Lessons Kenya must learn from Dusit terror attack

Special Forces unit officers leave Dusit complex in Westlands after neutralising militants on January 16, 2019. The response to the Dusit assault was swifter and well-coordinated. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • On several occasions, militants have slipped through Kenya’s porous border with Somalia and perpetrated attacks on Kenyan soil.
  • Kenya should certainly continue with elements of what has worked over the last four years: containment and thwarting and limiting attacks.

After close to four years of calm in urban areas, Al-Shabaab demonstrated its continued threat to peace in Kenya with the operation launched in an upscale apartment and restaurant complex in Nairobi.

The gun, grenade and bomb assault will raise inevitable questions about why the country has been targeted successfully so many times over the last eight years.

First, it is worth looking at some of the more positive aspects of Tuesday’s attack.

Between 2011 and 2014, Al-Shabaab seemed to have succeeded in stretching the cord that holds Kenya together to the limits.

The group deliberately sought to exploit the country’s ethnic and religious diversity and, in its propaganda, it highlighted these as offering it a chance of triggering sectarian strife.

“Thank God Kenyan society is divided and facing ethnic clashes,” said one of the group’s ideologues, Sheikh Mohammed Dulyadeyn, in a video released in June 2014.


He urged militants to increase their attacks in the country and it was no coincidence that a wave of gun and grenade assaults targeted at churches followed, although the sectarian fighting Al-Shabaab hoped to trigger did not materialise.

Kenya has largely managed to reduce regular attacks in urban areas since 2014, although the Tuesday assault shows that the fight is far from won.

Most critically, political temperatures in Kenya are now much lower than they were during the Westgate attack in September 2013.

Wednesday’s united, and clearly coordinated responses by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga, sent out a message of national resolve and signalled that Al-Shabaab will not succeed in tearing the country apart.

A second positive factor from this was the significant improvement in security response and coordination.


As was well-recorded, the response to Westgate by the security forces was a study in chaos.

Friendly fire incidents, lack of coordination and multiple delays meant a greater number of casualties drew and sustained adverse press around the world, with its inevitable effect on critical sectors of the economy.

The response to the Dusit assault was swifter and much better coordinated.

It demonstrated that efforts to improve inter-agency cooperation in the security sector, under the overall ambit of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), have borne fruit.

On the ground, the commander was Douglas Kanja, the General Service Unit Commandant. The security forces saved dozens of lives.


Communication was also much better and measured than during Westgate.

The fact that many Nairobians carried on with business as usual on Wednesday was a big improvement on 2013 when the nation felt under siege.

Despite these positive elements, there will be inevitable questions about why this attack was allowed to occur.

Why does Kenya experience far more attacks than other troop-contributing countries in Somalia including Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia or Tanzania, a country which, although it has not sent troops to Somalia, has been battling its own domestic militants with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab?

Theories abound. It is true that Kenya is seen as a base and magnet for Western countries, explaining recent and previous attacks including the 1998 embassy bombings and the Paradise Hotel assault in 2002.


It is also true that Kenya is one of the more open societies in Africa, partially explaining the relative ease with which people can move in and out of the country.

However, these explanations are only a partial accounting of the reasons the country suffers repeatedly and it will be wise to engage in an exhaustive post-mortem of events at Dusit to understand how the attackers and planners succeeded.

This was a complex operation. It involved not just assembling the arsenal of guns and bullets but also putting together a suicide bomb and suspected car bombs.

There should be a thorough examination of why this elaborate process escaped the attention of the security agencies.

Moreover, questions should be confronted on border security.

On several occasions, militants have slipped through Kenya’s porous border with Somalia and perpetrated attacks on Kenyan soil.


Ethiopia shares an even longer border with Somalia.

But its security officers and border agents are said to be much stricter, more thorough and less corruptible than their Kenyan counterparts.

This is an inconvenient issue that needs to be confronted.

Also, perhaps because of the leftist/Marxist backgrounds of the states in Tanzania and Ethiopia, there is a greater culture there of community-level intelligence gathering that makes it much harder for terrorists to operate.

What can Kenya learn from this? Was the Nyumba Kumi (10 houses) initiative abandoned too early or at least not sufficiently implemented in urban areas?

Finally, although there are understandable downsides to this, it is still worth debating whether the Ugandan model where armed security officers secure key buildings, including civilian outlets, is worth emulating.


It is true that not all terrorist plots can be thwarted. The ideology that feeds mindless extremism will be with us for a long time.

Kenya should certainly continue with elements of what has worked over the last four years: containment and thwarting and limiting attacks as much as possible.

But there should also be consideration of other tweaks to security strategy to stop another Dusit.

All this should be done within a rule-of-law framework and it was heartening to hear President Kenyatta open his remarks yesterday by saying this is a country of laws.

Crackdowns against whole communities must be avoided. Al-Shabaab should not change what Kenya is.

The group has little chance of success because its ideology is warped and rejected by all but a small minority.

Still, Kenya should invest more in ensuring gains enjoyed between 2014 and today are not reversed by the Dusit attack.

The writer is the Nation’s former security reporter and a communications consultant ([email protected])


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