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For Kenyans, militant group al-Shabab is a deadly threat that won’t back down

Kenya's Citizen TV and K24 aired footage of survivors fleeing Nairobi's DusitD2 hotel, after the upscale hotel was attacked by armed assailants on Jan. 15 (Video: Reuters)
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For decades, Kenyan authorities have struggled to contain the threat of extremism in their country. And on Tuesday morning, the militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for another attack there, this time on a hotel in the upscale Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi.

As The Washington Post reported from the scene, police cordoned off the building during the attack as terrified and wounded civilians poured out of the building and some were carried away on stretchers.

Gunfire and explosions rock Nairobi hotel in attack claimed by Somali militants

The city has been the site of other large-scale terrorist attacks in the past. In August 1998, suicide bombers drove to the U.S. embassy in Nairobi and detonated explosives, killing more than 200 people and injuring about 5,000 others. Another attack took place at the same time at the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

In Nairobi, the “explosion reduced much of the interior of the embassy to rubble,” stated a CIA report on the attack. “The secondary fragmentation from flying glass, internal concrete block walls, furniture, and fixtures caused most of the embassy casualties.”

Twelve Americans were among those killed in the bombings, which were planned by al-Qaeda and led to the inclusion of Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

More recently, Kenya has faced the threat of Somalia-based al-Shabab, which carried out another attack in 2013 not far from the hotel that came under fire Tuesday. Early on a Saturday afternoon that September, gunmen from the militant group stormed the Westgate Mall, a popular, high-end shopping center in a well-to-do neighborhood in the Kenyan capital. The siege lasted for days and resulted in the deaths of at least 67 people, as well as the four militants who carried out the attack.

The Westgate attack sent shock waves across East Africa, prompting new security measures in public spaces and a massive crackdown by Kenyan authorities, who rounded up suspected militants. In a September 2018 report, the International Crisis Group said that “Kenyan authorities’ subsequent indiscriminate crackdowns fueled Muslim anger and accelerated militant recruitment," causing attacks in Kenya to spike between 2013 and 2015.

Less than two years later, nearly 150 people were killed and dozens more injured when al-Shabab militants stormed Garissa University in northeastern Kenya in April 2015. Witnesses said that gunmen entered the university’s dormitories and opened fire, at times separating Christians and Muslims and then executing Christian students. About 500 students escaped, but the standoff lasted 16 hours, and four of the gunmen were eventually killed when they detonated their suicide vests. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 embassy bombing.

Paul Williams, a security expert and associate professor at George Washington University, told The Post in an email that Tuesday’s attack seems to indicate that al-Shabab “is still able to exploit relatively soft public targets by using dedicated fighters who are willing to die in the process of committing such acts of terrorism.”

Williams said the motivation behind the attack is likely the group’s long-standing “attempt to undermine Kenya’s willingness to keep forces in AMISOM,” the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

Tuesday’s attack also came three years to the day after al-Shabab attacked a Kenyan-run military base in El Adde, Somalia, Williams noted. In that instance, militants detonated explosives and stormed the base, leaving as many as 141 Kenyan soldiers dead, according to a CNN investigation.


An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that the Westgate Mall attack took place in April 2013.

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