In Kenya, a history of attacks

Israeli, US, and Kenyan investigators say this incident bears the mark of Al Qaeda.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Riziki Yaa's uncle Charo got her into the dance troupe. The pay was meager and sometimes the tourists would giggle. But Thursday morning she was in the lobby of the Paradise Hotel, welcoming guests while her uncle played his bumbumbu drum.

Noy and Dvir Anter had seen traditional African dancing before - but only on TV. This was the first time the 12- and 14-year-old brothers had ever been outside of Israel.

Just as Charo began to sing and Dvir started to clap, a green Mitsubishi Pajero rammed through the lobby and exploded.

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If the attackers were Al Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist group, this would be the second such bombing in Kenya in four years, painfully underscoring for Kenyans their close relationship with Israel and the United States.

The three suicide bombers, one of them apparently jumping out of the vehicle and into the crowd, died instantly - taking with them the Anter children, five traditional dancers, another Israeli and five Kenyans. More than 40 others were injured in the blasts.

Minutes before the hotel attack, two shoulder-fired missiles - Russian-made Strelas - were fired from a grassy canyon near the airport, narrowly missing a chartered Israeli Boeing 757 on its way back to Tel Aviv.

The Israeli Mossad, the CIA, and the Kenyan intelligence agencies are working together to determine who is behind this bombing. A previously unknown organization in Beirut, the "Army of Palestine," claimed responsibility for the attacks. No one has yet ruled out that this might be a militant Palestinian group or the Hizbullah acting against Israel. The hotel is owned by an Israeli, caters almost exclusively to Israeli tour groups, and several eyewitnesses say the three men in the Pajero "looked Arab."

But, say sources from all three investigative groups, it is more likely that the attack in Kenya was part of the larger operations of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. While there is no hard evidence yet, the attack had certain hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation - the synchronized aspect of the attack, hitting a "soft target," and the relative sophistication of the missile launchings. And Al Qaeda supporters applauded the attack. "There were those who wondered lately why Al Qaeda was ignoring the core Palestinian-Israeli conflict and focusing on the US," says Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammad, a London-based leader of the radical Islamic movement Al Muhajiroun. "This was his first opportunity to respond," he says, adding that an attack against Israelis was "fitting," as the last 10 days of Ramadan "are days of the greatest jihad of all."

Yesterday, Kenyan police reported finding pieces of two gas cylinders (one with four numbers on it) that they suspect were fastened to the vehicle's underside to create a bigger explosion. Kenyan officials arrested 12 foreigners over the weekend - an American woman and her Spanish husband (who were later released with apologies), six Pakistanis, and four Somalis.

"Over the last year we have been on the lookout for an Al Qaeda attack in the Horn of Africa," says a US official, citing the porous borders in the region, the easy availability of arms, and the relatively large and increasingly radical Muslim population here - 10 percent of Kenyans are Muslim. Bin Laden is reported to have supporters and operatives in Kenya, neighboring Somalia, and Sudan, where he spent four years a decade ago.

Kenya, a country affluent enough to have Western investments, tourists, and international media outlets - but corrupt and poor enough to allow almost anyone free entrance and movement - is "an almost obvious" target, says the official.

"I don't care who is to blame," says John Hanel, a former clerk at the now smoldering Paradise Hotel. "Why do we have to pay?" This is the question many Kenyans are asking - and not for the first time. In 1998, Al Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 231 people and injured over 5,000. Twelve of those killed were Americans - the rest were locals. In 1980, a bomb wrecked the ballroom of the Jewish-owned Norfolk hotel in Nairobi, killing 15 and wounding more than 80, again, mostly locals. That attack, like the Mombasa one, was claimed by a previously unknown pro-Palestinian Arab group.

Kenya has long had good relations with both the US and Israel: In June 1976, Kenya provided crucial assistance to the Israeli army as it raided the Entebbe airport in neighboring Uganda to free the passengers of an Air France plane hijacked by Palestinians. The Norfolk hotel blast is believed to have been in retaliation for that assistance. The American military has also operated out of Kenya, most notably during the 1991 Gulf war. For the past year, German and British surveillance planes have been using Mombasa as a base as they search for Al Qaeda fugitives in the seas off Somalia.

Some officials in Washington quickly pointed a finger at a small, radical group in neighboring Somalia - Al Ittihad Al Islamiya - which has been tied to Al Qaeda in the past, and was placed on the US terror-watch list. But Somalia experts say such a conclusion is premature.

"The facts don't add up," says Theodoros Dagne, a specialist on African affairs at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "The last time Al Ittihad carried out terror attacks was in 1996-97 in Ethiopia. They have never targeted Western powers, the US or its allies." He adds that "Somalis don't blow themselves up. This is a Middle East trademark. They shoot, they kill. But never a suicide bombing." Furthermore, he adds, if the Somalis had such missiles in their possession - they would have used them over the years. "I don't think its them," he concludes.

Another piece of evidence that points to Al Qaeda: a warning sent to ex-pats here.

Beverley Herd, an Australian national living some seven miles away from the Paradise Hotel, got a notice from her High Commission two weeks ago, telling her to beware of anything suspicious in Mombasa or Nairobi and to avoid "hotels, clubs, bars, schools, places of worship, outdoor recreation events, and tourist areas."

British, Canadian, and German citizens here all received similar warnings. Ms. Herd's letter sits, crumpled, on her desk. "Where are we supposed to go exactly?" she asks.

Yesterday a troupe of traditional African dancers gamely gyrated at the Bamburi Beach hotel up the coast from the burned-out Paradise. A small group of British tourists gathered around. And a little boy put his hands together to clap.

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