NAIROBI, Kenya – The twin attacks on an Israeli-owned beach resort and an Israeli charter jetliner have left Kenyans shocked and wondering why their country should be the target of two deadly terrorist attacks in four years.
The attack Thursday on the Paradise Hotel, which killed at least 15 people including the three homicide bombers, and the firing of two missiles at the airliner rekindled memories of the Aug. 7, 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in which 219 people died.
"The first question that came to mind was why Kenya? The second one was how is it going to affect the country especially since we've just recovered from the last bomb blast," said Neel Kamal Plahe, a computer programmer in Nairobi.
Unlike Israel and the United States — themselves targets of terrorism — Kenya seems an unlikely target. The East African country plays no important role in Middle East politics. There is no history of religiously motivated violence in its diverse population.
It is a relatively stable country in a region of instability with a population of 28 million, between 10 and 20 percent of whom are Muslim. Most of Kenya's Muslims live along the coast where the Thursday attacks occurred.
However, Ted Dagne, a specialist in African affairs at the U.S. Congressional Research Service, said it had been long feared that Africa would become a battleground in the war against terrorism.
"Security services are not as well-trained to track and contain this kind of threat," he said. "There are also large Muslim populations. It's easy to mingle, and Westerners are more vulnerable in Africa than Europe. They stand out and the security protection is not as good."
The 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing, and a simultaneous blast at the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Tanzania in which 12 died, proved that Kenya was not immune to terrorism.
Both attacks were blamed on Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and Kenyan and Israeli officials suspect Al Qaeda in this latest attack, despite a claim of responsibility by the previously unknown Army of Palestine in a fax to news organizations in Beirut.
As elsewhere in Africa, Kenya's police lack resources, and the security, judicial, immigration and customs services are notoriously corrupt.
With porous borders and the busiest international airport in the region, large numbers of foreigners move freely in and out of the country. Kenya's neighbors are among some of Africa's most unstable countries — Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. All are awash in weapons.
"I think we are a fairly cosmopolitan country with a large number of Israeli interests, like hotels, which renders us vulnerable to terrorist attacks," said Mukhisa Kituyi, an opposition politician and former member of a parliamentary foreign affairs committee. "We've got a very porous border which we don't have a substantive capacity to control."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States identified this region as a possible terrorist haven and set up a joint command task force for the area in Djibouti, where some 800 U.S. troops, including special forces, are stationed.
Kenya is considered a key regional ally in the war against terrorism, and U.S. Marines are to begin an annual exercise on the Kenyan island of Manda, about 150 miles north of Mombasa, next week.
That too makes the country a target, according to some Kenyans.
Khelef Khalifa, director of Muslims for Human Rights, said Kenya's association with American and its links to Israel could make it a tempting target.
"We remember the repercussions of the 1998 bombing. Muslims' homes were raided by the FBI and Kenyan police without warrants. Basic rights were flouted," he said.