“For the first time, a Kenyan national carried out a suicide attack on Kenyan soil” (Mohamed).
On Wednesday, January 16th 2019, the terrorist group al-Shabab carried out an attack that left twenty-one dead at a hotel and business complex in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack was specifically stated by al-Shabab to be, “a response to the witless remarks of U.S. president, Donald Trump, and his declaration of al-Quds [Jerusalem] as the capital of Israel” (Bearak). Furthermore, this attack comes as the U.S. and Kenya are said to have ramped up drone strikes on al-Shabab in Somalia, where the group was originally formed and is largely based (Cannon & Plaut). In the past, Kenya has used such airstrikes as a security response to al-Shabab attacks. However, this most recent attack presents a significant new issue to Kenyan security forces, as the majority of attackers were actually Kenyan nationals (Bearak). Thus, while al-Shabab had previously attacked churches, and most notably the Westgate Mall just a few years ago in Nairobi, this attack does present a significant new issue to Kenyan security forces as it demonstrates the growing threat of domestic terrorism.
One of the attackers was confirmed to be from the Majengo slum in Nairobi, and neighbors say that the group has recruited many young men from there over the years (Adow). Community leader Ratib Hussein explains that part of the reason for this may be that residents are desperate for an alternative to their current situation: “our children have no jobs, they need to eat. Most of them have dropped out of school” (Adow). Residents share these sentiments, referring to the ease in which al-Shabab can recruit by preying on citizens with low literacy rates and high unemployment rates(Adow). In underserved areas such as the Majengo slum, al-Shabab is also able to prey on feelings of state alienation (Adow).
Why does al-Shabab focus many of its attacks and recruitment in Kenya in the first place? The attacks are claimed to be rooted in geopolitical tensions: the southern region of Kenya is bordered by Somalia and Kenya continues to pursue military action against the militant group there (Cannon & Plaut). However, this issue cannot rest on geopolitics alone. “Between 2008 and 2015, the group executed a total of 272 attacks in Kenya and only five in Ethiopia,” even though Ethiopia is known to have a longer border than Kenya and sometimes undertakes military action against al-Shabab (Cannon). Some speculate that the placement of the African headquarters of many media outlets such as Xinhua, CNN and Al-Jazeera, could be motivating Nairobi as the location of choice for attacks due to the international media attention they can attract (Cannon).
The complexities that motivate Kenyans to join al-Shabab and that make Nairobi a target for attacks are still unclear but are obviously a growing issue and pose a major challenge for the Kenyan government to address. As a country with many economic challenges, scaling up security measures to the point of being able to protect all schools, churches, hospitals, and other targeted areas is a nearly impossible task. Additionally, even though the government said it would now arm private security guards, the fundamental danger of a suicide attack is nearly impossible to stop with any show of force or threat of a weapon (Mohamed). Education, gun control, and internet regulation are mentioned in some of the policies proposed to combat this issue (Adow). As citizens call for an increase in security measures, it is in the hands of the state to bring about a reform in policy. The fragility of this conflict only complexifies possible future state security actions.
Adow, Mohammed. GCC News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 20 Jan. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/01/kenyans-urge-boost-security-nairobi-siege-190120065015441.html.
Bearak, Max. “Deadly Nairobi Attack Comes as U.S. Military Ramps up Airstrikes against Al-Shabab in Somalia.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Jan. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/deadly-nairobi-attack-comes-as-us-military-ramps-up-airstrikes-against-al-shabab-in-somalia/2019/01/17/ebf40936-1a6c-11e9-b8e6-567190c2fd08_story.html?utm_term=.3b381284d785.
Cannon, Brendon J., and Martin Plaut. “Why Al-Shabaab Targets Kenya and How to Stop the Attacks.” Quartz, Khalifa University, 16 Jan. 2019, qz.com/africa/1525710/nairobi-hotel-attacks-why-al-shabaab-targets-kenya/.
Cannon, Brendon J. “Why Al-Shabaab Targets Kenya – and What the Country Can Do about It.” The Conversation, Khalifa University, 16 Jan. 2019, theconversation.com/why-al-shabaab-targets-kenya-and-what-the-country-can-do-about-it-87371.
Mohamed, Hamza. “Kenya's Leaders Face a New Dilemma in Fighting Al-Shabab.” GCC News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 24 Jan. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/blogs/africa/2019/01/kenya-leaders-face-dilemma-fighting-al-shabab-190124105256192.html.