Another bomb attack has taken place in Nairobi, three weeks after a night of grenade attacks. The incident on the night of Wednesday, April 23, killed two police officers and two other people outside Pangani police station, not far from the Somali-dominated neighbourhood of Eastleigh where the attacks in late March took place. It is not yet clear exactly what happened, but it appears that two policemen stopped a suspicious-looking car at a traffic light and decided to take its occupants to the police station for questioning, and that the occupants then waited until they were in front of the station to detonate a device or a grenade in the car, killing themselves and the two officers in the car. Police executed the controlled demolition of a second explosive device shortly afterwards. It is possible that the officers’ actions in stopping the car prevented the attackers from causing an explosion in a public place, causing many more casualties.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack; it seems most likely, however, that the perpetrators were members or sympathisers of Al-Shabaab, the Islamist militia fighting against Kenyan forces in Somalia and which has a network in Kenya. The existence of this network of Al-Shabaab operatives and sympathisers in Kenya has prompted a recent security initiative targeting the Somali community in particular. Rights groups have said that these counter-terror tactics have involved human rights abuses, and we have warned about the danger that the strategies might radicalise previously uninvolved Somalis and so end up fuelling terrorism. Counter-insurgency experts are warning that internment policies almost always backfire by alienating local populations without any real success at finding operatives. Kenya needs to tread carefully in dealing with the terror threat and avoid tactics that have a history of being counter-productive. Intelligence and vigilance and local population support are essential. Al Shabaab and its sympathisers already find it relatively easy to launch small scale attacks and that over time will become a bigger problem than the occasional spectacular Westgate type incident. The Pangani incident does show that active police work saves lives, however.
WHY DO WE CARE? Tourism and foreign investment are vital to Kenya’s continued growth and development, and terrorism represents by far the most serious impediment to both. It is not yet clear exactly what was the nature of the explosive device that went off in Pangani – it might have been a complicated car bomb, but it was more probably a grenade that one of the perpetrators was carrying. The Eastleigh attacks in late March took the form of grenades tossed into public places. This latter form of terrorism is hard to counter as it does not require any training or any co-ordination between the perpetrators and the leaders of a terror outfit – so it is possible that this and future attacks can take place without any kind of instruction from Al-Shabaab.
It is also this kind of terrorism, committed by native Kenyans with no obvious links to Al-Shabaab, that harsh counterinsurgency tactics may make more likely. While terrorism is difficult to contain, Kenya needs to implement strategies and tactics designed to prevent what is currently a relatively containable issue sliding out of control. As was the case in March, however, our view is that sporadic attacks, taking place at the rate we are seeing currently, do not indicate a change in overall security risk in Kenya. Our view would only change if these incidents became much more frequent, or if there were more frequent attacks that clearly showed the involvement of sophisticated international terror networks.
Analysts: François Conradie & Gary van Staden