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Pirate Patrolling in Coastal Kenya

Tourists come here for spectacular white sand beaches and "Old World charm," but you won't see a lot of them here these days because this is the frontline of a new war.

Lamu is an island paradise off the Kenyan coast frequented by the super-rich and filthy backpackers looking for a slice of heaven. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and really laid back—like, people use donkeys instead of cars, live in traditional no-door stone buildings, and maintain the same sort of chill lifestyle they had going on in the 14th century. Tourists come here for spectacular white sand beaches and “Old World charm,” but you won’t see a lot of them here these days because this is the frontline of a new war.


Lamu is about 100 km away from Somalia. Somali pirates breached Kenyan borders this fall to kidnap foreigners on land, something no one expected, and Lamu was their first target.

Attackers hit two of the wealthiest regional resorts, Kiwayu Safari Village and Majlis, to kidnap British woman Judith Tebbutt (after shooting and killing her husband David) on September 11, and French woman Marie Dedieu (who was wheelchair-bound, and later died in captivity) on October 2. Less than two weeks after that, two Spanish aid workers were taken from the Dadaab refugee camp on the Somali border. Their driver was shot and killed.

Travel advisories, panic, and a mass exodus ensued. Although high season is just beginning now, Lamu’s top resorts and lowliest guest houses sit near-empty.

“It has affected us a lot. The tourists have disappeared and we are suffering,” said Omar Harun, a local tour guide. Harun’s been walking tourists through the narrow alleys of Lamu Town for 15 years, and said he’s never seen business so bad. Before he had paying work at least every two or three days—now it’s been months.

“We never used to have piracy out here. It came slowly over the last two or three years,” he said.

Lamu District Commissioner Stephen Ikua made a solemn promise there wouldn’t be another kidnapping on Lamu. But the recent establishment of an Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor in the Gulf of Aden has pushed at least some of the estimated 70 pirate groups operating in Somalia further south.


 “We never used to deploy our officers along the beaches, but now we have to take every precaution. Things have changed and we are vulnerable,” said Ikua.

Which is how I found myself tagging along on an overnight patrol with the boys in green.

Cpl Abdi Golompo leads one of the units keeping Lamu safe. He walked me through the best counter-piracy tactics as we sped across an ocean channel to Majlis in Ras Kitau Bay on Manda Island, where Dedieu was kidnapped. In a nutshell: there are not many good counter-piracy tactics. This is because pirates are tricky.

Police have rifles and AK 47s, the navy carries bazookas and mortars, and the Kenyan government is the fourth-largest military spender in Africa. The pirates don’t give a shit though—they’ve got all those weapons plus guerrilla warfare expertise and the kind of attitude that doesn’t have them coming home on time for dinner.

It is almost impossible to stop a pirate without killing him. Any pirates captured off the coast of East Africa are sent to jail in Mombasa for several months, then released due to that whole “Somalia not having a functioning government” thing. They’ll be back on the water in no time.

“You can’t predict a pirate attack, and it’s very hard to stop them,” said Golompo. “The best thing to do is be vigilant and visible. When people see us out here they know we are ready to fight, and the pirates know too.”

Manda Island has an eerie post-apocalyptic vibe. Magnificent five-star resorts are almost completely empty, and several have closed their doors. No one knows if or when there will be another attack, or when foreign governments will lift their travel advisories. The atmosphere is pretty grim.


After an uneventful boat patrol, we settled in for the night at Majlis, where the officers checked in on resorts that were still open, chain smoked, and hung out on the beach watching for any sign of trouble.

It was cold and windy, and I was tormented by sand flies and the knowledge that, while I froze my ass off on a beach chair playing pirate bait, there were 25 empty five-star rooms not 10 meters away.  I’m not sure why a pirate would return to the same beach where they’d already kidnapped someone and scared every other tourist off, but I am not an expert in counter-piracy tactics.

“We can’t say when they will come back. We don’t know. That’s why we’re here each night,” said Golompo.

We were eating a very greasy late-night dinner in the Majlis staff canteen when the news hit TV stations. Internal Security Minister George Saitoti announced Kenya was ramping up security at all border areas. Then he went a step further and declared war on al Shabaab, the Somali militant group thought to be responsible for many of the kidnappings.

Golompo just shook his head. He’s from Ethiopia originally, and remembers when his country tried to quell the unrest by invading Somalia back in 2006. It did not work out well for them at all.

“Many people died and things only got worse,” he said. “Those Somalis…”

So now there is a brand spanking new “war on terror” here in Africa, complete with plenty of innocents caught in the crossfire. The recent Al Shabaab raids on UNICEF and World Health Organization compounds are proof enough.


After Saitoti's announcement, Kenyan and African Union troops stormed the Somali border points of Liboi and Mandera, with the aim of creating a 100-km buffer zone between the two countries. The resulting conflict has seen thousands of new refugees and dozens of casualties on either side.

Al Shabaab spokesperson Ali Mohamed Rage (yes, that is his real name) has also promised the pain of bullets and crumbling skyscrapers to all Nairobi residents. A pair of grenade attacks in downtown areas killed one and injured dozens more in October. Much like Lamu, Kenya’s capital city remains on high alert, with AK-wielding soldiers popping up in front of every hotel, shopping mall, and office building.

Resulting anti-Somali sentiment is high in Kenya, and police harassment at border crossings and in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood (aka Little Mogadishu for its high population of Somali residents) is now par for the course. Example: Though the government had already bulldozed a number of illegal slums located next to sensitive areas, such as airports, they took it a step further in late November. A number of unfortunate Eastleigh residents awoke one morning to police demanding they vacate their apartment buildings immediately. They were given ten minutes to collect their possessions, and then the bulldozers rolled in. These were not tin shacks that would have collapsed under heavy rainfall anyways. These were buildings that had permits and long-term tenants.

I spoke with one resident, George Mwangi, who pulled a remote control and a tube of toothpaste out of his pocket when we met.

“This is all I managed to save,” he said. “I’m not even Somali.”