This past Saturday, September 21, an estimated 6 to 16 attackers — suspected to be Islamist militants — stormed the upscale Westgate mall in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. 23 people were reported dead by the end of the day as the news filled with images of security guards wheeling out wounded children — 50 preschoolers had been attending a cooking competition on the second floor of the mall.
Security forces soon entered the mall in a standoff that has continued through Monday. The gunmen, who were said to be targeting non-Muslims, holed up in one part of the mall with hostages. New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks accompanied police for a couple of hours and described seeing dead bodies even while “… everywhere you went, there were more people who just appeared out of the woodwork.” A military helicopter landed on the mall’s roof on Sunday night.
By Monday, 62 people, including many Kenyans, acclaimed Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor who had been attending a nearby literary festival, the nephew of President Uhuru Kenyatta and the nephew’s fiancée and a Canadian diplomat have been confirmed dead. More than 170 have been injured and, while security forces say they are completing their “final sweep” of the mall, the death toll could well rise. Survivors are recounting terrifying stories of hiding and playing dead as the gunmen stalked the mall .
Why was a mall in Nairobi in Kenya’s southwest attacked by militants, reportedly from Somalia’s “ferocious armed political movement,” the al-Qaida-inspired al-Shabab?
Background to the Attack: Kenya Sends Armed Forces into Somalia in 2011
The roots of the attack lie in Kenya’s decision to send its troops to its neighbor, Somalia, in October 2011, Afua Hirsch writes in the Guardian. The unrest in Somalia goes back to 1991, when the country’s president, President Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown. Ever since, Somalia has lacked a central government and been divided between transitional federal institutions and the Islamic Courts Union, under which al-Shabab formed as an armed militia.
Kenya sent in armed forces out of fear for its key tourism and shipping industries. The Westgate attack was not the first that the country has experienced since it sent troops into Somalia, Hirsch points out.
United States and Kenya in Joint Counterterrorism Efforts
The United States has also come under blame for “exacerbating the situation by picking sides in the conflict and pitting factions against one another,” writes Hirsch.
Another reason behind al-Shabab targeting Kenya is due to its working closely in counterterrorism efforts with the United States to pursue Al-Qaida, as well as to fight piracy. The C.I.A. maintains a station in Nairobi that is the largest in Africa, notes the New York Times.
American officials are now working with the Kenyan government to determine if those responsible for the attacks were based in Kenya or came from Somalia. The attackers claimed on Sunday that one had ties to the United States.
Al-Shabab Becoming Radicalized, More Likely to Carry Out “Spectacular Attacks Abroad”?
The Westgate attack is also not the first that al-Shabab has carried out beyond Somalia’s borders. In 2011, al-Shabab was behind a bombing attack against soccer fans in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76. After these and other attacks related to Kenya’s military presence in Somalia, the Westgate Mall had actually been singled out as a possible for an attack, says Matthew Bryden, the former head of the United Nations Monitoring Group, to the New York Times.
The Westgate attack shows that al-Shabab has changed tactics, from “coordinated suicide bombings with a high risk of being foiled toward more direct operations” that are outside Somalia and that kill many and also “sow fear, and undermine support in Nairobi for the Kenyan mission in Somalia,” says Bryden. Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also argues that the latest attack is a sign that al-Shabab is fracturing and has become “more radicalized,” seeking to carry out “spectacular attacks abroad” that generate headlines with its name in them.
At present, Kenya’s government, hardly wanting to give the impression that it cannot deal with the crisis, is taking the lead, with other nations (including Israel; the owners of the mall are Israeli) playing an advisory role, says the BBC. The attacks raise the issue of whether Kenya remain in Somalia and, too, of whether other countries should step up their intervention.
One of those countries is certainly the United States. President Barack Obama has said to Kenyans that “we stand with them against this terrible outrage that’s occurred, we will provide them with whatever law enforcement help that is necessary.”
As Simon Tisdall writes in the Guardian, pressure will be on the United States and other Western powers to step up their intervention in the Horn of Africa — though the result could be just what the leader of al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr), ”undoubtedly“ would welcome, a “broader, regional escalation” of the long unresolved conflict in Somalia.