What The Hell Is Happening In Kenya?

Hostages Held in Westgate Shopping Mall

In what was the largest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the American embassy, an estimated 10 to 15 militants stormed an upscale Nairobi mall on Saturday, killing at least 60 and injuring more than 175. The dead include an eminent Ghanian poet, a pregnant radio host, a 29-year-old diplomat, and citizens of at least 10 countries. The Kenyan government claimed control over the mall earlier today, but ongoing gunfire has been reported. Ishaan Tharoor provides background on the group that claimed responsibility for the attack via Twitter:

[Al-Shabaab], whose name means the Youth in Arabic, was once the militant youth wing of a coalition of Islamist forces that held sway in parts of Somalia more than half a decade ago. The country has had no real functional central government for over two decades, and the Islamists, for a time, provided a veneer of security and stability despite the harshness of the Shari’a they sought to impose. That control slipped following a series of offensives spearheaded by the African Union, beginning with an Ethiopian-led invasion in 2006. In early 2012, a video emerged of a top leader of al-Shabaab pledging obedience to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s head. …

Al-Shabaab fighters had launched a number of minor forays across Somalia’s porous southern border with Kenya, kidnapping tourists and aid workers. By 2011, after al-Shabaab impeded humanitarian aid into southern Somalia during a ghastly drought, the Kenyan government had had enough. It launched a sustained military campaign across the border, eventually dislodging al-Shabaab from its stronghold in the Somali port city of Kismayo in 2012, a defeat from which the group has yet to recover.

Shane Harris sees an emboldened al-Shabaab:

The Westgate mall attack marks an audacious return for al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked group that, as recently as last year, U.S. officials claimed was on the run in the face of an American-backed offensive in Africa. More recently, the Obama administration has expanded a secret war against al-Shabaab in Somalia, ramping up assistance to Somali intelligence agencies. The United States also runs training camps for Ugandan peacekeepers who fight al-Shabaab forces, and at a base in Djibouti houses Predator drones, fighter jets, and nearly 2,000 U.S. troops and military civilians.

But Ken Menkhaus believes the opposite:

Many [security experts] warned that Shabaab’s [previous] reluctance to attack soft targets in Kenya (or elsewhere, including in the US) was contingent on the group’s continued success in Somalia. Were the group to weaken and fragment, it would be more likely to consider high-risk terrorism abroad. Paradoxically, a weakened Shabaab is a greater threat outside Somalia than a stronger Shabaab. … The Westgate attack is the latest sign of the group’s weakness. It was a desperate, high-risk gamble by Shabaab to reverse its prospects.

Joshua Keating also points out how gains against the terrorist group in Somalia seem to have made it more dangerous to other countries:

Shabaab has attacked countries that have participated in military operations in Somalia before, most infamously the attack on World Cup spectators that left 74 dead in Kampala, Uganda in 2010. The group has also been blamed for several attacks in Kenya including the bombing of a Nairobi bus station last year and several grenade attacks on churches. Now that the group’s ability to actually control territory is waning, it seems possible that more of its efforts may be devoted to operations like these. Shabaab may start acting more like a transnational terror group than a rebel army fighting to control land.

Simon Tisdale elaborates on the group’s internal divisions:

Westgate … looks like a chilling statement of intent by Ahmed Abdi Godane, the al-Shabaab leader, who consolidated his power in June in an internal coup. … The apparent decision by Godane and fellow hardliners to again take the fight beyond Somalia’s borders looks like a bid to regain the initiative in the face of these setbacks and disagreements. In addition, the group’s occasional bomb attacks in Mogadishu keep the government on the back foot. The recent decision by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières to pull out of Somalia, due to worsening security, is a perverse vindication of such tactics. And Godane doubtless welcomes the negative impact of Barclays Bank’s decision to close accounts used to send remittances to Somalia.

Meanwhile, Patrick Gathara says the attack brought Kenyans together at a time of political and tribal acrimony:

Kenyans have come together in an impressive show of solidarity. The citizenry has literally responded with blood and treasure. When a call went out for blood donors, local hospitals were inundated and some had to turn people away. This morning, long lines of blood donors snaked across the city. Hospitals at one point were running out of blood bags, but not donors, so high was the turn out. An MPESA account set up for the victims has already raised millions of shillings. All over social media, on the streets and on air, the political bitterness of the last seven months seems to have, at least temporarily, abated.

But Paula Kahumbu cautions that the long-term impact remains to be seen:

The president of Kenya, members of his leadership team and the opposition have jointly called on Kenyans for support, and asked the international community not to issue travel advisories  revealing that tourism is the soft spot of greatest concern. Assessing the impact of the attack on tourism and foreign investments will depend very much on the success of the response by security forces. With things still unfolding as I write, it is far too early to analyze the implications, yet amazingly, Kenya feels stronger.

(Photo: An injured man is treated outside the Westgate shopping mall where hostages have been kept for three days on 23 September, 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya. By Ahmet Erkan Yigitsozlu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)