Kenya on high alert after Uganda bombings

East Africa trade hub Kenya is on high alert after Somalia's Al Shabab Islamist group killed 76 in neighboring Uganda Sunday night. The Uganda bombings marked Al Shabab's first attack outside Somalia.

Patrols on Kenya's long and largely unmarked border with Somalia have been stepped up and surveillance strengthened nationwide following bomb attacks during the World Cup final Sunday night in neighboring Uganda.

Authorities in East Africa’s business, diplomatic, and tourism hub said they were “horrified, but sadly not surprised” by the Uganda bombings.

Police there said Tuesday that they found a suicide bomber’s vest, packed with explosives and fitted with a detonator, hidden in a laptop bag at a third site close to the Ethiopian restaurant which was one of the Sunday targets. It was not clear why it had not been used. Ugandan police say they also arrested four foreigners, but didn't identify their nationality.

Somalia’s Al Shabab Islamist movement – which controls most of the country’s south and boasts of links to Al Qaeda – claimed it carried out the deadly attacks, which killed 76 people, including an American aid worker.

They were the first attacks that the group has launched outside of Somalia.

“There have been warnings across the region about this kind of thing. We were aware,” says Alfred Mutua, spokesman for Kenya’s government.

“We are still horrified, but sadly we are not surprised. High alert is now our almost constant position, but we had already seen fit to increase threat levels to their highest just last week,” he added, without elaborating.

Border security boosted

Armed policing along the Kenya-Somalia border will be boosted, says Mr. Mutua, adding that intelligence officers in major cities had been ordered to even higher vigilance.

All agree that these efforts are welcome, and that the chance is low of another attack so soon after Kampala. But security sources warn that stopping terror plots is difficult.

Regional borders are unfenced, security services are underfunded, and Kenya, especially, is a magnet for immigrants from all corners of East Africa. All of this makes the identification of potential suspects extremely difficult.

“It’s a real cause for concern across the whole region,” says Charles Stith, who was the US Ambassador to Tanzania when Al Qaeda bombed the American embassies there and in Kenya in 1998.

Kenya's experience with terrorism

Kenya has been a target of radical Islamic violence in the past. The Nairobi US embassy bombings killed 212, all but 23 of them Kenyan.

In 2002, another Al Qaeda suicide attack on an Israeli-owned beach hotel killed 13 people. Later that day, other members of the same cell tried to shoot down a Tel Aviv-bound passenger jet as it left Kenya’s Mombasa airport.

“Now our feeling is that the only reason we have not had more embassy-type bomb blasts is pure luck and due to the grace of God,” says Lydia Adhiambo, an office worker in Nairobi. “If these people can cross many countries from Somalia to reach Uganda, then they can come easily to Kenya, to Nairobi, and we know our police cannot do anything.”

Waiting for taxi customers beside a busy road in an upmarket corner of the capital, Elias Gaitho, agreed.

“I was here Sunday night, there were so many foreigners at this bar watching the football,” he said. “These crazy Somalis, they try to kill foreigners, but it’s Kenyans who die, too.”

In line with other Western diplomatic missions, the US embassy in Nairobi has not changed its security warnings for visitors to Kenya, despite the Ugandan bombings.

The threat of terror attacks was already described as "high."

A series of unrelated incidents – none linked to Islamic radicals – has increased worry, however. More than 300 explosives detonators were found in a town south of Nairobi last week.

In January, an unexploded mortar shell was discovered on a public bus packed with passengers, a week after a similar device was found in another town outside the capital.

Tourism authorities, understandably wary of scaring away visitors, rightly point out that Kenya is one of the safest places to visit in Africa.

“Remember, these kinds of things, what happened in Kampala, are in fact very difficult to pull off,” says a European diplomat in Nairobi who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And of course everyone’s going to be on even higher alert now, if that’s possible.”


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