest foreign military presence in Mogadishu. Russia has initiated talks with the leadership in Somaliland about building a multi-use air and naval base in Port of Berbera, and is exploring a logistics base in Eritrea. Meanwhile, Somalia has become a battleground between Qatar and the UAE, with each government providing weapons or military training to rival Somali factions. While piracy, Iran-GCC tensions, and the war in Yemen served as a pretext for many of these states’ initial involvement in the region, the bulk of these actors appear to have long-term, if not permanent, visions for securing their respective political and economic interests.[24] As Alex de Waal observes, “Today, the Horn of Africa increasingly resembles the ‘great game’ of 19th century colonial power projection as regional and world powers scramble for naval bases.” [25]

While UN officials insist on the importance of restoring stability to Somalia, the geographies of this warscape extend well beyond Somalia’s territorial boundaries. In what may best be interpreted as a message to its geopolitical rivals, the U.S. military has launched more drone strikes in Somalia in the first four months of 2020 than it did during Barack Obama’s eight-year term in office.[26]   But the question remains whether these spectacular demonstrations of U.S. power from above can compete with the range of political and economic deals being made on the ground. As Turkey and the Gulf states assume particularly influential roles, the challenge lies in looking beyond the imaginative boundaries of area studies and the nation-state in order to theorize these transregional power formations as they unfold.





[1] Amanda Sperber, “The “Collateral Damage” of the U.S.’s Unofficial War in Somalia,” In These Times, December 2019.

Available at

[2] Nick Turse, “Pentagon’s Own Map of U.S. Bases in Africa Contradicts its Claim of ‘Light’ Footprint,” The Intercept. February 2020. Available at

[3] Nick Turse, “Violence has Spiked in Africa since the Military Founded AFRICOM, Pentagon Study Finds” The Intercept.

[4] Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[5] Jeremy Prestholdt, “Kenya, the United States, and Counterterrorism,” Africa Today 57, no. 4 (2011): 2–27.

[6] Thomas Barnett, “The Americans Have Landed,” Esquire, 2007. The U.S. has also relied on its military base in Djibouti for operations in Somalia.

[7] United Nations, “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2182 (2014),” 19 October 2015.

[8] Samar Al-Bulushi, “”Peacekeeping as Occupation: Managing the Market for Violent Labor in Somalia,” Transforming Anthropology 22, no. 1 (2014): 31–37.

[9] Paul D Williams, “Paying for AMISOM,” The Global Observatory.

[10] Paul D Williams, “Joining AMISOM: Why Six African States Contributed Troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 12, no. 1 (2018): 172–92,

[11] Samar Al-Bulushi, “#SomeoneTellCNN: Cosmopolitan Militarism in the East African Warscape,” Cultural Dynamics 31, no. 4 (2019): 323–49.

[12] Horace G Campbell, “The War on Terror as a Business: Lessons from Kenya and the Somalia Interventions,” The African Review 47 (2020): 1–40.

[13] “US hands over six Hueys to Kenya – two more on the way,” Defence Web. 5 December 2016.

[14] Neville Otuki, “Nairobi leads EA Arms Race with Sh96 billion military budget,” Business Daily Africa. 25 April 2017.

[15] OHCHR, “Protection of Civilians: Building the Foundation for Peace, Security and Human Rights in Somalia,” 2017.

[16] Journalists for Justice, “Black and White: Kenya’s Criminal Racket in Somalia,” 2015.

[17] Journalists for Justice.

[18] Sobukwe Odinga, “‘We Recommend Compliance’: Bargaining and Leverage in Ethiopian–US Intelligence Cooperation,” Review of African Political Economy 44, no. 153 (2017): 432–48.

[19] Prestholdt, “Kenya, the United States, and Counterterrorism.”

[20] I draw on Carolyn Nordstrom’s notion of the warscape, as it allows for consideration of the range of actors (military strategists, arms suppliers, soldiers, mercenaries, powerbrokers, think tanks, development actors, etc.) that operate across time and space. Carolyn Nordstrom, A Different Kind of War Story (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).

[21] Catherine Besteman, “Experimenting in Somalia: The New Security Empire,” Anthropological Theory 17, no. 3 (2017): 404–20.

[22] Paul Amar, “Military Capitalism,” NACLA Report on the Americas 50, no. 1 (2018): 82–89.

[23] Djibouti’s economy in particular is increasingly dependent on rents from foreign military bases—it brings in over $300 million a year in rental agreements with foreign militaries, including $63 million USD per year to lease the land occupied by the U.S. military at Camp Lemmonier.

[24] Neil Melvin, “The New External Security Politics of the Horn of Africa Region,” SIPRI, 2019.

[25] Alex de Waal, “Beyond the Red Sea: A New Driving Force in the Politics of the Horn,” African Arguments, 2018.

[26] Nick Turse, “U.S. Airstrikes Hit All-Time High as Coronavirus Spreads in Somalia,” The Intercept, 22 April 2020.