Terror in Nairobi: Behind al-Shabab’s War With Kenya

  • Share
  • Read Later
Siegfried Modola / Reuters

A police officer secures an area as civilians flee inside the Westgate mall in Nairobi on Sept. 21, 2013

A swanky, high-end mall in Nairobi is the site of a deadly standoff between Kenyan forces and fighters linked to the al-Qaeda-backed Somali terror group al-Shabab. On Saturday, gunmen burst into the mall, tossing grenades “like maize to chickens” and indiscriminately targeting shoppers enjoying their weekend. At least 68 people are reported dead, including an unspecified number of foreign nationals, and more than 175 injured.

According to reports, the gunmen shouted in Swahili that Muslims would be allowed to leave; all others appeared subject to their slaughter. By Sunday night, Kenya’s military said it had rescued “most” of the remaining hostages from inside the ritzy Westgate and secured most of the mall, according to the Associated Press, after the government’s crisis center tweeted earlier in the day that “major operations” were “underway” to end the two-day standoff.

“This will end tonight. Our forces will prevail. Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win,” Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre said on Twitter.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who claimed to have lost “very close family members” in the attack, spoke defiantly, saying: “We have overcome terrorist attacks before. We will defeat them again.” The BBC confirmed al-Shabab’s role in the strike late Saturday night. Before its Twitter account was suspended, al-Shabab had assumed responsibility for the attack, justifying the massacre as a response to the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia. A timeline of its tweets during the attack can be read here, including a chilling remark: “There will be no negotiations whatsoever at #Westgate.” Here’s what you need to know about al-Shabab and its war with Kenya:

What Is al-Shabab?
The group, whose name means the Youth in Arabic, was once the militant youth wing of a coalition of Islamist forces that held sway in parts of Somalia more than half a decade ago. The country has had no real functional central government for over two decades, and the Islamists, for a time, provided a veneer of security and stability despite the harshness of the Shari‘a they sought to impose. That control slipped following a series of offensives spearheaded by the African Union, beginning with an Ethiopian-led invasion in 2006. In early 2012, a video emerged of a top leader of al-Shabab pledging obedience to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s head. Over the past half-decade, foreign fighters, including some Americans, have streamed in to join al-Shabab’s ranks, which are believed to number in the thousands. But, shorn of an urban base, the group has been forced to resort to guerrilla tactics. It has also been beset by internal divisions and internecine fighting.

What Is Kenya’s Role in All of This?
Al-Shabab fighters had launched a number of minor forays across Somalia’s porous southern border with Kenya, kidnapping tourists and aid workers. By 2011, after al-Shabab impeded humanitarian aid into southern Somalia during a ghastly drought, the Kenyan government had had enough. It launched a sustained military campaign across the border, eventually dislodging al-Shabab from its stronghold in the Somali port city of Kismayo in 2012, a defeat from which the group has yet to recover. The continued Kenyan military presence in Somalia rankles the militants, who have opportunistically tried to champion the cause of Muslims elsewhere in East Africa as well as ethnic Somalis living in Kenya. Such a deadly strike abroad is not without precedent for this terrorist group: in 2010, bombs planted by al-Shabab killed dozens watching the soccer World Cup in the Ugandan capital Kampala — supposed punishment for Uganda’s contribution to the African Union peacekeeping forces stationed in Somalia.

Why Target a Mall?
The strike on the Westgate mall, a soft target teeming with civilians, carries echoes of the 2008 attack by Pakistani-based militants on some of the ritziest hotels in Mumbai, India’s coastal metropolis. In both cases, gunmen invaded places frequented by the well-heeled and well-traveled and carried out indiscriminate slaughter. The goal is to shock, to draw attention to a militant group’s boldness and capability, and to hit panic buttons in the government of the country under attack. From being a faction in disarray and retreat, al-Shabab has rewritten the narrative with the blood of innocents. It’s back.

How Dangerous Is the Threat?
Once Kenyan forces defeat the remaining militants in the mall, scrutiny will fall first on the security lapses that surrounded this horrific attack. Expect also greater global hand-wringing about terrorist threats in East Africa and beyond. Al-Shabab’s continued activity is seen alongside that of other jihadist outfits in Africa — including Nigeria’s Boko Haram and al-Qaeda’s North African wing. In 2012, U.S. military officials warned that these organizations were deepening their ties with each other and possibly coordinating their actions. Aggressive military campaigns in recent years against all these terrorist groups — the Nigerian army on Boko Haram; the French on al-Qaeda-backed militants in Mali; the African Union on al-Shabab — have been unable to fully root any of them out. And, as the strike on the Westgate mall shows, extremist violence knows no borders.