Conflict and Fragility


Terror strikes Nairobi cutting across borders

25 Sep 2013 - 11:06

"Kenya doesn’t know war. We know war", bragged a spokesperson for Al-Shabab to a BBC reporter in October 2011 threatening that Al-Shabab can bring down even the tallest buildings of Nairobi. On 24 September 2013, Al-Shabab threats against Kenya became a startling reality for the hundreds of people caught in the Westgate Mall massacre. If you have spent time in Nairobi, there is a good chance you have been to Westgate. It is one of the hubs of expat living where foreigners and Kenyan elites can sip their lattes, do their shopping and entertain their families. Until midday last Saturday, Westgate was just a normal mall filled with people just getting on with their lives. 

Amongst the tales of horror emerging from Westgate - dead bodies piled against doors, women and children shot, senseless violence – are narratives of why, seeking explanation, perhaps justification, trying to understand and explain the human propensity to cause unexplainable suffering. Deliberate attacks against civilians such as at Westgate, serve but only the purpose of striking fear and hoping that fear can drive some form of political change. The real weapon of terrorism, is the response it can generate.

So why did Al-Shabab stage such a blatant attack at this time? There are many plausible answers and many differing opinions. Al-Shabab striking outside of Somalia could be indicative of the loss of ground in Somalia and the need to generate increased support. Keeping in line with Al-Shabab tactics in other areas, levels of violence have tended to increase when the group is under threat and unable to continue to exercise the levels of control over populations or events they were accustomed to. There has been a lot of movements within Somalia in the past 12 months; movements which on the whole have been decreasing the space for Al-Shabab to operate. This includes the issuing of a fatwa  by a group of 160 Islamic scholars denouncing Al-Shabab in early September 2013. How better to revitalise a cause than to stir up an external enemy; and Kenya has long been seen as an antagonist in Somalia.

Tensions recently increased with the Kenyan military incursion into Somalia following a series of brazen attacks by Al-Shabab targeting tourists in Lamu in September and October 2011. The Kenyan military operation – Operation Protect the Nation – moved into Somalia in October 2011 and a Kenyan military component has since been integrated into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) were successful in leading the fight against Al-Shabab in southern Somalia and most notably in chasing Al-Shabab from Kismayo. The strategic significance of Kismayo cannot be overstated and the role of the KDF in taking this town and the economic lifeline provided by the charcoal export industry dealt a devastating blow to the militant Islamists. But in taking Kismayo and pursuing the strategy of creating a buffer area in southern Somalia along the Kenyan border, the KDF also actively supported a local militia group, Ras Kamboni, and recruited Kenyan-Somalis from the along the border to fight inside Somalia against Al-Shabab. Following the fall of Kismayo, Kenya was also instrumental in bringing together talks on the future of the southern sector of Jubbaland.

For Al-Shabab to attack Kenya is then not too surprising. What is more surprising is the boldness of the attack. It is an attack on an international target, staged by an multi-national group against a mix of Kenyan civilians and international tourists. This is more than just Al-Shabab and Kenya. There is a distinct global element that requires attention. What is more, this incident aligns with an increasingly apparent  international trend running through Al-Shabab’s recent internal dynamics.  On 12 September 2013, two top Islamists from the US and UK were killed by Al-Shabab in Somalia. Al-Amriki and Al-Britani, as they were known, were senior Al-Shabab fighters; the US had a bounty of $5 million on Al-Amriki. The killings of the two foreign fighters has been linked to internal fissures within Al-Shabab leadership. Tensions within the organisation appear to signal intensifying competition between the group’s national and international agendas, including public disagreements over strategy and objectives. Central to this has been the role of foreign fighters as well as linkages within East Africa.

Alongside the decline in Al-Shabab support in Somalia, particularly following the fall of Kismayo, affiliates in East Africa – Al Hijra in Kenya and groups such as the Ansar Muslim Youth Centre in Tanzania – have been under pressure to sustain attacks in the region, and in particular in Kenya. According to the UN Monitoring Group, Al Hijra has sought operational direction and guidance from Al-Qaida affiliates with foreign fighters exerting a growing influence within the group and calling for redirecting the group’s resources from hitting ‘soft’ targets to undertaking more complex, large-scale attacks in Kenya on behalf of Al-Shabab. As J. Peter Pham told the Washington Post, the attack is more likely to be a first salvo of a reinvigorated Al-Shabab than the last gasp of a defeated organization. Targeting the mall, Pham said, sends a “much clearer signal of the group’s resurgence, both to Al-Qaeda central and other regional affiliates and to audiences from which it will now, undoubtedly, try to recruit.”

What Al-Shabab has proven is that they are willing and able to adapt to the changing political and security environment. Not only have they managed to link into the global alliance within the Al-Qaida network but they have proven resilient to efforts to dislodge them from Somalia and to reduce their relevance within a changed domestic political and economic environment. Al-Shabab has also been very capable at attracting foreign fighters to their cause and using Somalia as a base for international jihad. The alleged international make-up of the group responsible for the Westgate attack, gives only more credence to the concern that Al-Shabab is breaching a more global platform. The role of combatants such as Al-Amriki spreading propaganda to target Somali diaspora is an inherent part of this. As with much that happens in Somalia, the links between national and international are increasingly blurred. Al-Shabab can mobilise on national grievances and also on international grievances be it from the experiences of Somalis growing up as exiles in Western nations or from Somalis in Kenya facing severe restrictions on their rights. Al-Shabab can also target domestic Somalia or use the he regional political and security dynamics to their benefit and target foreigner elements in Kenya extending their reach way beyond the hinterland of Somalia. The siege of Westgate has showed how international the conflict in Somalia remains and how fluid the space really is between national and international identities and interests. Part of the solution to the scourge of Al-Shabab lies in Somalia, but there remains a need to tie local counter-terrorism efforts into international efforts to ensure that not only is Al-Shabab militarily weakened in Somalia but that their financing and revenue streams remain disrupted and that the national, regional and international grievances on which they are able to mobilise are one-day addressed.