Gunmen belonging to the Somali extremist group Al Shabab killed at least 48 people in a seven-hour rampage through a Kenyan coastal town late Sunday night, leaving many Kenyans wondering whether their government is capable of protecting them from terrorists.
The attack on Mpeketoni, a small market town near the popular resort island of Lamu, is Kenya's deadliest incident since Al Shabab killed at least 67 people in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall last September, and echoed the uncompromising tactics used by the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram.
Al Shabab and its sympathizers have carried out continuous small bombings and shootings in Nairobi, on the coast, and near the Somali border since Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia to fight the extremists in 2011.
The scale of Sunday’s attack shows that the group is still capable of carrying out headline-grabbing massacres, a blow to the credibility of Kenyan security forces that have dismissed foreign nations' warnings of terror threats on the coast. The US on Monday barred its staff from visiting any part of the coast, and the Mpeketoni incident is likely to deal yet another blow to the economy as tourists stay away.
Attack on Mpeketoni
The Mpeketoni assault began around 8 p.m., when up to 50 masked men armed with machine guns, explosives, and knives burst down the town’s main road in commandeered minibuses, yelling “Alahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is Great,” and waving a black jihadi flag, witnesses said.
They attacked hotels, a police station, and a restaurant where patrons watched a World Cup soccer match, burning buildings and cars along the way. They pulled men from women for execution and targeted non-Muslims, a tactic used at Westgate. Police reinforcements did not arrive for hours.
“It was terror in the town,” said Mohamed Ali, a teacher who fled to the nearby forest when the attack began, speaking to the Monitor by phone. “For about six hours we were hiding behind bushes. When we went back we found so many people were killed. In one guest house, 10 people were killed. Three in their beds, others dragged outside.”
The Mpeketoni attack comes despite tougher police tactics since Westgate. They've shot suspects in the streets and rounded up thousands of people, mainly ethnic Somalis, in a controversial crackdown. Numerous extremist sheikhs have died in unsolved murders as well, with their supporters blaming Kenyan agents.
“[This attack] shows the adaptability of these groups to security in Kenya,” says Emmanuel Kisiangani, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. "There needs to be serious soul-searching within the security agencies about what they are doing to stop the violence."
Al Shabab said in a statement that the Mpeketoni attack was in revenge for Kenya’s military presence in Somalia, as well as the “Kenyan government’s brutal oppression of Muslims in Kenya,” AFP reported, likely referring to the recent crackdown and killing of sheikhs. “Do not ever dream of living peacefully in your lands while your forces kill the innocent in our lands," the group said.
Unrest has been rising in Kenya since April. Bombings have killed more than 20 people in Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya's leading moderate Muslim cleric was murdered last week, and an ambush late last month killed two soldiers in Lamu County, which is home to Mpeketoni.
The chaos is hurting the economy, with the shilling recently hitting a two-year low. Tourism, which makes up 12 percent of Kenya's GDP, is especially impacted, with one industry leader saying the sector lost $10 million in May. Western governments have issued travel warnings, and Britain closed its Mombasa embassy last week due to terror threats. Kenya responded angrily, insisting the coast is safe for foreigners and Kenyans.
The head of one hotel booking agency in Lamu, the island famous for its beaches and ancient Swahili architecture, says that he already has had two cancellations since Sunday’s attack. “We haven’t had enough tourists for a long time,” he said. “Now it’s like we’ve been taken even more steps backward.”
Opposition politicians say Mpeketoni is proof of the government’s incompetence, and are calling for Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia.
The head of internal security, Joseph Ole Lenku, told reporters a “red line” had been crossed on Sunday night and accused the opposition of inciting unrest. But the tough talk sounds increasingly flat to many Kenyans.
“Why do they always come after the incident?” asked one woman in the Lamu hospital, whose brother was recovering from the attack, but asked not to be named. “So many people are dying.”