ANALYSIS | Al-Shabaab threats cast chill in Nairobi

Going to a mall, restaurant or bar in Nairobi is a little bit more dangerous this week than it was a couple of weeks ago, thanks to the Somali extremist group Al-Shabaab, writes Carolyn Dunn.
An administration policeman keeps guard outside a shopping mall in the suburbs of capital Nairobi on Oct. 25. (Noor Khamis/Reuters)

It might seem like an odd connection, but the failure of my electric water heater is what really brought home an awareness of the recent pall that's settled over Nairobi, Kenya.

Rather than relief that I had been spared electrocution from the broken heater, my reaction was a brief moment of dread, because I knew in an instant that I was going to have to go shopping to replace it. And going to a mall, restaurant or bar in Nairobi is a little bit more dangerous this week than it was short time ago, because of threats from the Somali extremist group Al-Shabaab.

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Nairobi has never been the safest place in the world.  A quick scan of the Government of Canada’s trip advisories site will tell you that there is high crime rate in this city, and Kenya’s capital has long been nicknamed "Nairobbery" for very good reason.  I have been robbed once and my luggage pilfered of valuables by airport luggage handlers as well.  Foreigners are at an especially high risk for carjackings and kidnappings, both of which are apparently on the rise.

It’s no big secret why this happens. Too many people live far below the poverty line, and far too many of the people who don’t live in poverty are corrupt. Crime is a predictable consequence of a glaringly have-have not society, where some people live in comfort, even luxury, but millions live in slums. Visiting or even living in Kenya is usually a pretty positive, often amazing experience, it's just that crime is a fact of life.

But for a little over a week, the city of Nairobi has been functioning under a serious terrorist threat. Al-Shabaab has promised to bring the flames of war into Kenya and bring down the skyscrapers of Nairobi. That’s a rough translation, but you get the picture. 

Al-Shabaab is very annoyed with Kenya for sending troops into Somalia to attack its compounds and kill its fighters. Kenya calls the military action self defence. It blames Al-Shabaab for the recent kidnappings of four foreigners, and fears Kenya's tourist and business economy will be destroyed if it allows them to go on unchallenged.  

Last year an Al-Shabaab explosion killed more than 75 Ugandans as they watched a World Cup soccer match. The motivation for that attack was the presence of Ugandan soldiers in Somalia. 

There are often security alerts in Nairobi, but they rarely amount to much. I don’t usually give them much more than a passing thought, to be honest. But right from the beginning this threat felt different. 

While there’s a defiance and bravado displayed by most Kenyan nationals when it comes to Al-Shabaab, many are also expressing some fear. We’ve all swapped stories about the places we’ll try to avoid. 

Other journalists here say they’ve had the same gut instinct that these threats seem a bit more serious than previous ones. Aid and NGO workers tell me they’re being a little more careful these days, at work and home. 

I have worked in some very dangerous places in my reporting career, certainly under much more difficult conditions than this.  But there’s something very different about experiencing a threat where you’re working as opposed to where you’re living.  There’s an end date to any work assignment, but facing risks as part of your day-to-day life is different — you can’t stop running errands or grocery shopping for any length of time. You can’t avoid the higher risk areas forever if you live here.  There’s an envelope at the Department of Immigration that I haven’t picked up, for example, and it’s in one of those skyscrapers that Al-Shabaab has vowed to bring down. I will have to pick it up eventually.

On Monday morning, I woke to news of an overnight grenade attack at a local bar. It was a low tech, even low brow kind of attack that injured more than a dozen but wasn’t exactly bringing the flames of war to Kenya. No sooner had I finished filing my stories on that attack than the news came of a second grenade attack at a downtown bus stop. One man was killed and at least eight people injured in that blast. They were just people going home after work or grocery shopping. 

The two attacks in one day made it perfectly clear just how easy it is to hurt people if you really want to.  Was this truly Al-Shabaab launching small warning attacks?  Is it the work of an Al-Shabaab sympathizer? Perhaps it’s just some insane person throwing grenades at crowds, knowing Shabaab will be blamed.  The police have made one arrest — the man pleaded guilty to nine charges and declared his affiliation to Shabaab in court Wednesday.

A guard runs a body security check on people entering a building in Nairobi on Oct. 25. Thomas Mukoya / Reuters
There have been moments in the past week when I’ve felt a little silly about whatever small apprehensions I’ve had. You know, the whole "feeling fear is letting the terrorists win" nonsense. But those are also the conversations that people in Nairobi are having. Some people stubbornly refuse to let the threats change their routines one tiny bit. Others, like me, are avoiding high-risk places whenever possible.  More than one of my friends have filled their pantries extra-full to avoid unnecessary trips.  People think twice about going to parties and restaurants and bars. 

Like it or not, that is the power that terrorist threats have on us. The odds of falling victim to a grenade or a bomb are actually very slim. Yet, we change our inner dialogue and those warnings are always in the back of our minds. We change the kinds of conversations we have with friends, and some of us change our routines to mitigate the risk.  

We also discover what we won’t change. I did go to that mall today, one among many other shoppers. My car was searched as I drove in, my purse searched on arrival. New, large signs declare that photography is no longer permitted, others warn  that I could be searched on demand. 

But I walked into that hardware store and bought my new, overpriced instant water-heating shower head. Because even in a small way, taking cold showers every day would be like letting the terrorists win.

Carolyn Dunn is a CBC reporter living in Nairobi, Kenya.