NAIROBI, August 7 – In the past week we have seen heightened security operations aimed at capturing the mastermind of the 1998 US Embassy bombing Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. But, how far have we gone in intercepting plots by his ilk? How safe is this country from further terror attacks? How prepared are we for such disasters?
Authorities say they have intensified the hunt for Fazul who escaped a police dragnet barely five days before Kenya marked the 10th anniversary of the bombing that left at least 240 people dead and another 5,000 injured.
But the question that begs is not how much is being done to arrest Fazul (he has remained at large for 10 years), but how prepared the country is to ward off terror attacks or manage a crisis should an attack take place.
Past and present governments have promised to address these questions that only crop up following disasters in the country. Security appears to be an afterthought.
How for instance was Fazul – who has a Sh325 million bounty on his head by the US government – able to acquire a second Kenyan passport in February this year? He already holds another passport issued in 1999. The two passports bear different names but the photo of the man is identical. Do authorities at the Immigration Department really scrutinise documents that people lodge when applying for passports? Or was the passport acquired corruptly?
US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger says past terror attacks have awakened our consciousness and renewed efforts to make the region safe. His sentiments have been echoed by both the Government spokesman Dr Alfred Mutua and Israeli Ambassador Jacob Keidar- whose countrymen have been targets of terrorism. Kenyans have however borne the brunt of the attacks.
President Mwai Kibaki has previously promised to establish a disaster response unit. That was when a building came tumbling down in downtown Nairobi two years ago.
He pledged to ensure that Kenya would not keep relying on foreign help from countries such as Israel during such calamities.
Dr Mutua says the government has invested in specialised equipment to deal with any disaster. These include sniffer dogs. He also says that special teams in the Ministry for Special Programmes, the police, military and the fire brigade have been trained to deal with such incidents.
But that is not enough. We must train many more people – especially civilians – on life saving and first aid techniques.
That aside, Kenya still remains potentially susceptible to attacks from terrorists as those responsible for previous hits remain at large and continue to operate in the region and can penetrate Kenya’s porous borders at any time.
That point was emphatically made top al-Qaeda suspect Fazul Mohammed alias Abdul Karim slipped through a police trap in Malindi on Saturday. He was reported to have sneaked into the country from neighbouring Somalia to seek treatment for a kidney ailment. It’s still puzzling how a patient probably on a dialysis machine can escape capture in a country that still bleeds from his actions.
Even though several people have been arrested and some charged in court, the infamous chief architect remains at large despite concerted effort from Kenyan security officials and their counterparts in the US, Israel and the United Kingdom.
What needs to be done?
What the government requires is to work with communities where these terrorists have made safe havens especially in the North Eastern and Coast Provinces so as to disrupt their plans and ward off the threat of attacks.
Officers must work in these communities and convert them from being accomplices or sympathisers of the extremists. The government must continuously educate its citizens to change their attitude towards the perception that the West and Islam are at loggerheads.
The extremists must be isolated from ordinary peace-loving citizens. The terrorists marry our daughters but we should not accommodate them. We must not treat them when they seek medical attention in our hospitals and we have an obligation to deny them food and shelter. They must be treated as outcasts.
And more importantly the government as a matter of priority must foster democracy and good governance by facilitating a free, fair, and just Kenya. Muslims or people who ascribe to any other faith must not be harassed, stereotyped or seen to be targeted collectively because of their religion.
Corruption – in departments such as Immigration – must be eliminated once and for all. Kenyan passports must be given the sanctity it deserves. The watchdog capacity of civil society, Parliament, and the media must be strengthened and above all the Judiciary must be given the autonomy it requires.
We must also strengthen our borders and seek peace in the region especially in Somalia and the Sudan where terrorists’ cells thrive. We already know too well the high price we pay for our neighbours’ instability.
And finally, we must not allow another terrorist attack on our soil, because we know the pain.