Nairobi lives in fear in aftermath of double grenade attack

Expats can hide behind metal detectors and armed guards, but local people fear for their lives.

A matatu stage [bus stop] is one of the busiest, loudest, most confusing places a stranger to Nairobi can find themselves. Thousands of locals jostle for position to navigate the city's notorious rush hour. But shortly after 8pm on Monday (24 October), was a different story. The usually crowded Kaka terminus in central Nairobi was almost eerily quiet. Camouflaged soldiers lingered, hands on guns, talking quietly amongst themselves. A few metres away, security men redirected traffic and prevented interested bystanders from entering the terminus-cum-crime scene.

Monday saw the second grenade attack in Nairobi in less than 24 hours, but the first fatal one. Eyewitness reports described how the grenade was thrown at a full matatu, but bounced off and landed in a crowd of people attempting to enter various vehicles. The grenade exploded as it hit the ground, killing one and injuring thirteen others, mostly below the waist. Commuters took the full brunt of the blast. It came barely 18 hours after a man hurled a grenade into a busy Mwaura's nightclub on Mfangano Lane, injuring 14 people.

It is only three weeks since I took a drink in Mwaura's, a very local venue visited by working class Kenyans on account of its cheap alcohol. The place was little more than a dive, a rundown crevasse in the wall where ordinary Kenyans drank and socialised. And that is the theme of these attacks thus far. Though the US embassy warned last week that they had "credible" information that bars and shopping malls frequented by westerners could be targeted, the sites of the two grenades have been soft targets used by local Kenyans on a regular basis. While security has been stepped up in the more upmarket venues, it is almost impossible to adequately police local bars, markets and transport hubs. Concerned expatriates have been able to hide behind metal detectors and armed security guards, but local people going about their local business now fear for their lives. The relatively small period of time between attacks suggest those responsible are going for maximum impact.

This effect was seen yesterday morning, with fewer than normal making it into work on time or at all, presumably fearing a repeat performance. Nairobi is on high alert, and the fear is there for all to see. After Kenyan troops entered neighbouring Somalia last week, a military plane in the skies of Nairobi drew a banner declaring: "Defending Kenya". But what has become clear is that, though the police and Red Cross were on the scene with extraordinary speed on Monday, there is no protecting Nairobi's people when the perpetrators of this terror can strike anywhere at any time.

Who is responsible is still open for debate. Al-Shabaab, the Islamist terror organisation that Kenyan troops are seeking in Somalia, have not claimed responsibility as they have for previous attacks in the region. In the wake of last week's invasion, al-Shabaab leaders promised that Nairobi would experience real terror if Kenyan troops did not leave Somalia. It presently seems more likely that Kenya-based Somali sympathisers with al-Shabaab are behind the attacks, acting in accord with the public statements of the group's leaders rather than from direct orders. This was the topic of much whispered conversation on Monday evening.

Nairobi has a large Somali population, many of them students living in the Eastleigh area. Nicknamed "little Mogadishu" because of its high population of Somalian residents, it is now braced for a crackdown that will affect innocent Somalis as well as those with al-Shabaab connections. "We wake up prepared for a day and a time like this," said one resident. "When world events will shape the daily livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands living in this little corner of Nairobi." Comments on the Daily Nation's report of the blasts included vitriol such as "It is very difficult to trust a Somali" and "This is the time the non-Kenyan Somalis be removed from Kenya". Reports of police patrolling the area asking for identity cards have already surfaced. Arrests have occurred in Malindi and Nakuru. It is probable that the difficulties of properly identifying al-Shabaab sympathisers will foster an atmosphere of resentment against Somali residents in Kenya.

Nairobi today lives in fear. My taxi driver home told me that "people are scared, and people will be scared to go out in darkness". Security has been stepped up across the city, but nobody can escape the feeling that a repeat of yesterday's violence is possible anywhere, at any time.

Tom Jackson is a British journalist working for a news agency in Nairobi.

Photo:Getty
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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.