Foiled city terror attack testimony that community policing is crucial

Mohammed Osman Nane (right) and AbdMjait Hassan Adan at a Milimani court on Tuesday, February 13, 2024, when they were found guilty of being members of terror group Al Shabaab. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

The thwarting of a planned assault against Nairobi conceived in El-Adde was so much thanks to an alert by community members and the swiftness of the police.

Security sector actors are now calling for the full revival of Nyumba Kumi; an initiative birthed in 2013 but was not fully pursued and grant it the force of law.

Had their evil mission to bomb the heart of Nairobi succeeded, the terror attack could have hit the headlines a situation so much craved for by terrorists in their twisted ideology of instilling fear to achieve a certain goal.

The abortive assault against Kenya’s capital city was conceived in El-Adde, Somalia, where the booby-trapped car was first assembled before being sneaked across the border.

And the key masterminds, Abdimajit Hassan Adan and Mohammed Osman Nane, have finally been sentenced after six years. Senior principal magistrate Zainabu Abdul found them culpable of planning to bomb the Milimani Law Courts.

The two were arrested on February 15, 2018, after a brief fire exchange with security agents in Merti, Isiolo County.

Their two unidentified accomplices managed to escape while the third, identified as Mbarak Abdi Huka, was killed in the shoot-out following a tip-off from locals. The five were transporting a cache of weapons to carry out the offensive in the failed bid to free one Sheikh Guyo Gorsa, who was being tried over terror-related charges.

Police managed to recover five AK-47 rifles, 36 fully loaded magazines, 36 unprimed hand grenades, 18 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), three knives, a black flag and paraphernalia associated with the Al-Shabaab terrorist group.

The court found Hasan and Osman guilty for possessing the deadly weapons. A Garre from Marsabit County, Hassan had in 2015 travelled to Somalia to join Al Shabaab.

He was the leader of the gang stopped in Merti, having been in charge of transport logistics and accommodation arrangements besides facilitating the movement of the explosives-loaded Mitsubishi car registration number KBM 200D. Osman is a Burji also from Marsabit where he dropped out of primary school in 2011. Like Hassan, he joined Al Shabaab in 2013 and was radicalised.

It would emerge that on the day they were arrested in Merti, Hassan had travelled all the way from Nairobi where he stayed at Delta Hotel after checking in on February 9.A search in the room by Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (APTU) officers found Hassan’s clothes, an air ticket from Elwak, two unused Airtel sim cards and a Safaricom sim card.

Also discovered was a handwritten note to the hotel’s management stating: “Please reserve the room for me. I will pay when I return tomorrow.”

The wide probe led to the arrest of Nyawira Mburu, Anthony Kitila Makau and Francis Macharia Karishu. Nyawira was found guilty of forging official documents while Kitila and Macharia were acquitted.

Nyawira was seized on February 22, 2018 at Ridge House along Luthuli Avenue. It was established that the woman working as a printing assistant at Paste Printers, procured a national identity card for Hassan at a fee. Paste Printers was owned by Macharia who had initially gone underground.

Kitila was the taxi driver in Nairobi who facilitated Hassan’s movements besides assisting the terrorist to purchase the Mitsubishi vehicle.

Fast forward, as Hassan and Osman head to prison, the successful arrest, investigations and prosecution is testimony of why community policing and collaboration among enforcing agencies is important. Had the community not played a role, then the script might have been totally different. Though several similar missions have been disrupted by the security agencies – the Merti incident underpins the importance of strengthening community policing and encouraging a multi-agency approach against radicalisation and terrorism.

It is instructive to note that it is locals in Merti who alerted police officers on patrol after spotting the suspicious Mitsubishi car parked in a bush. A reinforced security team responded immediately leading to a shoot-out that left Abdi dead. Not only did the swiftness of security agents forestall a possible attack but laid bare the elaborate plot that was being coordinated right at the doorsteps of Nairobi’s Central Police Station.

It is clear, from the onset, that there was a shared responsibily between the local community and police in thwarting the attack. Unfortunately, in spite of its significance but often ignored role, community policing has the potential of ensuring a safe and secure environment for everyone.

According to Joseph Kaguthi, a former Provincial Commissioner and proponent of the Nyumba Kumi Initiative, citizens’ role in fighting terrorism, general insecurity, alcoholism and drugs cannot be underated.

“Citizen participation in security is crucial because wananchi are the first line of defence; the citizen is the culprit and the citizen is the defence. If we all participate in security, the culprits will have no place to hide,” says Kaguthi.

He is, however, disappointment that community policing has not properly been implemented, and that government officials spearheading the concept do not understand it.

“It should be people-driven; the moment we allow police or administrators to lead the initiative, you disenfranchise citizens. They will not be interested,” explains Kaguthi.

In October 2013, the government unveiled a committee chaired by the retired PC to oversee implementation of Nyumba Kumi in a bid to restore security across the county.

Then Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku said the government was keen in making the concept a key pillar of policing strategy.

After visiting various parts of the country where the committee held sensitisation meetings while collecting views on how communities wanted the initiative implement, the government went silent on the matter.

“Nyumba Kumi should be revived and enacted into law. Those selected to participate must be vetted. They must come with clean hands and demonstrate that they are ready to serve citizens and not their own interests,” notes Kaguthi.

In this particular incident, the role of community policing in Merti and Nairobi cannot be downplayed after APTU officers disclosed that the recovered weapons and booby-trapped vehicle were powerful enough to bring down more than one multi-storeyed building.

This would have been a catastrophe akin to what happened on August 7, 1998 when a truck loaded with bombs exploded outside the United States of America embassy within the city centre, killing some 212 people and leaving more than 4,000 others badly injured.

It would later emerge that the planning of one the most devastating attacks the country has ever witnessed was carried out in a house within the serene Runda suburbs and a dingy hotel in downtown Nairobi along Kirinyaga Road.

According to a counter-insurgency and terrorism expert, community policing and community information is key in exposing terror networks. “In order to disrupt and indict terror attempts, you need intelligence through collaboration and community policing that is invaluable when gathering human and open-sourcing intelligence,” observed the expert who requested anonymity.

Hassan and Osman sentencing comes days later after the Global Counterterrorism Forum took place in Kenya.

The forum sought to reduce the vulnerability of people worldwide to terrorism by mobilising expertise and resources to prevent, combat, prosecute terrorist acts and counter incitement and recruitment to terrorism.

“Engaging civil society is an integral pillar of the efforts taken forward by the forum to prevent and counter terrorism and violent extremism. Respect for the rule of law, human rights and the principles of democracy are crucial if we want to truly address the global ideologies and driving forces behind emergent extremism,” said Dr Rosalind Nyawira, director, National Counter Terrorism Centre.