The sad economics of terrorism

Mombasa residents donate blood in Mombasa County on January 16, 2019, following a terror attack at Dusit Hotel Nairobi. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

My last visit to DusitD2 Hotel was for a conference early last year. I was assigned a rooftop parking and had all the time to take photos of Nairobi’s skyline while facing all the directions of the compass. I have visited the hotel on other occasions, attracted by its elegance and location.

As I drove up the many floors to the parking on the roof, I noted the many big and famous firms that have made 14 Riverside Drive their home. The concept of physical address seems to have finally taken root in Kenya - it was always confusing when asked for physical address in the past, with a rider that it’s not a post office box address.

Such physical addresses would be part of making Kenya secure; we know where anyone can be found. That will only happen if we build roads and make residences and offices accessible.

DusitD2 is a complex, with the hotel at the core and business offices in the neighbourhood. And it’s a prestigious place to work, in a leafy suburb, a walking distance from the city centre and by the Nairobi River. It is part of the ongoing renewal of Riverside Drive, the once cool residential street is now a forest of offices. After the boom in Upper Hill, Riverside is the next place to be. The presence of some embassies on this road makes the place more prestigious.

SEE ALSO :Wanted terror suspects: Do you know these people?

The only problem with Riverside is that the transport network has not kept pace with office development; it has remained the same but with more traffic. Connecting to the road from Waiyaki Way is a nightmare. Add the traffic pouring from city centre and Thika superhighway and the Riverside area is clogged with traffic even without a terrorist attack. Expansion of the bridge across Nairobi River did not improve the traffic much.

Enough on real estate. Why was this a choice for terrorism? One could be the internationalisation; there are many nationalities that work here, the hotel attracts lots of conferences and visitors. The conference I attended last year was my second one there. Attacking such a target would give terrorism supporters maximum publicity, with victims from many parts of the world.

I am not a security expert, but it’s easier for terrorists to get into high-end places like DusitD2 or Westgate because anyone visiting there is expected to be monied and “good”. The security official probably finds it hard to frisk high-end visitors. They salute me when in a suit and tie. They demand my ID when in a t-shirt.

The fencing around this complex leaves only one entry and exit. Did anyone escape across Nairobi River? Did anyone escape through the roof top car park where someone could be picked by helicopters? Did the attacker know there were no escape routes? Did they know about the traffic jams around the complex?

If you recall, a new road was opened up after the Westgate attack; it now connects the mall directly to Lower Kabete road. Now the area is easy to evacuate. Though we are not a very rich country, some inbuilt redundancy in roads can be of great use in case of emergencies. That includes highways that can be used as airstrips.

SEE ALSO :DusitD2 attack: Police hold woman thought to be the Kemunto

Beyond the choice of the target, the casualties and the national panic (very muted compared with past attacks), what next after this attack?

Sometimes it takes years before the full details of the terrorist plan is unveiled. It takes time to connect the dots. With the Internet, it’s easier now. But terrorists use old fashioned methods to achieve their objectives. The same way word of mouth or writing on paper can help you keep secrets.

Many questions will remain. How were all these weapons transported across the city or the country? Did attackers act alone or in a network? Did they have insiders in the hotel or security services? Could our focus on human rights and freedom have left them free? Where did they learn to use the weapons? Where did they source them?

Did anyone anticipate this attack because of conviction of Westgate suspects and anniversary of an attack on Kenyan soldiers in Somalia three years ago? What other anniversaries should worry us now?

But more frightening is that some of the attackers were “indigenous” Kenyans and not militants from neighbouring Somalia. That marks a turning point in terrorism.

The key grievance is Kenya’s military presence in Somalia. The objective was to pacify our neighbour, in partnership with other international forces.

Kenya should however supplement the military incursion with an economic solution. Somalia should possibly join the  East African Community. The economic benefits could neutralise militancy. Did anyone notice the reduction in banditry in north eastern Kenya as more citizens from there got Government jobs?

Hard work

Building and pacifying nations is hard work. Ask Americans and their experience in Iraq or Vietnam. But the Somalia problem must be resolved. Somalia will always be our neighbour and the sooner there is peace, the better for Kenya and Somalia.

Religion will definitely come up in this attack. But I think religion is more of an excuse, I know no religion that advocates violence. It’s a complex issue.

Poverty has been blamed for terrorism but its adherents are from across the socio-economic divide. What of corruption? There is one thing few can deny; terrorism seems to attract the young and restless. How do we keep our youth busy and occupied? How do we help them find meaning and purpose in their lives?

One nagging observation is that terrorism “success “in Kenya is based on our freedom. You can live anywhere in Kenya particularly if monied and no one will bother you. How do we balance freedom and security? Is it time for nyumba kumi?

The public is the strongest link in the war on terror. The collective intelligence of the Kenyan public is more valuable than the National Intelligence Service. People however fear that sharing information would be risking their lives. How do we build confidence in the public to share intelligence without fear of being victimised?

One thing I take seriously in Nairobi is rumours, they end up being the truth. How much of that rumour do we tap into? Connecting dots is the key to actionable intelligence. Those outside the security services often see what insiders might not.

Many Kenyans will keep asking, why a fourth time? Did we learn nothing from American Embassy, Westgate and Garissa? How did Americans succeed in keeping their country secure since 2001? I was there on September 11, 2001. I saw resolve in their reaction.

Should Kenyans learn to live under the threat of terror like in Israel?

If you are keen, the reaction to DusitD2 was different from Westgate or Garissa. One wishes we do not “get used”. It is also possible that Kenyans now believe we have the capacity to deal with such threats.

The stock market seems to have shrugged off this event. The event took a shorter time and was less bloody. It took place just when the Kenyan economy was in a rebound. It will probably not stop the economic growth.

Beyond fear, tears, blood and emotions the economy must run. But in the privacy of my thoughts, I keep wondering how such terror attacks lead to fundamental shifts in our economy away from the public eyes. What economic decisions are made when the country is in fear? Who buys assets whose prices are depressed by terrorism? Do all sectors lose from terrorism? Should we pay any attention to conspiracy theorists?

The goal of such an attack is to disrupt the economy by instilling fear in us so that we can postpone or abandon our investment or consumption plans. But Kenyans have become resilient. Have you noted how fast news age nowadays?

The attack could remind us that we are stronger together and we should take nothing for granted including freedom and the fine weather. It should act as a catalyst to economic growth. Some could add, political growth.

Though unrelated, it could reinforce the handshake, building emotional bridges and forging Kenya into a nation. This country has been tested by two elections in one-year, other attacks and even the weather. Despite our differences we have overcome and shown the world we are stronger.

And how do you confront the general laxity in the public sector where there is always someone else to do something but not you? Can we imbue the efficiency of the private sector in the public sector, including in security services?

Truth be told, Kenya’s engrossment in the international community is too deep to be shaken by terror. The country has lots of money and opportunities. Frontierism is another attraction, there is always something new and alluring in Kenya. If there is nothing new you can start one. Ask foreigners. 

Kenya’s frontier spirit has attracted other races and nationalities for hundreds of years. They include Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Portuguese, Britons, Germans and Nubians.

The tears and blood of DusitD2 victims should not be in vain. By the slow-flowing Nairobi River, let’s build a memorial to men and women who died while looking for their daily bread.

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.

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DusitD2WestgateNairobi River14 Riverside Drive