The peace of a plum mixed-use development on 14 Riverside Drive in Nairobi was shattered on the afternoon of January 15, when gunmen stormed the complex.
By the time they were stopped by security forces, close to two dozen people had lost their lives. Within hours, Al Qaeda-affiliated Somali group Al Shabaab had claimed responsibility for the raid, which in typical terrorist fashion targeted non-combatants.
A day later, in Princess of Palace restaurant in Mandib, northern Syria, 12 people including four US servicemen died when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb.
It was no coincidence that the two attacks took place when they did. It is reasonable to suspect that terror groups that have been put on the defensive by a multilateral effort sought to remind everybody of their existence by staging these dramatic raids. Yet in these dark clouds, at least for Kenya, one could still discern a glimmer of silver lining.
For one, the number of attackers involved – five – and their inability to inflict greater harm, suggests a much degraded capability in Al Shabaab. The raid, coming on the anniversary of an attack on a unit of Kenyan troops in Somalia last year, was necessary for the terror group but its execution was far from perfect.
Terrorism thrives on creating an aura of invincibility. Choosing their targets carefully, terrorists seek to convince us of our vulnerability and the incompetence of those we trust to keep us safe.
Yet, given the number of people saved – more than 700 in all – at 14 Riverside Drive and the response mounted by security forces, one can argue that the security forces have become much better at protecting us, even if they may not be able to stop all random acts that result in loss of life.
Compared with the Westgate Mall attack of 2013, the security operation that cleared the complex of the attackers was swift and much better co-ordinated. Collateral damage could have been worse and within hours, vital leads had been gathered about the attackers, which should help in tracking down and dismantling the cell that was responsible for this heinous act.
While it is in human nature to seek to understand why and whether something could have been done to avert the attack, it is also necessary that we understand terrorism for what it is. Described as asymmetrical warfare by military experts, terrorism is a conflict without borders or definite formations. It is fluid, which tends to give the attacker the upper hand in choosing which battles to fight and when.
That is where citizen policing comes into play. By all indications, the DusitD2 “five” did not sneak into Nairobi overnight. They had taken up residence in town and stayed around for several months as they planned the attack. A simple observation or even a gut feeling by a citizen, reported to the authorities, could have altered the course of events.
Also, information emerging suggests that Western intelligence agencies shared with their regional counterparts information about an imminent attack.
It has been suggested the information was not specific enough to act on. Yet that alone should not make it valueless. Who knows what a simple public statement about an imminent threat would have turned up?