At 9:50 p.m. on June 25, 1996, a powerful blast collapsed buildings and shattered windows in our compound at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. That terrorist bomb claimed the lives of 18 men under my command and wounded me. Fifteen years later, I was working in the Pentagon when a commercial airliner under control of terrorists slammed into our building a few hundred meters away from me, killing 184 innocent people.
I’ve lived through the pain and sorrow associated with the indiscriminate acts perpetrated by amorphous groups and faceless cowards who believe they can achieve their objectives by using fear, intimidation, and murder of innocent people.
On Thursday, April 2, I watched as television reporters unveiled another terrorist event at Garissa University College. Al-Shabaab gunmen shot their way into a quiet university campus, killing students in dormitories where many were still sleeping. In the end, 147 innocent people were gunned down and 79 were wounded in a cowardly effort to terrorize East Africans over Kenya’s support to the African Union’s fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those who lost family and friends and those who were injured and traumatized by this heinous act of terrorism.
Witnessing the aftermath of the 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall and several other terrorist incidents in Kenya, I’ve drawn several conclusions.
First, these events have revealed many heroes — leaders who stepped up to the challenge, security forces who responded with calm and courage during the attack, and men and women who made us all proud. We have seen the true character of Kenya. Bystanders disregarded their own safety to care for the wounded, and the Kenya Red Cross responded quickly to save lives. Kenyans joined the long lines to donate blood — there was no thought of nationality, ethnic origin, or religion.
Second, Kenya is improving its national security and capabilities to respond to terrorist events. While senior security leaders fumbled the response to the Westgate Mall attack, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his new security team handled the Garissa attack with a bold, decisive, and expeditious action. The coordination among the police, the Kenya military forces, and their leaders was significantly improved. This trend must continue.
Third, Kenya is beginning to deal with the underlying enablers of terrorism in the country. While it still has a long way to go, Kenya has begun to crack down on corruption and loopholes that allow terrorists to circumvent the law and pass through security safeguards. Last week, President Kenyatta asked five cabinet secretaries to step aside until allegations of corruption against them are cleared. Legal actions are pending against many other politicians and senior leaders who have been accused of corruption by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission. While the final outcome of this initiative is yet to be determined, this decisive and strong action against corruption in government is welcomed and will improve security and the economy.
Terrorism can happen anywhere — New York, London, Paris, Madrid, Tunis, Mumbai, Nairobi. Terrorist acts and the media attention they receive often obscure the real story and stimulate overreactions. Kenya is more than the news story about terrorism and the images portrayed in overly cautious travel warnings.
Kenya is a country with a bright economic future; it has so much potential. Its citizens are smart, well educated, and hard working. Kenya has a great location with breath-taking landscapes, gorgeous beaches, and perfect weather. This country is blessed with magnificent mountains; beautiful valleys, rivers, and lakes; valuable natural resources; precious national treasures. It’s a paradise for tourists.
If the media coverage on Kenya is all about terrorism, the terrorists win. That is their objective.
Seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies are in Africa and many believe Kenya is the “new front door” for the continent. Investors who know Africa are bullish on Kenya.
While the tragedy in Garissa is heartbreaking and the scourge of terrorism is a major challenge that we all must unite to defeat, the real story in Kenya is its demonstrated resilience, beauty of this country, and its bright economic future. By focusing on economic delivery though an integrated strategy and plan, the society will be transformed, and terrorists will lose their foothold in the region. We all must make this happen.