It is the attack by al-Shabab militants on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which has been dominating the foreign news reports since Saturday. At the time of writing, President Uhuru Kenyatta had just announced that the siege was over and the security forces were ‘mopping-up.’ The full body count is still not known, because three floors of the mall had collapsed, and there may be dead among the debris. The Kenyan army and police killed five of the militants and captured 11 alive.
Unlike al Qaeda, with which it is associated at some level if not integrated, al-Shabab exists in the Western mind only at the fringes of consciousness. This is because it is a Somali jihadist organization, which was driven out of Mogadishu and then appears to have splintered as a consequence of power struggles, among other things. Some analysts have suggested that the group which attacked the mall may be a new faction incorporating foreign jihadis. Whether or not that is so, al-Shabab, despite the fact that it has become degraded in comparison with its earlier incarnation, has already demonstrated its capacity for damage with its bomb attacks on Mogadishu. This is since the Somali capital was visibly returning to some semblance of normal economic and social life after the jihadists left.
The storming of the Westgate Mall, however, has certainly brought al-Shabab to the forefront in the mind of the Western public, not just because a number of foreigners from a variety of countries have been killed and injured, but also because Kenya’s foreign minister has claimed that among the jihadis were two or three Americans and one British woman. President Kenyatta said yesterday he could not confirm this, and it would depend on the results of forensic tests, among other things. Whatever the case, the snippet about the woman sent the British press into a frenzy of speculation as to whether she was Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of one of the London July 7, 2005 bombers.
Be that as it may, whether or not any of the surviving militants are disposed to give an account of their warped reasoning, it is already known why they launched the assault. In telephone interviews from the Somali port of Kismayo, Abu Umar, who described himself as a commander there, told reporters it was because the Kenyan army was in Somalia fighting al-Shabab, and they wanted it to withdraw. Kenyan soldiers had earlier been part of the multinational African force which was fighting al-Shabab in Somalia, but in more recent times the government had sent in its military independently because of attacks and raids on Kenyan soil. The organization has also raided in Uganda.
Certainly al-Shabab could have had no grand strategic aim in mind, since it doesn’t have the capacity to mount anything large scale; it is limited to what is nowadays called assymetric warfare ‒ although as has been seen in Westgate Mall that can still do enormous damage. While it remains to be seen, one would have thought that the Kenyan government would not respond by withdrawing its army from Somalia; apart from anything else (and there are other arguments) it would be perceived as a sign of weakness which might simply invite more attacks rather than reduce their number in the longer term. Al-Shabab might discover, in fact, that it has given the Kenyans even greater motivation to stay in Somalia than they had before.
One thing acts like this do accomplish for the terrorist group involved, is that they provide propaganda for it which in addition to giving it a high profile can be used for recruitment purposes. This faction of al-Shabab appears to have attracted some Western jihadis; when Abu Umar, for example, spoke to reporters he was both fluent in English and had an unmistakeable English accent. Whether or not he was English-born, he clearly spent a large part of his childhood in the UK.
The Westgate Mall is a lesson not just for Kenya and by extension Uganda, but for the world. It is also a warning. Given events in Syria, there is a very real possibility that that country might break up, and parts of it at least become the Somalia of the Middle East. That would destabilize the whole region in a way that al-Shabab will probably not succeed in doing in East Africa.
Irrational fanatics with a taste for death can now be found in almost every country. One of the persons killed in Westgate was the Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor – a Renaissance man who was known among other things for his poetry. Almost presciently he wrote in one of his final poems: “We are the celebrants/whose fields were/overrun by rogues/and other bad men/who interrupted our dance/with obscene songs and bad gestures.”