Kenya January 2019


Kenya Monthly Briefing January 2019



Kenya 20 January 2019

An armed attack on a high-end business and hotel complex in Nairobi kills 21 people. Kenyan counter-terrorism units respond efficiently, killing all five attackers. Somalia’s Islamist extremist group, al Shabaab, claims responsibility for the attack. The United Kingdom, United States and Canada all post warnings against travel to some Kenyan destinations.


Al-Shabaab hits Nairobi domestic and international targets again

An armed attack at a high-end office and hotel complex in Nairobi on 25 January is the first attack on a commercial target in Kenya in six years. It shows first that al-Shabaab retains the ability to inflict a terrorist attack in an East African capital, but also that Kenyan forces are now able to respond to such an attack efficiently and effectively.

Five heavily armed men entered the 14 Riverside Drive complex mid-afternoon, killing 21 civilians.1 Among those killed were one United States (US) and one United Kingdom (UK) national. The attack began with a car bomb. A suicide bomber then detonated inside the complex’s hotel lobby. Kenya’s counter-terrorist units (CTUs) responded quickly and efficiently and brought the attack to an end in just over 12 hours. Somalia-based Islamist extremist group al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was in response to the recent “witless” remarks of US President Donald Trump (2017-present).

Kenyan security professionals praised the rapid response of Kenya’s counter-terrorism unit. Security sources assess that this attack was designed to be a prolonged “shock and awe attack” to inflict maximum civilian damage to Kenyan and international visitors to draw full and continued international media attention. There are unconfirmed reports that the hotel complex was due to host a gathering of some 180 US nationals. The attackers’ objective was to go to the top floors and clear it of people floor by floor. In this, the attack was similar to the Islamist extremist attacks in January 2016 on the Radisson Hotel in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) in West Africa. In both of these instances, armed men broke into a hotel used by mainly European and US businesspeople and international non-government organisations (NGOs). The 14 Riverside Drive complex hosts a number of international businesses and NGOs including the UK-based neoliberal think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute, global risk and strategic consulting firm Control Risks, and multinational consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser; US-based consumer products company Colgate Palmolive and multinational chemical corporation Dow Chemical; France-based alcoholic beverage company Pernod Ricard; Netherlands-based oil and gas company Shell; Germany-based multinational software corporation SAP; and Thailand-based Dusit Thani hotel group’s dusitD2 Hotel.

The effective response of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) units closed down the attack in just over 12 hours, preventing considerably greater loss of life.2 Although 21 people were killed and many wounded, the security response to the DusitD2 attack was notable in contrast to the Kenya security forces’ chaotic response to the al-Shabaab attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall shopping centre in 2013. Then Kenya police responded first, followed by the Kenya Defence Forces. Police and soldiers shot each other and soldiers infamously went on a looting spree in the shopping centre.3 The result was a prolonged attack in which 67 people died.4 This time Kenyan special forces used small charges to blow open locked doors and cleared rooms while armed police escorted people to safety despite the attackers’ sniper fire.

President Uhuru Kenyatta (2013-present) has taken steps in the wake of the Westgate Mall fiasco to improve security response, notably appointing a special security adviser in the presidency:

“It’s not a coincidence that that the response has been more effective: it is the result of a competent person appointed to the presidency to take responsibility for counter-terrorism. While he keeps a low profile, he is very savvy, has years of experience of working in counter terrorism within the [United Nations] UN structures. He was plucked out of the UN and moved into the heart of government with a clear mandate to improve anti-terrorism response.”5

ARC’s Kenya security consultant agrees.

“What went wrong was that it happened in the first place. But lots went right. Inevitably there were three or four hours lost to chaos, but what the incident showed was the strength of the counter terrorism alliance between Kenya, the UK and the US. There has been lots of involvement of UK and US personnel training counter terrorism units.”6

Kenyan security forces working with UK and US counter-terrorism units have improved intelligence gathering. An attempt to attack Nairobi last February was reportedly prevented when police stopped a vehicle carrying explosives, grenades and guns in northern Kenya.7 However, Kenya’s all pervasive corruption means that border security is frequently undermined and Somalia’s borders remain porous.8 A knee-jerk response to allow private security companies to carry weapons raises the risk of more guns in circulation in Nairobi, which will add to already legendary crime problems. Moreover, the attack showed that a level of complacency to security has emerged among businesses operating in Nairobi:

“This is a large high-end development compound comprising three different areas – each with their own security. Much of it is open to the roadside and therefore vulnerable to attack. Of the many hotels and office buildings, the only ones that I would consider to have ‘hard’ security are the Fairmont, the Kapinski and the Norfolk.”9

Knock to Kenya’s tourism?

Despite the competent response of the security services, the terrorism attack is likely to have an immediate impact on the Kenyan tourism industry and a short-term impact on the broader investment environment, but a contained impact on the 2019 economy. The leisure and business tourism sector is highly sensitive to global media reports of terrorism, political violence and even the outbreak of the Ebola virus in neighbouring countries. Nairobi is the major hub for global, regional and pan-African businesses as well as UN agencies. The US, the UK and Canada have issued revised warnings to their respective nationals against all but essential travel to large swathes of the country including the main tourist centres in the east country, and everywhere within 60km of the Somali border. Kenyan commentators in the newspapers and on social media have condemned the UK travel warnings of “a heightened threat of terrorist attacks in Nairobi and the coast and resort areas of Mombasa and Malindi, and northern border counties" and the US State Department warning that "Terrorist acts could include armed assaults, suicide operations, bomb/grenade attacks, and kidnappings." The US travel advisory also warned its citizens against visiting the Kenyan ethnic Somali neighbourhood of Eastleigh in Nairobi and Mombasa's Old Town.10

The attack comes at a time when tourism to Kenya is at an all-time high. A record number of tourism visits is expected to be posted for 2018, in excess of previous highs of 1.3 million visits to the country.11 Kenyan business sources anticipate that the final figures of tourism’s contribution will beat World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) forecasts for the year. The WTTC reported that tourism’s total contribution to Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP) was KSh769.1 billion ($7.433m) or 9.7% of GDP in 2017, and said this was forecast to rise by 5.5% in 2018.12

The travel and tourism sector is critical, too, in that it employs large numbers of entrant workers, and less skilled and seasonal workers. Its contribution to formal and informal employment in 2017 was 429,500 jobs (3.4% of total employment), while jobs indirectly supported by the industry provided 9.0% of total employment or around 1.3 million jobs.13

Political violence in December 2007 in which 1,500 people were killed in politically motivated violence and the 2013 Westgate attack resulted in an immediate slowdown of international tourist visits. The knock-on effect included a rise in non-performing unsecured loans from Kenya’s low income and seasonal workers. These workers are among the “newly banked” sector of the population that is more vulnerable to short-term but immediate job losses.

“It’s difficult to process and difficult to know what the impact will be on the business: the attack took place 50 metres from my office and 100 metres from where my kids are at school. It’s bound to impact some investment: several people have already evacuated. But then we have potential investors who were staying in the hotel. They called to say that while they have not been able to get a change of clothes, the meetings would go ahead.”14

Kenya’s tourism sector has shown itself to be resilient in the wake of domestic political violence and terrorist incidents. County governments such as that of the coastal tourist county, Lamu County, have worked effectively with Lamu Island’s local hotel owners to promote local and regional tourism and to reduce dependency on international tourism.

ARC Briefing keeps you:

  • Up to date
  • In the know
  • Ahead of events!

Receive subscription information on your countries of interest or call: +44 20 7078 4080


1. [The death toll is disputed: Kenya Red Cross reports that 50 people are unaccounted for.]

2. [Daily Nation, 19 Jan 2019.]

3. [Daily Nation, 19 Jan 2019.]

4. [Daily Nation, 19 Jan 2019.]

5. [CEO of Kenya-based regional business, Nairobi ]

6. [ARC security consultant, Nairobi]

7. [IOL, 15 Mar 2018.]

8. [EIU views]

9. [ARC security consultant, Nairobi/Reuters]

10. [The Independent, US State Department, UK FCO]

11. [Source, businessperson, Nairobi]

12. [WTTC, Travel and Tourism Economic Impact Kenya 2018]

13. [WTTC, Travel and Tourism Economic Impact Kenya 2018]

14. [Source, Nairobi-based businessperson]