The recent attack on Dusit Hotel on Nairobi’s Riverside Drive is a vivid reminder of the need to maintain vigilance at the local, national and international levels. The attacker was Al Shabaab with its links to Al Qaeda, an international terror organisation.
It, the Al Qaeda, attacked symbols of American global power in Nairobi in 1998 and in New York and Washington DC in September 2001. Although the attacks brought Kenyans and Americans together as victims, they disagreed on who was to blame and agreed that Al Qaeda and its local affiliate, the Al Shabaab, needed dealing with decisively.
Kenya’s decisive way evolved from the unpreparedness of August 1998 to swift operator in January 2019. With time and several terror attacks, Kenyans and security forces have accepted and decided to prepare for the reality that terrorists and other saboteurs of Kenya’s well-being constantly plot to attack.
Facing that reality demands accepting that terrorists tend to be brilliantly evil, not idiots. They study the environment carefully, know system weaknesses and then exploit them. This includes identifying which corrupt officials to bribe in order to get through or acquire appropriate documents. Self-respecting terrorists would not be caught chicken thieving or pick pocketing. At times, they may be “model citizens”, probably as members of the “Nyumba Kumi” groupings.
Security forces have become sophisticated in tracking down terror masterminds. The number of thwarted attacks is on the increase, often as an international operation featuring anti-terror organs from different countries with which Kenya collaborates. To succeed, terrorists have to be way ahead and if that happens, the type of response then becomes the measure of national preparedness. There is growing sophistication in handling the unexpected which have in the process become the expected. The Dusit handling showed that sophistication in preparing for the unexpected. The handling was highly commendable.
Kenyan responses to three terror attacks show the evolution. These are the 1998 bomb blast, the Westgate attack and the Dusit attack. In the three incidents, Kenya is the soft secondary target while the primary remains Israel and the United States. The 1998 attack produced heroes and goats, and shocked and awed Kenyans.
They were shocked by the attack and awed by the heroes of the moment; matatu operators and Israel. Kenyans did not blame themselves or their security forces. They simply admired the selflessness of the matatus in rescuing people and the rescue precision of the Israelis with chisels and sniffer dogs. The Israelis never denied that Kenya was bombed because of its friendship with Israel.
In contrast, the Americans came out badly and were the goats. They interfered with the rescue operation, discredited themselves, and picked a quarrel with Kenya over responsibility. Kenya insisted it was bombed because it was friendly to both the United States and Israel. The United States countered by claiming that the attack was because Kenya was corrupt, had inefficient intelligence and porous borders. That American logic lost value three years later when the same Osama’s Al Qaeda hit New York and Washington.
The reaction was different when the Al Shabaab hit Nairobi in September 2013 at Westgate, a high class shopping mall that hosted many foreigners and Kenyan elite. There was shock but no awe. Barely four months in office, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government was trying to figure out how to react in crises. Security organs appeared confused, uncoordinated, and seemingly in competition with each other.
It took days to contain the situation and instead of instilling confidence, there were discouraging pictures of security officers taking away goods from abandoned shops. In the public arena, Westgate was a disaster not because of the attack but because of the unsatisfactory official reaction. It was also a learning opportunity how not to handle terror crises.
Kenya learned its lessons in Westgate, and Dusit showed it. Like the embassy in 1998 and Westgate in 2013, the Dusit attack is reportedly associated with the United States and Israel and the Al Shabaab took credit for it. The Kenyan media avoided sensationalism and thus played its positive part as other organs showed their efficiency.
Public awe was directed at the state organs as Kenyans rallied around the security forces that appeared meticulous and professionally coordinated. Security officers were the new heroes as they quickly rescued roughly 700 people, closed operation, and went in hot pursuit of the masterminds.
The public approved the way the security forces dealt with the Dusit crisis. The level of confidence went up. This implies that the terror attack is not the issue. It is the handling that matters.
Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU