On January 15th, 2019, I flew from Nairobi to Lamu, where I’ve been living for some time. While waiting for my luggage I chatted with a fellow passenger, a young Somali who told mehe was working in the gas fields of Pate Island. We noted the gains Kenya has made in recent years in security and theuptick in international tourism. Other than the odd skirmish between Al-Shabaab and security forces in the Boni, it sure has looked lately as though Kenya had licked the militant group.
When I got home a journalist friend phoned to tell me that an attack was underway at the dusitD2 complex in Nairobi’s affluent Westland’s neighborhood. The action hadn’t been confirmed – it was only an hour into the attack – but Al-Shabaab were the most likely perpetrators.
The dusitD2 attack racked up some “firsts”:
The Al-Shabaab attackers were all Kenyan nationals, including the two ethnic Somalis. At least two were Kikuyus from Kenya’s central region. (All four attackers who stormed the Westgate Mall in 2013 were Somali nationals.)
For the dusitD2 Al-Shabaab deployed a suicide bomber, a first in its many attacks in Kenya.
The dusitD2 attack was anomalous in various ways—even outright weird. Several things seemed off (and I’m sure many others as well). First, the suicide bomber. It may be a stretch to say the bomb went off “in the middle of nowhere,” as one analyst described it to me, but the bomber wasn’t positioned in a way that would have maximized casualties.
Instead he seemed to be walking away from the intended target — the restaurant verandah — and asking his handler with remote, “Why haven’t I exploded yet?”
The time of the attack was also peculiar. The gunmen stormed the dusitD2 security gates at around 2:30 pm. By that time most patrons and staff were back in their offices. The Westgate gunmen by contrast attacked the mall on when it was packed, on a Saturday. And they clearly had an exit strategy. Analysts speculate the attackers got away before security forces arrived.
Al-Shabaab’s official statement about dusitD2, which among other things, tied the attack to Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem seemed irrelevant.
The dusitD2 complex looks too complex for the killers to maneuver. Unlike Westgate with its massive, open, multi-story space, the dusitD2 complex consists of a restaurant, the hotel reception area, and a honeycomb of offices in several buildings.
If the attackers weren’t aiming for high numbers, perhaps they were ordered to kill specific people in specific offices.
Among those killed were employees of various strategic development companies.
Jason Spindler, an American who died in the attack, worked at I-DEV, “a strategy and investment advisory firm focused on supporting businesses and organizations to achieve their impact and growth goals in emerging markets.”
Feisal Ahmed, 31, and Abdalla Dahir, 33, two Somalis who were killed, had worked with the British firm Adam Smith International,”an award-winning global company that delivers impact, value and lasting change through economic growth and government reform” At the time of the attack, the two were working for the Somalia Stability Fund, managed by ASI, whose mission is to “bring peace and stability to Somalia”.
Al-Shabaab might view the efforts of a company like Adam Smith International as oriented to anything but bringing peace and prosperity to Somalia.
Rumors circulated that a large group of Americans were scheduled to meet for a conference at the dusitD2 but cancelled at the last minute. (The manager at the nearby Gemstone Suites, where the meeting had in fact taken place, reportedly said they’d never planned to meet at the dusitD2.)
A security source told me the Americans at the meeting at Gemstone Suites were with USAID or with people related to USAID-funded projects.
It is widely believed that USAID projects project “soft-power” tactics not only to win over the people but also for advancing US economic and political interests. USAID is at the heart of the fight to win the hearts and minds of Kenya’s Muslim populations.
Al-Shabaab doesn’t like foreign meddling of any kind.
Diplomatic and security sources confirmed that the dusitD2 Hotel guests at the time of the attack included Ahmed Duale Gelle, President of central Somalia’s autonomous state of Galmudug. He happened to be outside the hotel at the time, and it is unclear whether he may have been a marked target. One analyst remarked that a lot of people having nothing to do with Al-Shabaab would probably like to take Gelle out.
If the group of USAID-related officials and Gelle were intended targets, it seems Al-Shabaab suffered a significant lapse in intelligence. A lapse that luckily saved lives.
Security analysts I’ve spoken with term the dusitD2 operation amateurish, and the militants themselves inept.
If the attack was, from Al-Shabaab’s point of view, a dud it was a success for Kenya’s security forces in terms of rapid response.
Learning from their disastrous and embarrassing behavior at the Westgate attack GSU, the Israeli-trained Recce squad, KDF, and Special Forces have been conducting “synergized operations”—simulated responses—in a training area at Embakasi, near Kenyatta International Airport. The training objective, to learn from and close the gaps in response, appears to have been achieved.
Returning to Nairobi at the end of January, I headed straight to the Dusit. I was surprised by how easily I was allowed in, past battalions of GSU police. Devoid of activity, the buildings comprising the complex, so many offices in them that I’d not noticed on prior visits, were like canyons.
One final bit of weirdness; the headquarters of Frontier Services Group, a security company led by Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater Worldwide, is located on Riverside Dr.