On Saturday, as many as 16 armed assailants entered the upscale Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, lobbing grenades and firing automatic weapons into a crowd of weekend shoppers. As of Monday morning, the attackers, from the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab, were holding some hostages, Kenyan security forces had recaptured most of the mall, and at least 68 people were dead.
The names and nationalities of the dead are slowly emerging. They include a nephew of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Canadian diplomat Annemarie Desloges, Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, popular Kenyan Radio Africa host Ruhila Adatia-Sood, and several people from Great Britain, China, the Netherlands, and Australia. Five Americans were wounded in the attack, but no U.S. fatalities have been reported. The number of dead is expected to rise.
Al-Shabab says that some of the attackers are Americans — about 40 U.S. citizens have joined the group over the past few years, according to a 2011 House Homeland Security Committee report — but the FBI has "yet to establish whether that claim was true, and that it would be difficult to do so until all the attackers were captured or killed," says Nicholas Kulish in The New York Times.
The bloody attack shocked Kenya, and much of the world, but it wasn't totally unexpected. Kenyan police have arrested one Briton, Jermaine Grant, on explosives charges, and speculated that he was part of an al-Shabab plot to attack hotels and restaurants frequented by Westerners. Westgate mall was built by Israelis and has several Israeli-owned shops and cafés, making it a potential target for Islamist terrorists.
Al-Shabab said the attack was in retaliation for Kenya's sustained offensive in Somalia starting in 2011, part of an African Union effort to dismantle the Islamist militia. This isn't the group's first big attack outside Somalia: Al-Shabab terrorists killed more than 75 people watching the World Cup in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010, citing similar grievances against Uganda's participation in the AU forces.
The United Nations-sanctioned AU offensive has been relatively successful, driving al-Shabab out of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in 2011, and its coastal stronghold of Kismayo in 2012. Given this loss of "substantial territory and influence in Somalia," says Peter Bergen at CNN, "the attack on the Nairobi mall may be an attempt by al-Shabab to signal its continued relevance." Once a dominant force in Somalia, al-Shabab is slowly being driven to the southern part of the country, depriving it of lucrative sources of income as well as land.
Slaughtering civilians in a mall "frequented by the well-heeled and well-traveled" is also an attention-grabbing tactic, says Ishaan Tharoor at Time. As with the 2008 attack on a ritzy Mumbai hotel by Pakistani terrorists, "the goal is to shock, to draw attention to a militant group's boldness and capability, and to hit panic buttons in the government of the country under attack." Al-Shabab doesn't want to be seen as a group in retreat, and now it has "rewritten the narrative with the blood of innocents. It's back."
But is al-Shabab's show of force really a sign that it's rebounding? The group certainly grabbed the world's attention. But no matter what you think of the U.S.-branded "War on Terror" — a phrase also used by President Kenyatta after this attack — it would be hard to argue that al Qaeda is better off than it was 12 years ago, when it seized the world's attention with its attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Kenya's leaders are now more united than they have been in a long time — Kenyatta is facing a war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court for allegedly financing death squads after a bitterly disputed 2007 election — and there are already calls for more Western involvement in rooting out al-Shabab. "The fight is not just a Kenyan, or African, fight," argues Louise Branson at USA Today:
Somalia could be the new Afghanistan. A lawless, fundamentalist Somalia could incubate a Somali Osama bin Laden and new attacks on the USA, just as Afghanistan protected and nurtured bin Laden and al Qaeda. For a decade and a half, the warning signs have been growing. Al Qaeda blew up the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. The truck bomb killed more than 200....
The message of the [Westgate] attackers could easily be imagined in an attack, say, on the Mall of the America. The attackers even called for Muslims to run away. As on 9/11, they are attacking a modern, democratic way of life. After 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde famously carried a headline: We Are All Americans. After the Nairobi attack, the message should be "We Are All Kenyans." Not just in our sympathy. But also in going all out to prevent another terrorist attack. [USA Today]
The Westgate mall attack is "a direct product of the long-running failure of Western powers and African Union countries to end more than 20 years of anarchy in the 'failed state' of Somalia," says Simon Tisdall at Britain's The Guardian. But it's also the sour fruit of an internal power struggle within al-Shabab. In June, al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane seized power in an internal coup, executing two co-founders — and, more recently, American-born commander Omar Hammami — and sending the group's spiritual leader fleeing for his life.
Godane is believed to be responsible for ordering the 2010 attack in Uganda, and he "was behind al-Shabab's decision in 2011 to affiliate to al Qaeda and adopt its global jihadist outlook," says Tisdall. The other leaders tended to be Somali nationalists opposed to all foreign intervention and more interested in ruling Somalia as a strict Islamic state than foreign jihad. Under Godand, "the terrorists are divided and losing ground," Tisdall says. "But they seem determined to go down fighting."
Al-Shabab won't be the "al Qaeda of this century," Australian academic Wayne Reynolds tells his country's ABC News. For one thing, they don't have access to that kind of money. Instead, the Nairobi mall attack seems like "a fairly traditional terrorist response" from a group involved in a messy regional conflict dating back to at least 1991, when Russian-aligned Somalia fell apart, and U.S.-backed Kenya didn't.
We've ignored this area for 20 years since the end of the Cold War.... We've seen the piracy, we've seen the warlords, we saw Clinton trying to intervene and then withdraw, and by and large we've been prepared to just let it go. It's not just a question of the good guys and the bad guys, this is much murkier and grayer than that. [Reynolds, to ABC News]
After the siege is over in Nairobi, expect "greater global hand-wringing about terrorist threats in East Africa and beyond," says Time's Ishaan Tharoor. But don't expect to see al-Shabab disappear. The continent is full of Islamist militias — Boko Harum in Nigeria, al Qaeda–linked militants in Mali — and the "aggressive military campaigns" against them "have been unable to fully root any of them out."