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.