By the time I get to Pangani police station in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, the clean-up is well underway. What's left of the taxi has been towed into a corner, leaving a large dark stain marking the spot where it exploded, right in the middle of the entrance to the car park and just yards from the door of the police station.
“You should have been here a couple of hours ago,” says Wilson, an engineering student and one of dozens of Nairobi residents who are crowding around the police station. Wilson tells me that he was on his way into the center of town when his bus had to stop due to wreckage blocking the road. “It was a real mess,” he says. “There were bits of car everywhere, and bits of people.”
“There was a man's head lying right here,” he says, taking me along the edge of the road and pointing to a hedge growing about 25 yards from the spot where the bomb went off. “The distance shows you how powerful the explosion was,” he says.
Another man joins us. He tells me his name is Amos and he sells heating systems for houses. “I didn't see the head, but I did see bones,” he says. “Bits of meat were lying all across the road like chicken.”
The taxi that exploded was stopped by police officers at 8:00 PM on Wednesday night on a highway about a mile away from the police station. According to the police, the taxi was stopped because it was driving on the wrong side of the road. Two policemen took control of the car and escorted it and its driver and his passenger back to the station for questioning, with another police car following behind. When the taxi got to the police station the bombs inside it were detonated, killing the two police officers and two suspects inside the vehicle.
Two improvised bombs were used in the suicide attack, according to Joseph Mutoa, a spokesperson for the police. “It's not confirmed yet, but looking at the facts it must be the work of al-Shabaab. It's obvious. No one else would do it like this,” he says.
Outside the police station the crowd buzzes with speculation as to who committed the attack and why. Some in the crowd say the attack targeted the police because many radical Muslims blame police officers for the extrajudicial killing of Makaburi, a preacher who promoted al-Shabaab. He was found shot dead on April 2, a couple of days after he publicly defended the Westgate terror attack.
Some point out that al-Shabaab had threatened a terror attack just a couple of days before, posting a video online that said "Westgate is not enough" and boasting that there are "hundreds of men who are waiting to be part of a similar operation." Others argue that it can't be al-Shabaab, as the group normally claims all of its attacks.
Many of those in the crowd are preoccupied by the ongoing heavy-handed crackdown on Somali migrants and say the attack is retaliation for police brutality and deportations. According to the interior ministry, almost 4,000 people were detained between the 2nd and 9th of April as part of the anti-terror Operation Usalama Watch, with hundreds held in the Kasarani football stadium in conditions described by the UN's refugee agency as "overcrowded” and “inadequate."
The police claim the continuing operation is targeting suspects regardless of race, but human rights organizations are critical and say police officers are systematically detaining Somalians, many of whom have no connection to terrorist activities. Over the last month police officers have been accused of conducting raids without proper documentation, looting, beating people up, and extorting bribes.
On April 11 the police station that was bombed in Pangani was highlighted in a Human Rights Watch report as a location where officials were abusing prisoners. The organization said it found “hundreds of detainees packed into cells designed to accommodate 20 people. Detainees had no room to sit, and the cells were filthy with urine and excrement.” Officials from Human Rights Watch witnessed police officers “whipping, beating, and verbally abusing detainees” inside the police station. They also said they found detainees who had been held in the cells for up to eight days without being taken to court—far longer than the country's 24-hour legal limit.
“It was a trap,” says Tony, a taxi driver who lives near the Pangani area. “Why else would the taxi have been driving on the wrong side of the road? The driver wanted to be stopped by the police so he could try to blow up the police station.”
The bombing is the latest in a string of unclaimed attacks in Kenya, and it's the second time in two months that police have accidentally escorted a large bomb to one of their police stations. The first was on March 11, when a Toyota 4x4 was confiscated from a Somali man and parked outside a police anti-terror office in the port city of Mombasa. Over a week later the vehicle was searched by foreign counter terrorism agents who found that six pipe bombs were welded to the vehicle's back seats. According to Kenyan police the bombs were already attached to a mobile phone detonator and contained enough explosives to destroy a multi-story building.
As the crowd mills around waiting for something to happen outside Pangani police station, a black 4x4 rolls up containing the local MP for the Kamukunji area, Hassan Yusuf, who proceeds to give an impromptu press conference.
His theory about the true intentions of the bombers differs to Tony's. During his press conference he says the attack's true target was a live television debate about national security due to take place in the Eastleigh area, that was going to be attended by senior political figures including Kenya's top policeman, Inspector General David Kimaiyo.
“The car was deemed suspicious and was stopped,” he says. He goes on to applaud the police for taking action and says that, although two officers died, their actions prevented a major terror attack that would have claimed many more lives. “This is what we want. We want terrorism to be prevented by the police and this is a good example of what they can do,” he says.
Though the crackdown on Somali migrants is popular with Kenyans who are increasingly encouraged to associate Somalians with terrorism, outside Kenya Operation Usalama Watch is exacerbating concerns about a widening divide between Somali Muslims and Kenyan Christians.
Cedric Barnes, project director for the International Crisis Group's Horn of Africa project, says continuing persecution is likely to ultimately benefit al-Shabaab, and that the government should focus on unifying the two communities. “Blanket actions that look like collective punishment of a particular minority and faith group can only marginalize and radicalize,” he says.
As we poke around the bits of car that have been swept to the corner of the police station parking lot, Wilson and Amos argue about how the threat from terror attacks should be countered. Both agree that security is getting worse in Kenya and expect increasingly frequent attacks in the future, but they can't agree on how the attacks should be prevented.
“The Kenyan military needs to withdraw from Somalia and increase security in Kenya,” says Wilson. He says the attacks only started to pick up pace after the Kenyan army began operations in Somalia back in October of 2011.
“This won't stop if we pull out of Somalia,” Amos counters. “Somalia is our neighbor, and as long as al-Shabaab is allowed to use it as a stronghold we'll always see attacks in Kenya.”