20 years after a shocking attack, US aid groups grapple with countering violent extremism

Rescuers and officials stand at the site in front of U.S. embassy on August 12, 1998 in Nairobi after a ceremony for those killed in the Aug. 7 bomb attack at the embassy. Photo by: Thomas Coex / AFP

This is the first story in an ongoing series examining the rise of “countering violent extremism” as a U.S. global development priority.

WASHINGTON — On the morning of Aug. 7, 1998 — a Friday — United States Ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell, who goes by “Pru,” asked her political counselor at the embassy to preside over the weekly country team meeting in her office so that she could take a short walk across the street to the top floor of a high-rise building, where Kenya’s minister of commerce had finally agreed to meet with her about an upcoming U.S. trade delegation.

Before she left the embassy, Bushnell asked the country team to discuss, among other issues, whether the State Department was striking the right balance on issues related to security — alerting people to the alarming murmur of threats they had been receiving, but not paralyzing them with fear.

Bushnell had made repeated attempts to convince officials in Washington that the embassy building was overly-exposed — “an ugly, brown, square box of concrete located on one of the busiest street corners in Nairobi,” she told Charles Stuart Kennedy, director of the Foreign Affairs Oral History Program in 2005. This account is drawn from that interview.

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Across the street from the train station, the building’s front entrance was only a few feet from the sidewalk, where a daily assortment of “street preachers, homeless children, muggers, hacks and thousands of pedestrians” shuffled by. In back, a small parking lot separated the embassy from the Cooperative Bank building, where Bushnell’s meeting with the minister was set to take place on the 21st floor.

Earlier in the year, a group of counterterrorism officials had visited the embassy. On their way out, when they asked Bushnell if there was anything they could do for her, she told them they could answer her “goddamn” emails. She wanted them to know she was annoyed and frustrated by Washington’s apparent lack of interest in the embassy’s glaring vulnerability.

By the summer of 1998, the terrorist group al-Qaida, led by Osama bin Laden, had already carried out deadly attacks — mostly in the Middle East. Bushnell was aware of al-Qaida’s presence in Kenya, but believed the government had largely broken up the cell that operated there. As far as she knew at the time, bin Laden was viewed more as a terror financier than an activist.

She saw U.S. intelligence teams come and go from the country where she represented the U.S., but only later learned of the degree to which al-Qaida featured in U.S. law enforcement and national security efforts. The information about U.S. counterterrorism operations — even those operating in the country where she was ambassador — was compartmentalized and out of sight.

As the country team was gathering for their meeting, two light-colored trucks made their way from an upscale residential neighborhood toward central Nairobi. The first truck, a pick-up, led the second to the U.S. embassy, where it approached the entrance to the rear parking lot.

On the top floor of the bank building, Bushnell and the minister of commerce had just finished fielding questions from a group of reporters the minister had invited for a short briefing. As the ambassador and the minister were preparing to transition into their closed-door conversation, a loud “boom” interrupted them. Bushnell asked the minister if there was construction happening nearby. It sounded like a building was being torn down.

The minister and several others in the room walked toward the window, and Bushnell rose to join them. She had only taken a few steps when an explosion ripped through the building and threw her off her feet. The next moments, or minutes, dissolved into a series of sensations — the shaking building, a white cloud, the rattle of a teacup. Bushnell, barely conscious, steeled herself for the building’s collapse and prepared to die. When she looked up, the only other person left in the room — who she had assumed was dead — raised his head too. Then a colleague from the commerce department rushed in to evacuate her.

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At least 220 people died instantly from the explosion, produced by a 2,000-pound bomb built from hundreds of cylinders of TNT. Twelve of the dead were Americans. Thirty-two were foreign service nationals. Cars waiting at the corner for a traffic light to turn green were incinerated. A seven-story office building next to the embassy collapsed. More than 4,000 people were injured, many of them suffering wounds to their chests and faces. Such as those on the top floor of the bank building — they had gone to look out their windows after the first, smaller explosion.

Later, they would learn it had been the sound of a stun grenade, thrown by one of the assailants at a security guard who was blocking the attackers’ entrance. They would also learn about a second, nearly-simultaneous attack at the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

After Bushnell changed from her bloody suit and had her lip stitched at the children’s hospital, she returned to the temporary operations center that had taken over the U.S. Agency for International Development’s headquarters to help save as many lives as possible. When she finally left at 10 p.m., she was exhausted.

“I was too tired to even wash off the clots of blood stuck in my hair,” she said in 2005.

Breaking the cycle

In the aftermath of the attacks on its embassies in East Africa, the U.S. increased its support for and cooperation with partner government anti-terrorism programs around the world. Kenya joined the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, the primary provider of law enforcement training and equipment to partner countries around the world.

These efforts intensified after Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida carried out attacks against targets in the U.S. that would overshadow the 1998 embassy bombings in their brazenness and brutality. Nine days after the World Trade Center towers fell, President George W. Bush told the U.S. Congress a “war on terror,” would begin with al-Qaida, but would not end, “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” While the “war on terror” moniker has fallen out of favor, the global policing and enforcement effort it launched continues today.

“Many Americans remember 9/11 as the first time al-Qaida struck the United States, but the first battle in our struggle against terrorism took place on August 7, 1998, outside our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam,” Ed Royce, member of the House of Representatives from California, wrote in a congressional statement honoring the victims on the 20th anniversary of the attacks this week.

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While more direct military and police enforcement continues — and still commands the vast majority of counter-terrorism resources — these programs, now dubbed “countering violent extremism,” or CVE — aim to change the conditions that can lead people to violent extremist groups in the first place. They emerged out of a sense of frustration that military and enforcement efforts against individual terrorists and terrorist cells were doing little to address the conditions that gave rise to violent extremism in the unstable places where it continued to emerge.

In the past two decades, America’s counterterrorism partnerships in developing countries have evolved to include a new element, aimed not at finding and eliminating terrorists but at using tools more often associated with global development programs to counter their messaging and erode their appeal.

That has included efforts to improve people’s perceptions of their local governments, amplifying moderate voices on social media and in religious circles, working with police to improve public safety, research to better understand the drivers of radicalization, and a wide range of other interventions. The programs focus on parts of the world where extremist organizations are known to recruit — and where their ideologies circulate in pursuit of sympathizers and converts.

“After 9/11 we got very good at investigating, arresting and prosecuting, and we got very good at producing a lot of new laws … to allow for greater information sharing for investigative and prosecutorial measures, but we weren’t seeing a lot of new development for preventing terrorism in the first place,” a U.S. State Department official told Devex. “We were good at being reactive, but we were not very good at being proactive.”

When U.S. government officials involved in interagency counterterrorism efforts first began to look for options to prevent and counter violent extremism around 2005, there wasn’t much in the way of research or programmatic experience to draw on. As a result, some of the early forays into CVE relied more on speculation about what might work to deter people from joining extremist groups, as opposed to what had been proven to work. Early programs focused on job creation, based on the assumption that radicalization must stem from economic frustration, and that jobs would provide people a preferable alternative.

“At the time, the big theory was jobs. It’s poverty. It’s jobs. We were, around 2005, just throwing programming around jobs. That was one of the things the research then started to show as well, that that wasn’t actually correct. That wasn’t one of the major causes of extremism,” said Elizabeth Hume, vice president at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, who helped create USAID’s office of conflict management and mitigation.

“We were a bit blind and kind of feeling our way around and trying to figure out — What research is out there? Who’s doing any research? How do we know even what we’re doing is addressing the sources of violent extremism? How do we know we’re not having unintended consequences?” she said.

It is difficult to assess how much money the U.S. government currently spends on CVE programs, in part because of a lack of clarity about what CVE actually is — and what it isn’t.  The State Department official — who was not authorized to speak on the record — suggested the State Department’s budget for CVE programs is less than $100 million per year, while other activities are funded by USAID.

Worth the risks?

The humanitarian and development organizations that choose to pursue CVE activities find themselves grappling with an array of difficult questions, which carry both programmatic and moral implications. Some organizations have opted to steer clear of this work altogether, out of concern that the risks it poses still outweigh what they see as questionable benefits.

CVE programs insert development professionals into situations that are defined by conflict and politics, where they have designated allies and enemies, and where they are often aligned with an American military objective. Those factors run counter to traditional humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence, and some groups have raised alarms that when aid and development organizations get involved in this work, they threaten to undermine these basic tenets of humanitarianism.

“The premise of CVE is there are good guys and bad guys. That’s, I think, true in the real world, but it’s counter to humanitarian thinking, which tries to base itself on objective analysis of need,” said Joel Charny, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA.

The language some CVE experts use to describe their work sounds like a sharp departure from humanitarian neutrality. As implementing partners for the U.S. government, these groups don’t claim to be neutral in their support of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Kimberly Field, who retired from the U.S. Army as a brigadier general and was the senior military advisor in the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization leads CVE efforts at Creative Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based USAID contractor that has established a standing practice to integrate countering violent extremism programs into its development portfolio.

“If you want to stop individual radicalization, it’s not just about grievances. It’s also understanding that this is a competition for influence. A competition for influence means that you better look at the ideology. You better make sure you know how the enemy — yes I’m a military person — how the enemy is pulling, so that you actually know what you’re trying to counter,” she said.

The CVE outcomes these organizations pursue may carry benefits for local communities that view violent extremism as a major problem, but they stem from U.S. concern that a country or region represents a national security threat. Some critics of CVE argue that it puts communities in service of U.S. national security interests, instead of putting development efforts in service of a community’s own aspirations.

“We have to stop instrumentalizing their [communities] participation in these programs. Number one, it pulls them away from what they should be working on, which is to have their own assessment, of their own challenges, to develop their own solutions, to achieve their own vision. Instead we’re saying just focus on what helps us get our objectives achieved,” said Aaron Chassy, director of the technical integration unit at Catholic Relief Services.

These programs can also carry a risk of unintended consequences for the people they are ostensibly meant to serve, critics warn. On one hand, CVE programs risk stigmatizing groups or individuals — frequently Muslims — as “potential terrorists.” In the hands of an undemocratic government, or a political figure vying to quash opposition, branding civil society groups or political opponents as extremists is one way to justify their repression.

“It’s not so much what we are doing in Washington, or what other donors are doing in London or Brussels. This programming sends a signal, and it enables these host-country governments to justify the repression and further marginalization of political opponents, which of course is only counterproductive to stability in the first place,” Chassy said.

On the other hand, because these programs specifically target places where there is deemed to be a violent extremist threat, individuals who participate in them risk being labeled as collaborators with the American government, or the national government against whom these extremist groups are waging war. That can put them — and their families — at risk of retaliation by the very groups these programs seek to undermine.

The body of evidence linking development interventions to CVE outcomes remains shallow, though many of the agencies and organizations at the forefront of this field are investing in research to better chart those connections.

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UNDP released a report aiming at building an evidence base around the causes, consequences and trajectories of violent extremism in Africa, in order to better inform policy and programming.

“I think it’s been a big learning curve for all of us. The environments that we’ve been working in have gotten more and more complex, and the number of actors that one has to take into account when you’re conducting humanitarian or development missions has grown,” said Beth Cole, former director of USAID’s office of civilian-military cooperation.

Representatives from organizations that refuse to participate in CVE programming raise doubts that the evidence of what works is sufficient to justify the potential risks this work can entail.

“It’s a worthy objective in the abstract, but I don’t think anyone fundamentally knows how to get there, and I think the danger of mistakes in the name of countering violent extremism … is so great, that to me it strikes at the viability and credibility of the entire thing,” Charny said.

While the risks associated with aid and development organizations getting involved in CVE might be threatening to long-held humanitarian principles, some experts find the risks of not doing anything to counter violent extremist organizations in developing countries even more untenable.

“By definition, the countries that USAID works in, that are chronically underdeveloped, also are countries that frequently experience conflict and are targeted by terrorist networks and smugglers, the worst of humanity. If you take that as a given, USAID has to address conflict and terrorism, because it immediately affects development goals,” Cole said.

“It’s not as simple as — that’s dirty. We have to stay out of it. It’s inescapably connected to development goals. You cannot separate these things. USAID is part of the U.S. government,” she said. “How can you be neutral in the face of some of the things that are going on?”

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.