by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
Tragically, on January 15, the Kenyan capital of Nairobi bore witness to another terrorist attack by al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group based in Somalia and affiliated with al-Qaeda. Gunmen stormed 14 Riverside Drive, a building in the affluent Westlands neighbourhood that hosts a hotel popular among foreign visitors and several government offices, killing 21 people.
This is only the most recent of attacks perpetrated by al-Shabaab on Kenyan soil, following the September 2013 siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that killed 71, the mass shootings at Garissa University College that killed 152 in April 2015, and numerous others.
These attacks are concerning because they indicate that, despite numerous defeats dealt to al-Shabaab in the Somali Civil War, the group still maintains the capacity to launch successful attacks against civilian targets in neighbouring countries. As such, much analysis in the aftermath of the Riverside attack will no doubt focus on questions of border security and Kenya’s role in Somalia’s intractable internal conflicts. However, it is also important to reflect on the response by the Kenyan authorities to the most recent attack and how crisis management practices have developed in Kenya since the Westgate atrocity.
First, in responding to the Riverside attack, Kenyan security forces demonstrated a much more coordinated approach. Upon surrounding the building, both police and military personnel took direction from the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary force principally concerned with counter-terrorism. In 2013, there was very little coordination between police and military personnel, with different officers attempting to seize operational control. This bureaucratic bickering generated such confusion that a friendly fire incident occurred, with soldiers opening fire on a special forces police unit as they advanced through the building, killing one and injuring another.
Furthermore, in the absence of power plays between the military and police, Kenyan forces carefully and cautiously cleared the Riverside building. This limited the exposure of Kenyan security personnel to harm and ensured relatively few casualties. The Garissa University College attack carried such a heavy death toll in part because the authorities’ response was rushed, leading to a firefight and the detonation of the attackers’ suicide vests. Although two detonations were reported heard at the Riverside building, this occurred before the entry of Kenyan security forces and the source of the detonations is still unclear at the time of this writing.
However, there were serious issues with government communications during the Riverside attack. Fred Matiang’i, Kenya’s Minister of Interior, announced at 11:00pm local time on January 15 that the Riverside building had been secured and the terrorist threat neutralized. This proved erroneous, as gunfire continued on the scene for more than another four hours. To be the first to share with the nation the news that security has been restored would be a boon to almost any political career, but it is imperative in crisis situations that information be released to the public from a single source and only when that information has been verified. The hasty release of unreliable information can exacerbate a crisis and undermine confidence in public institutions. In the interests of national security, Minister Matiang’i should have deferred to President Kenyatta regarding the timing and substance of the announcement regarding the counter-terrorism response.
In addition, in the coming weeks and months, Kenyan political leaders will need to resist the impulse to revamp the National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism (NCVE), introduced in September 2016, in response to public outrage at the Riverside attack. Prevention and de-radicalization efforts in Kenya are still at an early stage, and it would be regrettable to divest from that approach before it can pay dividends. This sustained commitment to counter-terrorism strategy is vital, especially amid heightened concerns that homegrown terrorists will emerge as a greater threat to Kenyan security than al-Shabaab militants. Indicative of this, in July 2016, a police officer at a police station in Kapenguria, West Pokot County turned his weapon on his colleagues, killing seven in a lone wolf attack before being killed himself by GSU personnel. De-radicalization programs have a role to play in preventing such incidents.
Despite the terrible suffering and loss of life, the Riverside attack could have been even more catastrophic. Clearly, Kenya’s security apparatus has improved, learning from the tragedies at Garissa University College and the Westgate shopping mall. What is now required is the internalization of these lessons by the Kenyan political leadership.