Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Setha Low

Committee Members

David Harvey

Katherine Verdery

Gary Wilder

Sharad Chari

Subject Categories

African History | Human Geography | Politics and Social Change | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Political Anthropology, East Africa, War on Terror, Geopolitics, Colonial Present, Production of Space


This work is a study of security-driven social transformation. Over the span of five historical and ethnographic chapters, I examine the colonial origins of counterterrorism, the aftermath of terrorist attacks, urban security practices, and the conscription of activists and civil society into the counterterrorist security apparatus.

My first chapter provides a historical analysis of counterterrorism and state formation in Kenya. I offer a critical genealogy of security and state power, tracing its history from the British colonial suppression of independence movements to the post-independence security state that has never truly been dismantled in Kenya. Here, the Mau Mau Emergency (1952-1958), and the Shifta War (1963-1968), were pivotal moments in the process of state formation. I argue that, viewed together, the Mau Mau and Shifta periods represented a protracted moment of consolidation for the Kenyan security state, buttressing the continuity of colonial logics of counterinsurgency which were taken up by the post-independence Republic of Kenya.

In my second chapter, I look at Nairobi as a site of state intervention and securitized urban subjectivity. I theorize “security urbanism” as the urban form produced by the War on Terror, as the very space of the city is shaped through counterterror policing operations, checkpoints, and the ubiquity of security fears and affects. As neighborhoods are alternately stigmatized or securitized, and residents made to fear or flock to the state for protection, it is Nairobi’s relations of race, ethnicity, religion, and class that are reworked and reproduced through such urban security practices. I analyze how the security state is made material through the production of security spaces in the city. This, in turn, raises questions about the nature of the new hegemony promulgated by security and counterterrorism in the region.

Chapter Three looks at the aftermath of the massacre at Garissa University in 2015. I place the Garissa attack and the campaign to reopen the university within the context of the historical marginalization and violence against Somalis in Kenya’s Northeastern region; in doing so, I examine how the War on Terror is operating to “recolonize” the North. This chapter teases out the contradictions of activism within the field of security, looking at how the long shadows of colonialism and the post-independence security state have created impossible circumstances for young activists in the North.

My fourth chapter examines the proliferation of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs in Nairobi and Mombasa and the conscription of local activists into the counterterrorism apparatus. I analyze the international linkages between Kenyan CVE programs and the broader context of US and European strategies of using “soft power” and civil society to combat terrorism. Here, I analyze what I call the “NGO-ization of the War on Terror” and its impacts on community groups and local activists as they seek to negotiate a path between the violence of terrorism and the violence of the expanding security state. Ultimately, I argue that CVE exploits the affective labor and intimate ties of community organizers and activists, conscripting them into an ever-expanding surveillance and intelligence gathering apparatus in East Africa.

My fifth and final chapter takes up the question of violence and the states of fear and uncertainty that violence often engenders, examining how this affects the relationship between the security state and its subjects. Here, I discuss several terrorist attacks and incidents of violence, as well as their aftermaths, showing how often even the basic facts about such violent and often traumatic events remain shrouded in uncertainty for the people impacted by them. This pervasive uncertainty that accrues to violence presents a challenge for the hegemonic project of the security state. I then turn to the bureaucratic practices and policies through which the security state seeks to reassert its control over uncertainty.

My conclusion pulls together the various political analyses that are threaded through the dissertation about class power, activism, struggle and hegemony. As the calculus of hegemony shifts ever more dangerously towards coercion with less and less consent, there is an inherent volatility to the new security formation. Ultimately, I argue that counterterrorism operates through a fragile hegemony built through repression and the production of security space as a means to coerce, contain and conscript subjects into an acceptance of the counterterror state. This, however, creates unstable political and social formations that perennially threaten to fray along ethno-racial, religious and class lines.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Thursday, September 30, 2021

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