Al-Shabaab threatens ‘flames of war’ in Nairobi

The last time Nairobi was bombed, in December, the would-be attacker got edgy and dropped his grenade. Three people, including the bomber, died.

Last Monday, the attackers were slightly more accurate, if not so deadly.

In the first, a grenade was thrown into Mwaura’s, a working man’s club selling cheap beer in the Kenyan capital’s downtown area. Fourteen people were injured.

Later that evening, another grenade was thrown at one of the city’s ubiquitous minibuses, as it ferried people from one of the inner city’s main bus terminals. One man was killed.

President Jacob Zuma condemned the attacks, with the South African government calling upon “any persons or organisations responsible for these atrocious deeds, to refrain from using indiscriminate violence to achieve their aims”.

That may be easier said than done, especially if the attackers were al-Shabaab.

Angered by the Kenyan army’s advance into Southern Somalia two weeks ago, the Somali militant group threatened to”bring the flames of war to Nairobi”.

Earlier this month they killed 70 people in a suicide attack in Mogadishu, and have been blamed by some elements in the Kenyan government for the recent upsurge in kidnappings of foreign aid workers in Kenya and Somalia.

A history of bombings
However security analysts doubt as to whether they carried out either of Monday’s attacks, especially given their history of suicide bombings. In July last year, they claimed responsibility for the Kampala bombings, which left 74 dead.
Police have already made one arrest, of a 28-year-old man, who was discovered with 13 grenades, four pistols, an AK-47 assault rifle and more than 700 rounds of ammunition. Yet he is not Somali and comes from Western Kenya, not a hot bed of Islamic extremism, raising concerns that if al-Shabaab is not directing operations in Kenya it is inspiring young men to carry out their own DIY missions.

“Deciding to act alone is very different to receiving orders from al-Shabaab command and control” says Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior researcher in the African Conflict Prevention Programme at the Nairobi office of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.

“But it does raise concerns that if the security services can’t even find sympathisers, there are al-Shabaab sleeper cells operating in Kenya, with members that have been trained in Somalia and are now back and ready to strike.”

This, he says, poses a far greater and more imminent threat to Kenya than grenade throwers.

Already, once popular Nairobi nightspots and shopping centres are deserted. Expatriate parties have been shifted from bars to private homes and embassies have been evacuated after credible threats were made against their buildings, with the American government warning of “an imminent threat of terrorist attacks”.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan army continues its advance against al-Shabaab in Somalia, convinced that it can deal a knockout blow to the organisation, which it says has terrorised its border in recent months.

However, history shows that this is no easy task.

“In a head-to-head battle, the Kenyans should have fairly quick successes against al-Shabaab. The danger is that in the longer term Shabaab may be able to use the emotive issue of foreign troops on Somali soil to raise funds and support,” said Roger Middleton, a researcher with the Africa programme at Chatham House in London.

In 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia, only to find itself bogged down in a protracted guerrilla war that killed up to 3 000 Ethiopian troops, according to some estimates.

“The lesson from Ethiopia’s intervention is that the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia actually made the situation worse,” said Middleton.

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