assessments

The Growing Security Threat in Kenya

5 MINS READDec 11, 2012 | 11:30 GMT
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
Police investigate a bomb attack in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighborhood Nov. 18
Summary

Terrorist attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, over the past year have become more complex and successful, complicating the security situation for the government. In less than a month there have been two bombings in Eastleigh, a predominantly Somali neighborhood of Nairobi. Both attacks triggered violence between the city's Kenyan and Somali populations. On top of other security problems in the country, the government has a lot to deal with ahead of elections in March 2013.

Though Kenya has seen grenade attacks before, the latest round, which began in October 2011 in response to Kenyan military operations against al Shabaab in Somalia, has been characterized by an uptick in violence in Nairobi. In the first attacks, grenades were thrown at bus stations and churches in the city. In May 2012, an improvised explosive device was detonated at a boutique in central Nairobi. A few months later, bombings in Eastleigh began that targeted ethnic Kenyan Christians. 

The Growing Security Threat in Kenya

Nairobi Attacks map

The first of the Eastleigh bombings, which occurred on Aug. 3, was poorly executed. The explosive detonated prematurely in the street, killing the bomber and three others. The second bombing, on Nov. 18, was more successful. The assailant left the explosive on a minibus, killing 10 people, though the bomber and others involved in the plot were arrested. The latest bombing took place Dec. 5 in nearly the same location, except this time the explosive device was hidden near a roadside kiosk and was reportedly detonated remotely, resulting in one fatality. Less than 48 hours later, a grenade was thrown into a crowd outside a mosque in the neighborhood. The target of this attack may have been a Kenyan member of parliament of Somali ethnicity who was injured in the blast; the lawmaker had previously praised Kenyan military operations in Somalia.

What is evident from the timeline of the attacks is that an organization is developing its militant capabilities through trial and error. It is difficult to say whether all of the attacks have been the work of the same group, but the three Eastleigh bombings were almost certainly linked since they had similar methods and targets, and the group behind those bombings has shown clear improvement.

A few other things can be deduced about the group behind the Eastleigh bombings. The concentration of the attacks suggests the organization behind them has a limited reach. However, it appears the group is either large or can easily recruit members because it has not been stopped, despite several arrests of purported supporters carrying bombmaking material or devices that failed to explode. This indicates the group or its backers have plenty of manpower and sufficient operational security to insulate the group from police operations.

The Significance of Eastleigh

The Eastleigh neighborhood in eastern Nairobi is home to many Somali nationals. The area is known to have connections with al Shabaab militants, with funds and recruits reportedly channeled through the neighborhood to Somalia. There are even reports of wounded al Shabaab fighters coming to Eastleigh to recover. (It is worth noting that Kenyan Islamists have also raised funds and recruited fighters for al Shabaab.)

However, the presence of al Shabaab activity in Eastleigh does not mean the group is behind the recent attacks. For one thing, al Shabaab, which is usually eager to boast of its exploits, has not claimed any of the attacks. Second, the complexity and targets of the attacks do not fit with the level of expertise that al Shabaab has demonstrated — not just in Somalia, but in the wider region as well. For instance, during the 2010 World Cup, al Shabaab conducted a suicide bombing in Uganda that killed 74 people. 

There are other Kenyan groups that are affiliated with al Shabaab that could be behind the bombings. One such group is the Muslim Youth Center, also known as the Pumwani Muslim Youth, which has come out in support of al Shabaab and al Qaeda. According to reports, the group openly recruits fighters and facilitates their travel to Somalia for training, and it has previously threatened attacks in Kenya and beyond. Moreover, after the arrest of suspects in the Nov. 18 bombing, police said the explosive device used in the attack had been assembled in the Majengo neighborhood of Nairobi, which is near Eastleigh and is home to the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, where the Muslim Youth Center is active. Of course, although it is likely that the Muslim Youth Center is involved in the attacks in some way, there are other active terrorist groups in Kenya such as al Qaeda that could have had a hand in the operations as well.

Other Security Challenges

The last two bombings in Eastleigh set off long-standing ethnic tensions and sparked riots as Kenyan civilians attacked ethnic Somalis around Nairobi. These pressures around the city are only one of several security threats the Kenyan government must deal with before elections next March. Kenyan police have been fighting heavily armed bandits in the north, and secessionist movements like the Mombasa Republican Council remain a threat in the country's coastal area.

While the attacks of the past year have so far focused on soft targets, there is the risk that, if the attackers' capabilities continue to grow, more significant political and economic infrastructure will be targeted. Based on what they have shown, the assailants are capable of deploying a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device; all they would need to do is procure the necessary amount of explosives and deploy the device in a critical location. But even if the attacks simply persist at the current level and remain centered on soft targets, they can stir up dangerous tensions between the Kenyan and Somali populations in Nairobi. These tensions, as well as the terrorist threat itself, could complicate Kenya's security challenges in the run-up to elections next year.

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