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Hotel complex assault indicates intent to target Kenya's capital

17 January 2019

At least 14 people were killed and 30 others wounded when six militants conducted a suicide improvised explosive device (IED) and small-arms assault on the 14 Riverside Road hotel and office complex in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The complex comprises several Western businesses and the hotel is popular with foreign nationals. Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen's (Al-Shabaab) spokesperson claimed responsibility for the attack via an affiliate's social media channel. This is the first successful attack claimed by Al-Shabaab militants in Nairobi since the 21 September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping centre, which killed 68 people. It also took place on the third anniversary of the El-Adde attack in Somalia that killed 140 Kenyan soldiers and the day after the postponed trial of suspects accused of supporting the Westgate attackers was announced to proceed, although this was not mentioned in Al-Shabaab's claim. Sources reported that the militants appeared to be of Kenyan origin. The assault lasted for at least nine hours before all the militants were killed by Kenyan security forces inside the DusitD2 Hotel.

The al-Shabaab threat in Kenya is largely contained to Kenya's border areas with Somalia where fighters can often cross to conduct attacks before retreating back into Somalia. However, the Nairobi attack shows their continued intent but occasional capability to mount attacks in the capital, likely operating with assistance from affiliated domestic militant networks. This vulnerability was demonstrated in February 2018, when a group of Al-Shabaab militants reached the final stages of a plot to target a government building in Nairobi with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and follow-up small-arms assault. Kenyan security forces reportedly disrupted the plot only by chance, just prior to execution. It is currently unclear whether the attackers had crossed from Somalia, or were domestic militants based in Kenya. The former would highlight the ongoing vulnerability of Kenya to cross-border infiltration, while the latter would underline the continuing operational activities of domestic Islamist militants in the country despite concerted efforts by the Kenyan security forces since the Westgate attack.

The targeting of the hotel complex and patrons indicates a more indiscriminate targeting by the militants, compared with Al-Shabaab's targeting pattern in Somalia, which has typically targeted government and military buildings, as well as hotels that are frequented by government officials. There has been no indication that government officials were in the complex at the time of the attack, although it is popular with foreign businesspeople. An unconfirmed eyewitness report stated that one of the vehicles used in the attack had been seen around the hotel in days prior to the attack. If the subsequent investigation reveals that the perpetrators were recruited within Kenya and/or crossed into Somalia (and back) to prepare for the attack, then this indicates a lapse in intelligence gathering and surveillance of local affiliates and along the Kenya-Somalia border. Furthermore, the confirmed involvement of Kenyan nationals would indicate an increased likelihood that local facilitators and safehouses in Nairobi were utilised in preparation for the assault, suggesting that a wider network might still be active.

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