Armed police respond to the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya on Saturday.
Armed police respond to the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya on Saturday. // AP Photo/Jonathan Kalan

The Real Reason al-Shabab Attacked a Mall in Kenya

Kenya has suffered devastating terror attacks in the past, worst among them al-Qaeda’s bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi (and simultaneously in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) in 1998. That attack killed almost two hundred Kenyans, and was followed in 2002 by an attempted missile strike on an Israeli commercial airline and the destruction of an Israeli-owned hotel. Terrible as they were, those attacks were committed by foreigners and aimed not at Kenyan but at American and Israeli interests.

The horrifying strike on the Westgate mall — which so far has killed 62 people and injured 175 — is different. An al-Qaeda proxy in Somalia, al-Shabab, has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the violence wasn’t aimed at America or the West: Shabab says it was intended as a punishment for Kenya’s two-year military foray into Somalia.

Kenya’s Perspective

Kenya invaded Somalia in late 2011 after an al-Qaeda-linked youth militia, al-Shabab, killed one and kidnapped another tourist from an exclusive resort in the north of Kenya. Nairobi viewed this killing and kidnapping as an existential threat: the Kenyan economy is dependent on Western tourism and investment, both of which would be dampened by evidence that militant jihadis were sauntering across the border from Somalia.

But the tourist attacks were also a pretext to address a more pressing concern. Nairobi has been worried for years by the ever-increasing flow of Somali refugees onto Kenyan soil: the Dadaab refugee camp just inside the Kenyan border with Somalia hosts more than 500,000 Somali refugees, and the Kenyan Government claims that there are 500,000 more undocumented Somali refugees wandering around the country. In addition, a good slice of Kenya’s northern population is ethnically Somali, and the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh is a buzzing business district populated almost entirely by members of the Somali diaspora (legal and otherwise). Nairobi fears that al-Shabab operatives could be hiding among the refugees. And there is a sense of cutthroat economic competition between the entrepreneurial Somalis and the poorer class of Kenyans — half of whom live in slums and are cut off from formal jobs, running water and electricity and fear for their economic futures.

Since the Kenyan incursion into Somalia, there’s been a constant string of low-level terror incidents in northern Kenya and around Eastleigh - mostly hand grenades tossed into buses full of Muslims and Christians alike, but also attacks on specifically Christian targets, such as churches. This has aggravated tensions. Residents have taken to eyeing all Somalis, even those born and raised as Kenyan citizens, as potential terrorists. The Nairobi police have mounted harsh dragnets on Eastleigh, in which hundreds of Somalis have been swept up and forced to bribe their way to freedom.

The View from Somalia

Meanwhile, Kenya’s foray into Somalia has posed real problems for the Western powers, who are trying to defeat al-Shabab and recreate a central government in Mogadishu. 

Kenya entered Somalia unilaterally and without warning its allies in the West. Washington was worried by the incursion: Ethiopia’s occupation of Mogadishu in 2006 sparked the complex insurgency that gave rise to al-Shabab, and the likelihood of a similar backlash in the wake of Kenya’s incursion seemed high. Nevertheless, after months of discussion, Western donors were persuaded to re-hat the Kenyan forces as peacekeepers in the African Union peacekeeping mission (known by its acronym, AMISOM), which has been trying to prop up a weak, corrupt and dysfunctional government in Mogadishu since 2007.

Kenyan participation in AMISOM has largely been a disaster. Though the Kenyans succeeded in pushing al-Shabab out of the major port city of Kismayo (in the fall of 2012) Nairobi has capitalized on its military presence to effectively seize control of the port’s revenues. Monitors from the United Nations have accused Kenya of violating its embargo on the sale of charcoal, which has not only devastated the local environment but financially boosts al-Shabab (since many of the local charcoal dealers are still in cohoots with the insurgent group). Worse, Kenya’s unofficial annexation of Kismayo has infuriated many Somalis, and has made the struggling government in Mogadishu appear more ineffective and weak, undermining Washington’s and London’s efforts at state-building.

Inside al-Shabab

Al-Shabab has declared that its attack on that Westgate Mall is retribution for Kenya’s meddling in Kismayo. But despite the claim, and Kenya’s obvious misbehavior, the attack probably has more to do with al-Shabab’s internal dynamics.

The top tier of al-Shabab’s leadership is composed of committed international jihadis, many of whom have fought in Afghanistan and other battlefields of the war on terrorism. These foreign jihadists have struggled to co-exist with a much larger group of clan leaders and fighters — headed by Hassan Dahir Aweys and Muktar Robow — who are intent on destroying the Western-backed government in Mogadishu, but ambivalent about conflating their Somali war with al-Qaeda’s global jihad. Aweys and Robow’s faction intends to govern Somalia and is answerable to Somalia’s powerful clan interests, which derive a good deal of their political and financial backing from the Somali diaspora, and especially from the thriving Nairobi community of Eastleigh (which is often called “Little Mogadishu”). Any major attack on Nairobi would result in devastating blowback for them, which is why — despite the dire threats issued by various members of al-Shabab — it hasn’t happened until now.

In June of this year, Aweys and Robow fought with the foreign-jihadist emir of al-Shabab, and decisively split off from the movement. The schism has unmoored the foreign radicals of al-Shabab from their local hosts. Unrestrained by Aweys’ and Robow’s nationalist ambitions or any concerns about the wellbeing of the Somali diaspora, they have finally chosen to strike Nairobi — and will no doubt strike again.

Al-Qaeda’s View

Washington has long feared that Somalia’s vast anarchic territories would serve as a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Its backing of the Ethiopian invasion in 2006 and its bankrolling of the African Union peacekeeping mission since 2007 was intended first to preempt and then to roll back that threat.

But Somalia has proven an inhospitable environment for al-Qaeda. Non-Somalia jihadis have struggled against the Somalis’ pervasive suspicion of foreigners, and the local radicals’ cooperation has been mostly opportunistic, a method of obtaining funding, arms, and training for use against domestic foes. The seven-year alliance between al-Shabab’s local and foreign factions has been marked with infighting and betrayal, and the group has not once been compelled to strike directly at Western interests. (Even the horrifying attack on Kampala in July 2010 was aimed specifically at Ugandan residents, and only incidentally killed a few foreign tourists.) Perhaps worse for al Qaeda, American drones and special operations forces have killed Somalia’s global jihadis without sparking any political backlash from the Somali public.

The spreading of these foreign radicals’ tentacles into Nairobi is the worst possible outcome of Western efforts to preempt the terror threat from Somalia. With the exception of aid workers and journalists, Somalia is virtually devoid of American targets, making it difficult for al-Qaeda to achieve its raison d’être. On the other hand, Nairobi is East Africa’s most prosperous hub, full of Western tourists, business interests, aid operations and diplomats. The Westgate mall attack could have killed shoppers from any corner of the globe.

And the consequences for Kenya will be terrible. Beyond the suffering of families from this hideous loss of life, tourism and investment will doubtless be shaken. The country will be seen as less safe. The sophistication of the Westgate attack — especially the radicals’ ability to successfully deploy so many gunmen on a suicide mission — is a sickening indication of al-Shabab’s capability to inflict even greater harm on Nairobi’s residents.

What’s Next?

It would be tempting to describe the attack on Westgate purely as an overflow of Somalia’s endless civil war. But al-Shabab has found its footing in Kenya by exploiting domestic grievances. Much of the Somali Muslim but also the general youth population there feels politically disenfranchised and without economic prospects. Kenya’s heavy-handed response to the terror threat, including punitive arrests of innocent Somalis and the apparent assassination of Muslim political agitators in the north of the country, has not helped matters. Nairobi thus urgently needs assistance from its allies to refine its counterterror strategy; reform its police; build trust and cooperation among various constituencies of Somalis, Muslims and youth; and generally, to move Kenya beyond the politics of tribalism and privation and into a brighter shared future.

But all of these are daunting and expensive tasks, and relations between Kenya and the West are at a treacherously low ebb. Kenya’s president and vice president are both standing trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity allegedly committed during postelection violence in 2008. Washington and Europe’s paternalistic chidings over the ICC trials, followed by Nairobi’s own barbs, its pivot towards China and apparent boycotting of the US ambassador’s Fourth of July party, have strained traditionally good relations.

If Washington and London are worried about the war on terrorism, they had best thaw those relations rapidly or Kenya may be next on the list of al-Qaeda’s conquests in Africa.

Bronwyn Bruton is Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

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