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Kenyans mull Shabab threat after new Nairobi attack

Relatives of a person, who was killed in an attack on an upscale hotel compound, grieve in Nairobi, Kenya January 16, 2019
Relatives of a person, who was killed in an attack on an upscale hotel compound, grieve in Nairobi, Kenya January 16, 2019 REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Kenya is debating how to respond to the threat of Al-Shabab, after Tuesday's attack on a hotel in Nairobi that killed at least 21 people. It's the latest in a string of attacks by the Somali Islamist group. So why is Kenya repeatedly targeted?


“The fact that Al-Shabab still has the capacity to launch such an attack in Kenya deeply troubles me," says Innocent Owuor Ngare, a laywer and policy analyst in Nairobi.

He is among the hundreds of Kenyans still reeling from the horror of Tuesday's suicide bomb at the Dusit hotel complex that left at least 21 people dead.

"The mood in Nairobi is that of unease," continues Ngare. "I remember driving home around 8pm [Tuesday], which is normally rush hour, and the streets were empty. There is a tremendous sense of unease and concern," he tells RFI.

Authorities have tried to reassure the public. President Uhuru Kenyatta gave a security update early Wednesday, insisting that the 20-hour siege was now over and that all "the terrorists had been eliminated".

"The statement from the president came after a lot of conflicting reports about the number of attackers,” comments Denis Owino, founder of the news blog Kenyan Insights.

"Now he has confirmed there were six. His statement has given more confidence to the people and reassured them that authorities are on top of everything," he told RFI.

Yet questions are being asked about the strength of Kenya's security apparatus, after another deadly attack by al-Shabab militants on Kenyan soil.

Tuesday's assault, eerily reminiscent of the one on the Westgate Mall in September 2013, followed by the siege on Garissa University two years later, is a stark reminder of how serious the Islamist threat remains in Kenya.

Curbing Islamist threat

"We need to recognise as a country that violent extremism, radical Islam, is a problem that we have to deal with head on," says Ngare.

That starts by improving border security.

"We have a porous border between Kenya and Somalia, which makes it very easy for these militants to move in and out," he says.

His point of view is shared by Owino: "Al-Shabab easily bribe Kenyan officials who are around there to facilitate their movement here because they don’t fly, they walk through the border."

Kenya has been a regular target for the terror group since it invaded Somalia in October 2011. Since that time, Nairobi has fought alongside Somali troops to try and oust the fighters, but often at a high price.

In 2016, more than 170 Kenyan soldiers were killed when Shabab militants attacked their camp in Somalia’s Gedo region in El Adde. A year later, nearly 70 troops lost their lives in an assault on the Somali village of Kulbiyow.

"We have just commemorated the El Adde attack on Kenyan troops. In most cases, these terror groups always try to plan their attacks when people are making commemorations," comments Owino.

Renewed debate on arming civilians

The attack has called into question Kenya's involvement in Somalia. However, Ngare argues that without the involvement of Kenyan forces, "what the Shabab would be doing in this country would be worse."

Tuesday's attack on the Dusit hotel complex could have been more devastating. But unlike the assault at Westgate in 2013, the authorities were better coordinated and responded quickly to the threat.

They were supported by individuals with firearms, as was already the case five years ago, a move that has reignited the debate about arming ordinary civilians with weapons.

"There was obviously a salutary effect [Tuesday] by some civilians who seemed to have been there or else they drove there," comments Andrew Franklin, an ex-US marines Special Forces officer, who runs a security firm in Nairobi.

In Kenya, private citizens who own firearms are encouraged to respond swiftly to terror threats. Often though, it is only the rich and wealthy able to frequent upmarket locations like the Dusit hotel who can afford to buy a gun.

"Until we hear from the police about the cooperation rendered by private civilians carrying guns, we should hold off making any snap judgments,” Franklin tells RFI.

This is because keeping track of licensed firearms is a challenge. "The fact that something good may have happened [from this attack] should not deflect attention away from the fact that the firearms board has lost control of record-keeping," and arming civilians would make things worse, he reckons.

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