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Kenya's Growing Militant Threat

The terrorist threat in Kenya is changing and the government appears unable to deal with it.
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Two vehicles involved in the double bombing at the Gikomba market in Nairobi on 16 May. Photograph by Qaabata Boru/Kanere News.

Since the start of this year, Islamist militants have mounted a series of shootings and bombings in Kenya. The targets have ranged from market stalls and buses to restaurants and a beach resort. While many of these attacks have been comparatively small and unsophisticated, there are signs that terrorists are increasing their capabilities and escalating their tactics.

The assault on the town of Mpeketoni on 15 June was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the Westgate siege last September. At least 48 people died after gunmen entered the town, shooting people and setting fire to buildings and vehicles. A day later, the militants carried out another attack on a nearby village, killing at least 15 people.

As has tended to be the case with terrorist incidents in Kenya, the response of the security forces and government has so far been inadequate. These two assaults on towns close to Lamu exposed the difficulties authorities are having in dealing with the worsening security situation. Indeed, despite the police deploying to the area in the hours after the Mpeketoni assault ended, the militants were able to mount a similar operation in the same area just 24 hours later.

Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for both these attacks in the Lamu area, but the Kenyan president blamed them on ‘local political networks’ and claimed that al-Shabaab was not involved. This reluctance from senior government members to address the growing Islamist militant threat has been common.

The government has attempted to play down the peril and reassure its citizens that it is taking measures to improve security. However, there is little to suggest the government has had any success. In fact, the situation has deteriorated this year with Islamist militant groups appearing to have become better able to sustain a campaign of attacks in major urban areas.

A domestic threat

So far this year, there have been 14 attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and the nearby coastal tourist area, according to data from Terrorism Tracker. By contrast, there were just eight such incidents in these areas in the whole of 2013. This also marks a geographical shift in the threat, with attacks now being more common in Nairobi, Mombasa and the coast than in the northeastern region bordering Somalia. Although al-Shabaab continues to mount infrequent mass casualty operations inside Kenya, it seems to be Kenyan militant groups operating from Nairobi and Mombasa that now pose the greatest threat.

Most of the attacks by domestic militant groups this year have involved small explosive devices or grenades, and they have chosen soft targets where there is little or no security presence. In many cases, attackers have simply thrown bombs from the street into a crowd or hidden devices before escaping on foot or by motorcycle.

When attackers have encountered police or security personnel, they seem to have been reluctant to confront the guards or force their way into target sites. In early May, for example, a man was stopped by a security guard when attempting to plant a bomb at Reef Hotel north of Mombasa. Instead of trying to overpower him, the attacker walked away and left the bomb somewhere other than his intended target. His priority seems to have been to avoid being arrested, rather than hitting his main mark and inflicting a large number of casualties.

While this suggests the threat from domestic groups is currently unsophisticated, some elements appear to be escalating their tactics. A car bombing outside a police station in Nairobi in April and a foiled bombing in Mombasa in March indicate a greater bomb-making capability than has been the case in Kenya in recent years. It also shows that some militants are willing to carry out suicide missions.

This attempted attack further reveals that some militants do have more sophisticated techniques at their disposal. At the time of the foiled plot, there was widespread criticism of the Kenyan security forces after they reportedly left the vehicle outside their office in Mombasa for several days, unaware that there were pipe bombs weighing around 60 kg inside. However, this criticism may have been misplaced. Since then, further information about the device has emerged, which indicates that it was well constructed and difficult to detect even with a search of the vehicle.

That militants were able to source such a large amount of explosives and build such a device is a concerning development and one that the authorities appear ill-equipped to counter. Many sites in Nairobi and Mombasa that would be attractive targets remain vulnerable to attack. Police and private security have increased checks at entrances to sites such as shopping malls and hotels since the assault on the Westgate shopping mall. But these increased measures are unlikely to deter determined attackers using devices such as the one police found in Mombasa in March.

When Western governments such as the UK, US and Australia issued travel warnings for Kenya last month, the Kenyan government rejected the idea that the terrorist threat has increased. However, the evidence indicates that threat is becoming more varied and more severe. Without a significant change in the government’s approach to combating attacks, there is little prospect for an improvement in the security situation any time soon.

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