Date of Incident: 15 January 2019
Location: Nairobi, Kenya
Type: Assault/Suicide Bombing
- Attackers assaulted the office and hotel complex at 14 Riverside in Nairobi on 15 January.
- Five militants are believed to have been involved in the attack; total death toll currently stands at 21.
- Al-Shabaab claimed the attack, saying it was a response to the US moving their Israeli embassy to Jerusalem; it was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the El Adde attack of 2016.
- Attack highlights al-Shabaab’s ability to project attacks into neighbouring states. Kenya remains vulnerable, despite efforts and improvements in counter-terror strategy.
On the afternoon of 15 January militants assaulted the 14 Riverside Drive complex, including a restaurant and the DusitD2 hotel, located in the Westlands area of Nairobi. Reports were initially noted of an explosion and gunshots in the vicinity shortly after 15:00 local time; early indications via social media monitoring were observed shortly afterwards. According to subsequent reports in Kenyan media, the attackers approached the location at 14:52 local time (11:52 UTC) before entering through the barrier at the complex’s car park.
Current information suggests that five attackers threw explosives at several vehicles parked outside the complex before entering the Secret Garden restaurant, with images released since the attack showing several of the assailants approaching the building with assault rifles. Police believe one attacker detonated a suicide device in or near to the restaurant at the outset of the attack, before the remaining militants moved onto the adjoining hotel and office complex. Eyewitnesses have reported that the attackers fired at guards in the car park before opening fire on lifts in the lobby area; they then appear to have proceeded to climb the stairs within the building while firing through office doors, although survivors’ reports suggest that they did not enter every office in the building during the assault. Reports claim at least one person was killed on the roof of the building while trying to escape; several sources also indicate that militants were firing on people as they evacuated.
The attack was claimed by the Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab while the incident was ongoing. Kenyan police and security forces continued to move through the complex into the night, evacuating rooms as they went. Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i stated that the complex had been secured by 20:00 local time (17:00 UTC) but gunshots and explosions were heard an hour later, and security forces continued their operation through the night. In an address on the morning of 16 January President Uhuru Kenyatta said all five militants were dead and claimed that government forces had successfully evacuated over 700 people during the 19-hour siege. On 17 January the Kenyan Red Cross said all missing people were now accounted for. Kenyan police have currently arrested nine people in relation to the attack.
Al-Shabaab have targeted Kenya since the country’s military intervened in Somalia in 2011. The most notable assaults claimed by al-Shabaab were the Westgate attack in Nairobi in 2013 in which 67 were killed, and an attack on Garissa University College in 2015, with a death toll of 148. There are some notable comparisons between the attack on 14 Riverside and the Westgate Mall assault, with both including a small team of heavily armed assailants taking control of buildings in Nairobi.
Unlike Westgate however, the security forces appear to have conducted a relatively effective response operation. The 2013 assault saw security teams shooting at each other, and soldiers looting the mall while the siege continued for days. In contrast, the quick and relatively effective response on this occasion underscores the improvements in Kenyan crisis management in the last five years and improving integration between teams operating with different agencies. The premature announcement of a successful conclusion of the operation is somewhat embarrassing for the interior ministry, but ultimately the overall operation has been largely praised.
The attack does serve as another reminder of the enduring ability of al-Shabaab to conduct activities beyond their borders, despite continuing deterioration of their operational capabilities in Somalia due to continuing airstrikes and AMISOM activity. The group have largely been reduced in recent years to conducting operations in border regions of Kenya, with Lamu county particularly proving vulnerable as militants base themselves out of the Boni forest. This latest attack, along with the kidnap of Italian charity worker Silvia Romano from Malindi in Kilifi county in November 2018, demonstrate that al-Shabaab retain the ability to operate deep in Kenya. Despite security forces’ sustained efforts, we do not believe that this is likely to change in the short term; Kenyan police and intelligence agencies have had significant success disrupting terror networks but the porous nature of the border and the pull of extremism among disenfranchised sections of Kenyan society make preventing every potential attack highly challenging. We do expect questions to be asked about counter-terror strategy in the country and the ongoing presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia in the aftermath of this assault and expect that lessons will emerge as more information on the attackers and planners becomes available.
Al-Shabaab have released a statement claiming that the attack was intended to coincide with the three-year anniversary of the El Adde attack on Kenyan forces in Somalia, when al-Shabaab assaulted the AMISOM base and routed its Kenyan garrison killing around 150 Kenyan soldiers of the 9 Battalion Kenyan Rifles and parading several corpses through the streets. That the attack took place on the anniversary of this attack serves as a reminder of the symbolism of these dates in the consciousness of both Kenyans and al-Shabaab; terrorists can be expected to continue to exploit meaningful dates to increase the resonance of their assaults. Al-Shabaab also claimed that the attack was in response to the moving of the US embassy; while this political decision certainly antagonises Islamist groups it seems mostly opportunistic to claim this attack is directly related to that move.
There have been reports that the men who assaulted the complex had been seen conducting reconnaissance activities in the days and weeks leading up to the attack; although we haven’t seen verification of this, the reports seem likely. As a location accessible to the public, restaurants, offices and hotels are challenging to completely secure. We note that several major Western companies have offices in 14 Riverside; areas frequented by foreigners are sure to remain targets for future operations.