Kenya Sees in Terrorist Attack the Long Hand of al-Qaeda

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Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Police search a man for weapons as he walked out of Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi on Sept. 21, 2013

With the standoff between a group of terrorists and Kenyan government forces at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall officially over, the Kenyan government and its foreign allies are intensifying their efforts to find out who the attackers were, who helped them — and whether the attack that left at least 61 civilians and six Kenyan soldiers dead will mark the beginning of a new wave of terrorism in Kenya or in Africa more broadly.

All signs point to the involvement of the Somali-based Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab, which took credit for the attack on Twitter as it got under way on Sept. 21. The attackers appear to have been well organized and meticulous. Officials believe the terrorists must have hidden heavy automatic weapons inside in advance.

The rising death toll may no longer astound a world increasingly desensitized to soaring fatality counts from terrorism abroad. But it should. Until the inferno, the gunmen killed their victims one by one, without the aid of a massive blast. Hours after rescue, the empty stares of survivors spoke of the terror they faced inside just as chillingly as the hair-raising stories they told.

For years, nations warned their citizens to be careful shopping at Westgate, an Israeli-owned shopping plaza catering to Nairobi’s prodigious expatriate community and wealthy Kenyans. The multistoried complex did not sit within a high-walled compound like most malls here, outdoor patios emptied into an unguarded street, and security at the entrance was light.

So, when two years ago Kenya sent troops into southern Somalia following a rash of cross-border kidnappings blamed on al-Shabab, the Islamist insurgent group in Somalia that claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack, Nairobi’s residents waited for the inevitable. Kenya’s offensive succeeded in pushing al-Shabab out of its southern Somali stronghold seaside city, Kismayo, but many worried that Kenya was ill-prepared to face the consequences of its long, porous border with its unstable neighbor and its own marginalized ethnic Somali population back home. But the large-scale terrorism never came — until Saturday. What changed?

Kenya has an answer. “This is not just al-Shabab. This is al-Qaeda, the hallmarks of al-Qaeda,” Kenya Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed told al-Jazeera on Monday. Technically, she is correct. Al-Shabab declared itself an affiliate of al-Qaeda last year.

But analysts say there may be more than technical truth to that claim. The attackers were clearly well trained, and some Kenyan officials claimed the attackers included fighters from Western nations. “It’s clear to me this wasn’t the work of al-Shabab,” says Rashid Abdi, a prominent Nairobi-based Somali analyst. “This is either al-Qaeda central, or a new militant group of al-Shabab, made up by diaspora and friends in the West.”

Others say Kenya’s success in weakening al-Shabab back home may have inadvertently sped up the transformation of the group from its nationalist Somali insurgency origins to a globally focused jihadist organization. Cedric Barnes, the Horn of Africa director of the International Crisis Group, says this new attack is not an act of desperation, but a sign of the group’s new direction. “It’s not necessarily a new al-Shabab, but an al-Shabab that is affiliating itself not in just words but in deeds with the wider al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”

Kenya is not battling al-Shabab alone. The group first rose to prominence in opposition to a Western-backed government imposed by Ethiopia, Somalia’s hated neighbor. Uganda and Burundi, other East African countries, have sent thousands of troops as part of an African Union force that halted al-Shabab from ever capturing Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. The U.S. maintains a large military and drone base in Somalia’s northern neighbor, Djibouti, that is partially focused on stymieing al-Shabab.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has vowed that this attack will only strengthen his nation’s resolve to continue the war in Somalia. Western nations too must determine if they’ll stay the course, but in a different campaign: a diplomatic cold war against Kenyatta. Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, took power in March after winning the elections. Both also are under trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity allegedly committed after the nation’s disputed 2007 elections, when tribes mobilized forces to attack rival political supporters. Prior to the March vote, the U.S. warned Kenyans of “consequences” if they elected the duo, a threat partly fulfilled when U.S. President Barack Obama skipped his father’s homeland in an African tour soon after. In retaliation, Kenyatta embarked on a highly choreographed courtship with the Chinese.

Expect the Westgate attack to revamp the awkward relations. Ruto already persuaded the Hague to suspend his trial so he could return to Kenya in the wake of the attack. Kenyatta quickly made the argument for a friendlier embrace. “This is not a Kenyan war. This is an international war. And we need to join hands and work together.”

He’s right, at least on one point. British, Canadian, Australian, Indian and French nationals are among the dead. At least five Americans were injured. Nairobi is arguably Africa’s most international city. It serves as the African headquarters for the U.N., hosts the largest U.S. foreign mission on the continent and is used as the regional base for countless aid, media and business groups.

The Westgate attack signals the emergence of a new, outward-focused al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa. And if al-Shabab’s intention was to command more global attention, it certainly succeeded. The West may not approve of Kenya’s recent electoral choices, but the global war on terror has held its nose through worse. The East African front just got a lot more heated. A charred, bloodstained shopping mall will make sure of that.