A facelift for the Lunatic Line

It goes by several names:  The Iron Snake, the Lunatic Line, the Jambo Kenya Deluxe. Winston Churchill shot zebras sitting next to its great engines and man-eating lions stalked its trains' carriages, devouring men at night. Over the years, hundreds have perished in its iron body from faulty brakes, exploding gas tanks, and powerful floods that washed away bridges.

The mysteries and horror stories attached to the African railway are legendary. But, the system -- stretching through Kenya and Uganda -- is about to get a 21st century facelift thanks to a nearly $40 million loan from the African Development Bank.

A new transportation plan is in the works for East Africa. Kenya Railways will build 12 commuter train stations to connect the Nairobi metropolitan area. The rail between the coastal city of Mombasa in Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda is to be re-vamped by 2017. There is also talk of railway lines connecting Lamu, Kenya to Juba, South Sudan, as well as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The last rail stations in Kenya were built in 1935. The BBC's Ruth Evans reports:

"Inside Nairobi station, it is like stepping into a time warp. The arrivals and departures board looks as though it hasn't been updated since I first did the journey 28 years ago...As we pull slowly out of the station shortly after 7pm, the sun is setting behind the shacks that have sprung up all along the track...The ticket collector tells me to close the windows and lock the doors before going to sleep. But the window doesn't shut properly, the fan doesn't work, and the lights keep going on and off...The road to the coast runs parallel with the railway for much of the route, and heavily laden trucks churn up the pot-holed tarmac, taking goods to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Congo and beyond."

The trains, which can run at a sloth-like pace of 18 mph are to be replaced with high speed trains. A once 15 hour ride from Nairobi to Mombasa will only take two or three hours. The new rail system won't just benefit commuters and tourists. It will also create a trade network for goods like coffee, cotton and gold. Kenya Railways is currently managed by Rift Valley Railways -- a mix of Kenyan, Ugandan, Brazilian and Egyptian companies. But the railway is plagued by great debt and a region battling high levels of corruption, not to mention the worst famine in decades. East Africa's perhaps grandiose rail endeavor will either be a boom or a bust.



Why would Norway be a target?

To be clear -- no one has yet claimed responsibility for today's blasts in central Oslo. But Norway has not been immune from terror threats in the past. Al Qaeda's new chief, Ayman al Zawahri, has called for attacks on the country. After an audio message from Zawahri in 2003 singled it out, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said the government was "surprised" to be a target. Zawahri threatened Norway again in 2007, for participating "in the war against the Muslims."

Last year, Norway arrested two immigrants from China and Uzbekistan with alleged ties to al Qaeda. (A third man believed to be connected to the group was arrested in Germany). Norwegian authorities believed they were plotting an attack in Norway, though that was never confirmed. At the time, the minister of justice said the arrests indicated that the country needed to pay closer attention to possible links between immigrants and terror groups overseas. 

But, why Norway?

The country supported the invasion of Afghanistan (though its troop presence is very low -- only about 400 soldiers); and there is still lingering anger over the Danish Mohammed cartoon controversy from 2006. A Norwegian newspaper reprinted some of them, forcing the government to apologize. Norway's embassy in Syria was attacked by protesters. Some analysts say Scandinavian countries are often lumped together by extremist groups -- meaning Denmark and Norway are seen as intertwined. In fact, one of the immigrants arrested last year in Norway, reportedly told police his target was originally the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons.

Another potential explanation has to do with the complicated case of Mullah Krekar, an Iraqi Kurd who worked with Islamist groups there before moving to Norway in 1991 and claiming refugee status. He's praised bin Laden and has called for attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq. In 2005, he was ordered deported after being declared a national security threat, but his deportation was suspended. Earlier this month, prosecutors in Norway charged Krekar with threatening government officials. Krekar has denied having any links to al Qaeda and it seems unlikely the group would seek vengeance for his arrest.

In the end, Norway may simply have been attacked because -- despite being a low priority for terror groups -- it proved to be an easier target than higher profile locations. And in the wake of bin Laden's killing, al Qaeda has been looking to launch an attack against the West.

"It may be pointless to search for a single grievance," said Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on terror groups with the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, last year after the arrests were made. "Most likely, a combination of factors placed Norway on the jihadists' radar. In al-Qaeda's binary worldview, Norway is part of the ‘Jewish-Crusader alliance.' Not a platinum member, perhaps, but a member nonetheless.... Frustrated by the difficulty of striking key adversaries like Britain and the United States, al-Qaeda seems to be moving down the food chain."

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