A bloody, day-long terrorist attack on a hotel complex in Kenya’s capital has ended, leaving at least 14 people dead and others severely injured.
On Tuesday, four militants from al-Shabaab — a Somalia-based terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda — struck the luxury DusitD2 hotel in Nairobi in what police described as a coordinated attack. What followed was a 20-hour siege that left 11 Kenyans and several foreigners, including at least one American, dead. Early Wednesday morning, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters that “all the terrorists [have been] eliminated” and that 700 people escaped to safety.
The group says it launched the assault in response to President Donald Trump’s declaration last year of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
That, however, doesn’t make much sense. It’s more likely that the strike is really the latest catastrophe in a decade-plus struggle between Kenya and al-Shabaab. The group, which in recent years has killed scores of Kenyans in malls, universities, and small villages, continues to strike mostly over Nairobi’s US-backed efforts to militarily defeat it in neighboring Somalia.
It’s a fight that, sadly, shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
How the Nairobi hotel attack unfolded
It was a horrifying scene, according to Kenyan authorities and multiple reports.
Kenyan police chief Joseph Boinnet told reporters the coordinated assault began around 3 pm local time on Tuesday when an explosion targeted three vehicles in a bank’s parking lot inside the complex. There was also a suicide bombing in the hotel’s foyer, Boinnet said, “where a number of guests suffered severe injuries.”
Boinnet told the AFP that there were five attackers in all; security camera footage from the complex shows three armed men entering the upscale lodging, dining, and shopping area located in a wealthy Nairobi neighborhood. Other videos from inside the hotel showed patrons and workers hiding and climbing out of windows with ladders trying to escape the gunfire, the Associated Press reports.
#UPDATE VIDEO: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta says all Islamists who stormed an upmarket hotel complex have been "eliminated" after an almost 20-hour siege that leaves at least 14 dead pic.twitter.com/kKUmVShJif— AFP news agency (@AFP) January 16, 2019
Fighting continued for hours after Kenya’s Interior Ministry said the threat had ended on Tuesday night. Kenyan authorities spent many early-morning hours looking for civilians to evacuate and militants possibly hiding somewhere in the sprawling complex.
The attack, it seems, is finally over. But al-Shabaab’s longstanding fight against Kenya and other regional countries — many of which receive US military support to fight the group — isn’t.
Why al-Shabaab attacked Kenya
Experts I spoke to weren’t surprised to hear the Somalia-based organization had reportedly orchestrated the Nairobi assault.
“Al-Shabaab is always trying to hit Kenya,” Joshua Meservey, an African security expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, told me. “It’s part of its game plan and approach.”
The terrorist group, composed of roughly 7,000 to 9,000 fighters, has two main goals that Kenya keeps thwarting.
The first is to control all of Somalia.
It started fighting an insurgency in the country in 2006 after it split off from a bigger organization that Ethiopian forces eventually defeated. It retreated to the country’s south, regrouped, and began launching attacks.
At its height, al-Shabaab possessed roughly one-third of the country’s territory, including parts of the capital Mogadishu. But after years of military pressure from the US-supported African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) coalition — of which Kenya is a prominent member — al-Shabaab is down to only about 10 percent control of Somalia, Meservey said.
Washington has played a role in that decline. Air Force Maj. Karl Wiest, a spokesperson for US Africa Command, said America has launched 87 airstrikes on al-Shabaab militants, fighting positions, and equipment since 2017. “Alongside our Somali and international partners, we are committed to preventing al-Shabaab from taking advantage of safe havens from which they can build capacity and attack innocent people,” Wiest said.
While it’s clear the terrorist group is weaker due to the military campaigns, it clearly still has the ability to launch large attacks on Kenya partly in response to the country’s AMISOM role. “By launching attacks in Nairobi, they message to Kenyan civilians that they are targets in order to encourage popular pressure on Kenyan politicians to withdraw” forces, University of Maryland terrorism expert Amy Pate said.
But that’s not all al-Shabaab has recently done. In September 2013, it attacked Nairobi’s Westgate mall in a siege that lasted roughly 80 hours. The assailants threw grenades and shot wildly at innocent shoppers, ultimately killing at least 67 people. And in April 2015, the group murdered nearly 150 students at Garissa University in northeastern Kenya in what remains the group’s deadliest strike.
It’s worth noting, though, that the group mostly attacks targets in Somalia itself. Last December, for example, a car bomb placed by an al-Shabaab militant killed at least 16 people in Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab’s second goal is to “liberate” Muslims in the region from so-called apostate rule. Kenya, which borders Somalia, has a large Muslim and ethnic Somali population that the group feels it could free and even bring into its ranks.
Many certainly reject the group outright, of course, and al-Shabaab’s degradation over the years makes it harder to recruit those who may be on the fence about joining.
So big terrorist attacks, like the one on the Nairobi complex, are a way for the group to show it’s still a powerful fighting force.
Al-Shabaab wants to prove that the African and American militaries “have not weakened or ‘degraded’ their capabilities to conduct attacks,” Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former national security adviser for Somalia’s government, said.
The timing of the attack hints at a potential motive
Al-Shaabab’s attack makes tactical sense: Kenya is a big target for the group that it can hit relatively easily. But the timing of the attack remains a mystery.
One explanation is the most unsettling: Terrorists can strike wherever they want and when they want. They don’t particularly need an exact reason to launch an assault on a specific day — but there might be one this time around, experts say.
On Monday, a Kenyan court said three men must stand trial for their alleged roles in the Westgate mall attack more than five years ago (a fourth man was already set free). The men — Liban Abdullahi, Hussein Mustafa, and Ahmed Abdi — received charges of supporting al-Shabaab and living in Kenya illegally. They were arrested weeks after the attack.
It’s possible that al-Shabaab organized the attack to coincide with the trial’s start in an attempt to compel the court to set them free.
Regardless of the specific motive for this attack, experts warn that no matter how many times authorities count out al-Shabaab, they somehow find a way to pull off an attack and keep the fighting going.
“Al-Shabaab is in a long war,” Harun Maruf, who published a book on the group last year, tweeted on Wednesday.