Kenya is getting much better at tackling terrorist attacks, as we have seen in the Nairobi hotel siege which ended this morning. Within seconds of the first explosions at the DusitD2 hotel at 3pm on Tuesday, news was circulating across the Twitter-obsessed capital. Scores of licensed private pistol owners – pudgy Kikuyu lawyers, Asian shopkeepers, random mzungus -- instantly raced towards the complex where five militants were shooting civilians in a restaurant after an Al Shabaab suicide bomber had blown himself up in the hotel lobby. Rapid response police teams arrived within minutes, but they could barely hold back the Kenyan Dad’s Army sprinting towards the gunfire and black smoke rising from burning cars. Some vigilantes were arrested or expelled, looking deeply disappointed, but not before they had rescued scores of civilians. Faced with the onslaught of security forces and have-a-go heroes, the terrorists swiftly retreated to the upper floors where they holed up overnight, dying one-by-one.
As in all terrorism attacks, intelligence failures led to this week’s outrage. Yet the death toll of 14 civilians – including possibly a Briton and an American -- although terrible, does not match the scale of the 2013 Westgate mall attack, when nearly 70 shoppers were murdered, nor the 2015 Garissa university outrage in which 148 students were butchered.
Internationally, Kenya is often seen as a country living under the constant threat of Islamist terrorism, as reflected in Western government travel advisories. This seems logical, given that we neighbour Somalia, a country barely recovering from the nightmare of total anarchy and famine and still beset by a 12-year Al Shabaab insurgency.
The truth is rather different, because what is striking for people living in Kenya is the fading sense of the threat from terrorism in all parts of the country apart from those closest to the Somali frontier. A few years ago I banned my family from visiting the cinema and many shopping malls. I felt wary about visiting certain parts of the country. Those fears have largely evaporated for me and most of the people I know.
These days, one’s sense is that the threat of terrorism in most of Kenya is roughly equal to that of London or Paris. In the border regions, attacks against the police or Christians – such as school teachers -- are still quite regular and very nasty. Last year police captured or killed a number of terrorists heading for Nairobi in a vehicle laden with explosives, so the risks of attack certainly still exist. To fight terrorism, Western countries provide Kenya with cash, training, operational support and kit. The country is now much better prepared, though there is still a long way to go.
Outsiders often criticised or jeered at the way Kenya handled terrorism, highlighting corruption among security agencies or human rights abuses. At one time the country was greatly in peril, starting with the Al Qaeda bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, which killed over 200 people. Early last decade, Al Qaeda launched attacks against Israeli tourists in Mombasa, and intelligence agencies only narrowly thwarted plans to bomb a British Airways Jumbo Jet, together with a fresh plot to attack the new US Embassy using a small aircraft packed with explosives.
In 2006, I interviewed the leaders of Al Shabaab inside Somalia. Mukhtar Robow, the deputy leader of the jihadist group at the time, told me he believed liberal democracy turns men into homosexuals and encourages women to marry their pet dogs. It became clear to me that Kenya was his enemy because it was an emerging democracy with a significant Muslim population and this threatened his insane ideology.
In Kenya, a number of Muslim clerics were meanwhile preaching jihadist ideas that were in line with Al Shabaab’s ideology. A militant Al Shabaab song in Swahili began circulating around Kenya early this decade called 'Nairobi, here we come'. At the coast and in Nairobi, terrorist attacks against communal taxis, in public places and against Christians became a regular Kenyan news item. In 2011, the jihadists began murdering and kidnapping Westerners, including aid workers in a refugee camp near the Somali border and tourists on Kenya’s north shore.
Kenya responded by deploying thousands of troops inside Somalia’s southern border, an operation that continues together with a project to build a security fence along the entire frontier between the two countries. Western think tanks, human rights groups and journalists warned that Kenya’s Somalia operations would backfire due to corruption within the armed forces together with heavy handed operations against civilians. These same pundits expressed outrage at the assassinations of a number of radical Muslim clerics on the Kenyan coast, blaming the police with warnings that the killings would fuel recruitment into the ranks of jihadists and a spiral into Islamist insurgency.
The insurgency never happened. Scores of Kenyans have trickled into Al Shabaab’s ranks, many of them finding nothing but death in the deserts of Somalia, but it appears that liquidating radical clerics is an excellent method of silencing the jihadists. Kenya has said it will not withdraw from southern Somalia until the insurgency has been defeated and, after seven years, its forces are getting better at what they do thanks to training from the British Army and other forces experienced in tackling guerrilla warfare. At home, life goes on for Kenyans. This morning the highways all around the hotel complex where the terrorists were still holed up were subject to the usual famous Nairobi traffic jams.