Travel to Nairobi: Is Al Shabaab still a threat?

Al Shabaab militants in southern Somalia. (AFP) The group has threatened to attack Kenya in response to its military incursion.

By Max Security’s Intelligence Department 

In October 2011, the Kenyan military began a major operation in neighboring Somalia to root out one of Africa’s most notorious militant groups- Al Shabaab. The invasion added Kenya to the growing list of nations which have become embroiled in the fight to stabilize the troubled Horn of Africa, after previous campaigns by Ethiopia, Uganda, and International peacekeepers failed to do so. While the invasion itself initially resulted in rapid gains for the Kenyan Defence Forces, fear quickly rose in Kenyan urban centers over the fears of a massive retribution attack by Al Shabaab militants.

Those fears are certainly justified, especially given the numerous threats made by Al Shabaab leaders. First and foremost, Al Shabaab cells in Somalia have succeeded in carrying out complex and coordinated mass-casualty attacks in Mogadishu time and time again. In addition, a massive suicide bombing on World Cup viewers in Uganda in which over 60 people perished is also attributed to the Islamist group which is believed to have taken revenge on Uganda for its prominent role in peacekeeping operations in Somalia.  Lastly, there are a considerable number of Somali citizens living around Kenya, while many Somali-Americans have returned to their homeland where their dual citizenship was utilized to carry out attacks. Lastly, Kenya itself has suffered a significant amount of high-profile attacks by Al Qaeda linked militants in the past, including a 2003 hotel bombing in Mombasa and the infamous 1998 American embassy bombings.

Despite these threats, Kenyan urban centers have been spared from a major attack since the operation in southern Somalia began. A series of grenade attacks in Nairobi during November 2011 sparked fears over an impending terror wave, although these attacks later revealed to be the work of a lone-wolf attacker. Since that time, things have been relatively quiet, save for the heightened security and police presence in transport terminals, government buildings, and churches in the capital.

Given the relative calm- is Nairobi still at risk of a terror attack? The answer is undoubtedly yes, although this does not imply that the city is not safe to visit with a few precautions.

Al Shabaab still seeks to carry out an attack in Kenya, and the recent violence along the shared border with Somalia and Kenya signify those intentions. The timing of the Uganda attack signaled the group’s patience, having perpetrated the attack after pulling back from its positions in Mogadishu, a tactical retreat designed to give the impression of surrender. The other possibility is that the group has already attempted to execute an attack, which may have been thwarted due to the increased homeland security operations by the Kenyan government.

Kenya is a predominantly Christian nation and the upcoming Christmas and New Year holiday increases the motivation for Al Shabaab to attack civilians. Given this threat, foreigners visiting Kenya should remain vigilant, even avoiding major churches  and shopping pavilions during the holiday season.  When choosing your hotel, make sure to pick the option which has heightened perimeter security.  Visitors from North America and Western Europe should be aware that the alleged involvement of nations like the United States, France, Great Britain, and Israel in the conflict in Somalia has put the assets of those nations at risk for attack, including embassies.

Visitors to Nairobi shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the threat of terrorism on the capital, just vigilant and aware of the atmosphere around them. After all, pickpockets and traffic incidents- not terrorism are still the main nuisances to foreigners in Kenya.