Living and Building for the Threat of Terrorism

Amanda C. Ball, Brown University

Published on: December 24, 2021

Photo credit:

Photographer: Thomas Mukoya.

Sociological literature often frames urban violence as issues with gangs, gun violence, and assault, not necessarily threats of terrorist attacks. And though the former happens more frequently, large scale investment is made in protecting the populations vulnerable to terrorist attacks, like the international elite community associated with the international business and development industries. As one shop owner in Nairobi told me, the tradeoff for having a UN headquarters and several multinational corporations in the city is the threat of violence against the hubs of wealthy foreigners that some feel represents the perpetrators of extractive practices in East Africa. The price for residents? The expansion of a heavy private security presence in elite enclaves, fences and gates, and investment in paved roads and infrastructure like streetlamps in wealthy neighborhoods, and an all-encompassing fear of urban violence, echoing the findings of a long lineage of urban scholarship about the fortification of elite enclaves and increased urban segregation globally (Caldeira 1998; Marcuse and van Kempen 2000; Garrido 2019). Speaking of Nairobi, Glück (2019) argues that the normalization of security checkpoints and similar practices that code “the city as a series of safe zones and zones of danger” effectively hardens boundaries between classes and produces socio-spatial segregation that is also ethnically tinged (47). With the proliferation of security infrastructure and private security, the question remains: when you are talking about security in cities, who are you trying to protect? The threat of terrorist attacks is used to justify a variety of security practices and performances throughout the city, from elaborate security protocols at the airport entrance, to the normalization of checkpoints at building entrances in certain neighborhoods.

As I was searching for a place to stay for my first fieldwork trip to the Nairobi in 2019, a review of an AirBNB in Nairobi’s Kilimani neighborhood caught my eye, it read: “A safe space to stay for solo-travelers, especially women and foreigners. UN Approved for safety.” Kilimani, one of the “UN Approved” neighborhoods in Nairobi, is known for its restaurants, shopping malls like Yaya Centre, and for residents with a mix of nationalities. Performances of “safety” appear everywhere, from the metal detectors at grocery stores, checkpoints for vehicles entering parking garages, high electric gates preventing entry into most buildings, and widespread CCTV. The area is well-lit, with streets lined with pedestrians, cars, buses, and motorcycles until the late hours of the night. Several weeks after I arrived in Nairobi, I sat in a café near the UN headquarters compound in Gigiri interviewing an expat working in the development sector. They asked where I was staying, and I replied that I had decided to stay in Kilimani, mentioning that my friend had recommended a bookstore in Yaya Centre that I needed to check out. They raised their eyebrows, saying “Oh, I used to spend a lot of time at Yaya Centre, but my friends stopped wanting to go there because they’re afraid of terrorist attacks.”

When I asked why they were afraid of terrorist attacks, they went on to explain that they had stopped frequenting areas where other expats go after an explosion at the DusitD2 hotel in January 2019, which was an attack launched by the Islamist al-Shabab movement. The hotel complex is the site of business and diplomatic meetings, frequented by international and local elites in the Westlands neighborhood in Nairobi. Like Kilimani, Westlands is a UN Approved neighborhood, meaning it is “safe” for diplomatic staff to live. The Dusit complex, which has since undergone extensive renovation and reinforced protective security measures including fortified security checkpoints, lies near the Westgate mall which is the site of a 2013 attack by al-Shabab. The Westgate attack, which resulted in the death of 67 people over a three-day standoff, hangs heavy in the memories of Nairobi residents, especially international diplomatic and development workers that live in the area. These more recent attacks, coupled with the simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, have left a lingering cloud of concerns about security and safety hanging over Nairobi.

The legacy of these attacks are not just social—they are spatial. In an analysis of security culture in Nairobi, Glück (2019) highlights how urban life in Nairobi has become “saturated with security talk” (Glück 2019:43). Through ethnographic accounts, Glück documents that upper- and middle-class fears of terrorism[1] post-Westgate attack “have important material effects on the production of space” in Nairobi (47). Is this substantively different than the worldwide rise in gated communities? Sociologically, the answer is maybe, but also maybe not. What matters here, and in cities globally, is that the threat of terrorism determines not only social behaviors but investment in infrastructure and the built environment to a greater extent than is currently acknowledged. In post-colonial cities, this is layered on top of a history of urban planning designed to control local populations and isolate elites (Fanon 1961).

As the world becomes increasingly transnational, cities will continue to see an expansion of foreign residents at both ends of the class spectrum, from refugees to expats. Urban violence and the threat of violent attacks, fueled by xenophobia as well as a reaction to historical imbalances of power, will only become a more prominent part of daily life. Urban terrorism and violence are very destabilizing but become normalized, and almost expected, as the response to the threat of terrorist attacks structures uneven urban development. This leads to hardened boundaries and socio-spatial segregation across classes, races, and ethnicities, exacerbating preexisting social tensions. Cities continue to play a key role in organizing society, offering microcosms of how to deal with social issues. Urban scholars and practitioners, and their conflict studies counterparts, need to take more seriously the spatial implications of the “threat” of violence and terrorism and how it is impacting both our social and planning policies in real time.

[1] Notably, Glück’s interview transcripts with upper- and middle-class Kenyans and expats are remarkably similar to my own interview transcripts from my fieldwork in 2019. Respondents in both cases remark about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of mall security, the feeling of simultaneous safety and vulnerability in cafes that are known to have “expat” clientele, and a desire to stay home.