Terror Attack

Kenya security officers at the Dusit2D Hotel on January, 16, 2019.

| File | Nation Media Group

Kenya foiled terror attacks but the war is far from won

President Uhuru Kenyatta has revealed the Government’s counter terrorism initiatives have disrupted “a number of high profile planned attacks.”

There has been a lull in large-scale incidents since the Dusit2D attack in January, 2019, with the president citing intelligence that has exposed operations of terror cells in the country and led to dozens of arrests in the past year.

“Key facilitation networks/cells operating in the country were also unearthed, resulting to arrests and prosecution of suspects. For instance, in North Eastern region, a total of 57 individuals were arrested,” states a report on the state of national security that the president submitted to Parliament on November 12. 

“The multiagency approach was instrumental during investigations to unravel the existing facilitation networks/cells used by the militants to fraudulently acquire official documents such as passports, birth certificates and national identification cards," the report discloses.

At the South Coast, where fighters returning from Somalia were fuelling crime, the report notes operations by the multi-agency security team saw the arrests of recruits, their facilitators and seizure of a cache of weapons. 

But last year was still bloody, with President Kenyatta informing MPs terrorists killed 57 people, injured 62 and kidnapped three including two Cuban doctors following 102 terror incidences reported to the police.

The deadliest attack was the 14 Riverside drive Dusit2D hotel complex raid in Nairobi, in which terrorists killed 21 people and wounded 28 on January 15, 2019.

The Somali jihadist group Harakaat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen better known as al-Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the Dusit2D attack.

The terrorist group titled the operation “Al-Qudsu Lan Tuhawwad” (“Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaised”).

It further claimed that the attack was a response to an al-Qaeda edict that demanded retaliation for the US government’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The terrorist cell that conducted the assault comprised Kenyan nationals including a suicide bomber from the port town of Mombasa.

The use of a suicide vest to target innocent civilians did not go unnoticed.

According to the president’s report, militants constantly deployed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along the main supply routes used by security agencies during patrols.

“All these were aimed at creating an illusion of dominance and fear among the Kenyan populace, besides frustrating Government development programmes and services,” states the report.

Operations to flush out terrorists and all sleeper-cells especially in the North Eastern and Coastal regions would be sustained.

“Engaging the local political, religious and opinion leaders within vulnerable communities, as a proactive strategy to deny terrorism entry points into the radicalisation of our youth,” the report also recommends to counter recruitment by terrorists.

The war on terror has, however, been undermined by earth roads common in the North Eastern region, which provided a suitable ground for planting of IEDs against civilians and security agents.

According to the president’s report, the long porous border that facilitated infiltration by the militant was also a major setback.

“The thick and expansive Boni Forest provides suitable hiding ground for al-Shabaab militants,” the report states.

The region bordering Somalia continues to suffer attacks through improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes targeting Kenyan security forces and important infrastructure. It remains a huge burden Kenya has to bear.

As a member of the global coalition to defeat militant Islamist group Isis and a willing a partner of the USA in investigation, prosecution and incident response, Kenya plays a leading role in regional counter-terrorism cooperation.    

There have been reports of human rights violations by security forces during counter-terrorism operations and even allegations of extra-judicial killings, disappearances, and torture.

Despite concerns, the handling of the DusitD2 Hotel attack by Kenyan security forces demonstrated improved procedures in line with international standards for protection of human rights in response to terrorist threats and attacks.

They have also dealt with numerous terrorist incidents, while also disrupting al-Shabaab and Isis attack planning, recruitment and travel.

The Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) continues to be part of the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), supporting border security and counter-IED efforts within Kenya.

Global counter-terrorism experts now say the raid on the DusitD2 compound brought together what they see as three strands of al-Shabaab’s organisational DNA: Its Somali provenance, ideological affiliation with al-Qaeda, and the growing cohort of trained, experienced East African fighters.

The successful combination of these traits in a single operation suggests that al-Shabaab’s longstanding ambition to transcend its Somali origins and become a truly regional organisation is becoming a reality, representing a new and dangerous phase in the group’s evolution and the threat it poses to the region.


The DusitD2 attack was just one of many destructive and deadly al-Shabaab action in Kenya.

The Westgate shopping mall attack on September 21, 2013, Mpeketoni town in 2014, and Garissa University College in 2015 claimed more victims.

Four gunmen stormed the mall in Nairobi, leaving 67 people dead. The aftermath of the Westgate attack elicited fierce reaction from the Kenyan Government and its international partners.

It resulted in a string of police raids on Mombasa mosques suspected of fomenting militancy. These included the Masjid Musa and Masjid Sakina, leading to hundreds of arrests and seizures of weapons.

In February 2019, media reported that al-Shabaab had killed three Christian teachers at a primary school in Wajir County, a predominantly Muslim region.

Then on April 12 the same year, al-Shabaab fighters killed a police officer and abducted two Cuban doctors in Mandera town.

An IED planted by al-Shabaab destroyed a police vehicle, killing 11 police officers and injuring one in Wajir on June 15, while the attackers abducted three Kenya Police reservists. On October 12, they used an IED to kill 11 General Service Unit (GSU) officers in Garissa County and on December 6, they attacked a passenger bus and killed six police officers and four civilians in Wajir.

Then there is April 2, 2015, one of the darkest days in the history of Kenya.

“Michelle and I join the American people in expressing our horror and sadness at the reports coming out of Garissa, Kenya. Words cannot adequately condemn the terrorist atrocities that took place at Garissa University College,” read an official statement from America’s then President, Barack Obama.

“The future of Kenya will not be defined by violence and terror; it will be shaped by young people like those at Garissa University College – by their talents, their hopes, and their achievements , ” he added, promising to visit Kenya in July the same year, which he did .

The attackers made their way into the college, singled out and shot those they identified to be Christians, as they went methodically from room to room, building to building,

The total number of people who died that day was 148, most of them students. 


The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was amended in 2014 to investigate and prosecute terrorism, remains one of Kenya’s most preferred wheelbarrows in lifting the burden of terror. 

It is important to note, however, that terrorism trials often proceed slowly and inefficiently. 

Last month, Mohammed Abdi and Hussein Mustafa were found guilty of being part of the conspiracy in the Westgate terror attack, for which they were jailed for 33 and 18 years respectively.

The year 2019 also saw important legal victories.

In March, the Supreme Court reinstated the convictions and 15-year sentences of two Iranians in a disrupted 2012 bomb plot that targeted scouted locations in Nairobi and Mombasa.

A Kenyan court in June the same year also found three of four defendants guilty of the 2015 Garissa University massacre.


Access to defence counsel for terrorism suspects is limited because the Kenyan government is yet to fund a public defender service that is critical to the success of its National Legal Aid Action Plan.  

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP), however, published national plea-bargaining rules, incorporating them into the Criminal Procedure Code. 

This means that the ODPP is still working to develop a uniform and consistent nationwide policy on plea negotiations. 

The effective use of plea agreements could provide a mechanism for lower-level accomplices to cooperate against higher-level terrorism suspects.

The government has divided counter-terrorism functions among the three branches of the National Police Service.

First is the Kenya Police Service (including the paramilitary GSU; Traffic Police; and regional, county, and local police). This is followed by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (including the investigative Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, Bomb Disposal Unit, and Cyber Forensics Investigative Unit) and finally, the Administration Police (including the Border Police Unit).

Kenya began preparations in 2019 to establish an interagency Joint Terrorism Task Force but the National Intelligence Service, elements of the KDF, and the inter-agency also share responsibility. The Kenya National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) works with private security companies on preventing soft target attacks.

Some of the challenges officers are dealing with, including uneven coordination, resource constraints, insufficient training, corruption, and unclear command and control, continue to hinder counterterrorism effectiveness. 


The terrorists who attack Kenya continue to exploit its largely uncontrolled land borders to conduct attacks.

The government in 2019 attempted to design a border security strategy, but hurdles remain. 

Under a June 2018 arrangement, Kenya is set to receive US Automated Targeting System Global (ATS-G) software, which screens air travellers using advance passenger information (API) and passenger name records (PNR).

If the country puts the equipment to use, ATS-G would be integrated with Pisces (Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System), the US government-provided frontline border management system, enhancing the capabilities of both systems to target potential threats and counter terrorist travel.

Unfortunately, the passage of a data protection law in November has delayed the implementation of ATS-G. 

To improve aviation safety and security at Nairobi’s international airports, the Kenyan government established interagency joint operation centres at several points of entry to promote information sharing. 

Immigration officers are also putting government watchlists to use, even at smaller ports of entry where basic equipment was lacking.

The government worked to prevent the transit of foreign terrorist fighters, including Kenyans attempting to join al-Shabaab or Isis, and those returning to the country.  Kenyan security services also detected and deterred terrorist plots and responded to dozens of terrorism-related incidents.

The government fully cooperates on threat information and security at the US embassy, including through a dedicated GSU counter-terrorism response team funded by US assistance.

Kenya is also a member of the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money-Laundering Group, which keeps watch on terror financing, nipping it in the bud.

Dealing with violent extremism is also on Kenya’s agenda. The government has established county action plans in all 47 counties to further implement its national strategy to counter violent extremism. 

The NCTC is seeking increased resourcing to implement these plans, apart from leading Kenya’s Country Support Mechanism for Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fun, which awards grants for community CVE initiatives.

Police in Nairobi, coastal, and north-eastern counties participated in community engagement training and early warning and response programmes.

The Prisons and justice sector stakeholders have improved handling of terror suspects and convicts, and judicial officials are working to improve management of remand prisoners through plea bargaining and other methods.

NCTC’s “piloting” of small-scale efforts to disengage, rehabilitate, and reintegrate former terrorists lack a clear legal framework and supportive public messaging campaigns. 

The Kenyan government hosted a high-level, international CT/CVE (counter terrorism and counter violent extremism) conference in July 2019. 

As Nairobi continues to play host to UN headquarters, Kenya’s second-largest city, Mombasa, is an active member of the Strong Cities Network.

Kenya still participates in regional meetings of the GCTF (Global Counter Terrorism Forum) and even hosted a workshop.