Monday afternoon, there was an explosion on Moi Avenue in downtown Nairobi. Initially, Kenyan authorities suspected that the cause of this explosion was either an act of terrorism or was caused by an electrical fault. However, it now appears that the incident is being investigated as an act of terrorism – although as of yet, no individual or group has stepped forward to claim responsibility.
If the Moi Avenue blast was indeed an act of terrorism, this marks a slight shift in recent terrorist activity in Kenya. Since Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in October 2011, there had been a handful of small-scale incidents in the border area near Somalia (near Wajir, Garissa, and Mandera), and in Nairobi and Mombasa. Assailants used grenades or opened fire during their attacks, and they had targeted venues such as bars and nightclubs, bus stations, churches, and police stations. Furthermore, these attacks were perpetrated by so-called “lone wolves,” or individuals who may have been inspired by al-Shabaab or other violent extremist groups, but were not necessarily members of said groups.
Monday’s blast marked a tactical advance in such attacks. Officials now suspect that the blast may have been caused by a fertilizer bomb, and that the perpetrators may have been affiliated with al-Shabaab. And while the Moi Avenue blast is nowhere near the scale of al-Shabaab’s 2010 Kampala bombings, it is a move in that direction – and away from previous “lone wolf” grenade attacks perpetrated by al-Shabaab sympathizers. If al-Shabaab is to blame for this bombing, this could indicate that they are either too disorganized or are otherwise incapable of launching a Kampala-sized attack in Kenya, but that they aspire to emulate the scale of the Kampala attacks in Kenya at some point in the future.
And as a segway – a shameless plug for my own research that touches on Kenya’s vulnerability to domestic terror attacks:
In the coming days, my analysis of Kenya’s invasion of Somalia last fall will be published in Vol 3, No 3 (June 2012) of PRISM. My main thesis was that Kenya did not simply invade Somalia to dismantle al-Shabaab as it initially stated, but rather invaded due to the unending conflict spillover, refugee crisis, and political deadlock in Mogadishu that precluded stability in southern Somalia. I argued, therefore, that Kenya sought stability in southern Somalia – which was an endstate that transcended dismantling al-Shabaab, and a mission for which Kenya was not militarily, economically, or politically well-prepared.
The majority of the paper focused on the military hurdles Kenya would have to overcome (i.e., logistics, mobility, poor infrastructure + rainy season, al-Shabaab’s asymmetric tactics and refusal to face Kenyan forces in battle, unanticipated cost and duration of operations, etc). However, part of the paper also discussed Kenya’s increased vulnerability to domestic terrorism in the aftermath of its invasion of southern Somalia. One of the points I raise is that, in light of the complexity of the situation in Somalia (as of late summer/early fall 2011) and its rather limited stated objectives, Kenya might have been better off focusing on better protecting Kenyan territory to make the country less of a soft target for terrorist attacks. As such, I recommend a focus on securing its border with Somalia, rooting out corruption related to cross-border smuggling and forged travel documents, and increasing domestic intelligence and surveillance capabilities to better detect external, and possibly homegrown threats. I also recommended that at sea, Kenya might have prioritized expanding its coast guard so that it not only has sufficient assets to patrol the country’s territorial waters, but is also capable of conducting maritime interdiction operations that target illicit activity in the maritime domain that potentially facilitates terrorist access to Kenyan territory.