letters from nairobi

Terror Threats in the Capital
January 11, 2012, 16:58
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Over the past several days, there has been a heightened state of alert in Nairobi for a threat of possible terror attacks. Initially, I wasn’t going to reference them in this blog, so as not to worry friends and family back home (hi, Dad), but it seems disingenuous to do so. Part of living abroad is experiencing everything that another country and culture has to offer, regardless of the specifics. Life in Nairobi is more than giraffe sightings and Caledonian balls – much more – and it would undermine the intent of this blog to ignore the aspects of life that are less than cheerful.

That being said, please don’t worry. The likelihood of a terror threat that I would be affected by actually occurring is miniscule. But I do think it should be acknowledged.

Mostly what I have been struck by is the chasm between what a “terror threat” signifies in the U.S. and how it is interpreted here. In the U.S., a “possible threat” is manifested by increasing the “terror alert level” color from always-threatened-yellow to really-threatened-orange, or, every so often, Armageddon-is-nigh red; electronic signs on the side of the highway urging individuals to report ambiguously-labeled “suspicious persons” to an unnamed authority; and frantic newscasters walking through subway stations with panicked voices.

In Nairobi, the approach is somewhat different.

The latest “threat” to the city and its surrounding areas is rooted in the escalating conflict between Kenya and Somalia – already, a very different “threat” than that which preoccupies the U.S., since the border is close and porous, and the conflict multifaceted and murky. According to various news organizations, two “most wanted Al-Qaeda terror suspects” have entered the country in recent days, “sparking a state of high alert within security agencies.”

As with most security threats here, the target has been described as “government offices, police stations, U.N. offices and agencies, as well as shopping centers and all areas where crowds gather or move.”

Basically, everywhere.

Particularly insidious is the amount of “threats” that turn out to be hoaxes – or so the police claim. It’s difficult to discern not only what information is reliable, but where it comes from, who it’s intended to reach, what – if anything – alerting the public with such vague details is supposed to accomplish. My post-9/11 cynicism leads me to believe that the procedure is a way of shifting blame away from the government, should an attack occur – a “we warned you” dissolution of responsibility – but the question that keeps coming back to me is: doesn’t that make the Powers That Be more responsible for the consequences of an attack? Ostensibly, they know there are two or more suspects in the country that they believe to be coordinating a large-scale show of violence – already being likened to the game-changing 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing – and yet the projected attitude is one of helplessness.

Whether or not the perceived threats come to fruition, it seems as if much of the damage has already been done merely by the rising tide of panic seeping out from local and foreign news services alike. If the public views an attack as not only imminent, but inevitable, I worry what retaliatory steps will be taken. I remember all too well the “preemptive,” “smoke em out of their holes” days of the Bush era, and fear the consequences of declaring “mission: completed” before the fight has even begun.


1 Comment so far
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Commented on with your usual realism and intelligence. I don’t think you should hide the ball either. Dads are not that timorous. (H-h-h-honest!)

Comment by Richard Rubenstein

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