On Jan. 15, 2019, gunmen associated with the Somalia-based al-Shabaab terrorist organization attacked the DusitD2 Hotel complex in downtown Nairobi. The hotel is part of a complex of six buildings containing shops and offices that host a number of international companies and visitors.
The assault began at approximately 3 p.m. local time, when attackers set fire to three vehicles in a parking lot outside the hotel complex. The attackers then moved from the parking lot to a courtyard where a suicide bomber self-detonated outside of a restaurant, injuring an unknown number of civilians.
The attackers, armed with AK-47s and wearing load-bearing vests containing grenades and ammunition, moved from the lobby into the hotel and ascended toward the top floor of the hotel, intent on killing as many innocent bystanders as they could. By 11 p.m., Kenyan security forces had contained the attackers to the top floors of the hotel and rescued scores of civilians. At the same time, an unknown number of individuals were still trapped on the top floors of the hotel.
Among the Kenyan law enforcement units that participated in the counterassault on the terrorists were three police tactical teams that had been professionally equipped and trained by the Department of State’s Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) program. ATA receives funding and policy guidance from the Bureau of Counterterrorism and is administered by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and its Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).
Two of the Kenyan General Service Unit’s RECCE Company’s (GSU/RECCE’s) tactical counterterrorism teams that responded to the hotel had been trained and equipped by ATA. The RECCE units served as the lead forces in the counterassault and were credited with saving many lives. In all, RECCE officers safely escorted more than 700 individuals – including more than 70 U.S. citizens – out of the complex during the attack. ATA has provided tactical training to the Kenyan National Police’s General Service Unit since 2014.
The U.S. Embassy’s Special Program for Embassy Augmentation Response (SPEAR) team also responded to the hotel, coordinated with the tactical units, and began assisting in the clearing operations.
Under a Diplomatic Security Service-funded and -managed program, a SPEAR team consists of specially selected host-nation police officers who are trained and equipped by the ATA program to respond within minutes to crises involving U.S. diplomatic facilities or personnel. Although assigned to provide security support to the U.S. embassy, the SPEAR team members remain law enforcement officers and are able to respond to other emergencies as they arise, as was the case in the attack on Nairobi’s DusitD2 Hotel complex.
Members of the Embassy Nairobi SPEAR team engaged and killed at least two of the five terrorists (the fifth having been the suicide bomber who self-detonated). Two SPEAR team members were seriously injured during one of the firefights when the terrorists hurled hand grenades at them. A third SPEAR team member used his ATA-provided tactical medical training and equipment to render first aid to his wounded colleagues until they could be evacuated from the attack site.
In addition, the ATA-equipped Kenyan Bomb Disposal Unit responded to the hotel and conducted a controlled detonation of an explosive device outside of the building. ATA has provided the Kenyan police bomb disposal officers with training since 2013.
The following morning, some 18 hours after the attack began, Kenyan government spokesmen announced that the hotel was secured and all the attackers had been killed
At least 21 people, including one U.S. citizen, were killed in the assault.
The loss of life could have been much greater had it not been for the Kenyan police units’ ATA training and refresher live exercises planned, prepared, and conducted over the previous year by the Embassy’s Regional Security Office. Those exercises, the latest having been completed just one month before the attack, brought together the embassy SPEAR team and Kenyan counterterrorism tactical forces in real-time attack scenarios, not unlike that experienced at the DusitD2 Hotel.
Following the attack, Kenyan police conducted a raid on a house near Nairobi, detaining two men and one woman believed to be linked to the DusitD2 attack. The investigation continues.