Behind Al Shabab's Latest Attack

Jihad Comes to Kenya, Again

Kenyan soldiers patrol the area around Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, September 25, 2013.
Kenyan soldiers patrol the area around Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, September 25, 2013. (Noor Khamis / Courtesy Reuters)

Days after the al Qaeda­–linked jihadist group al Shabab laid siege to an upscale shopping center in northern Nairobi, the political fallout, like the death toll, is still unknown. The attack might have come as a surprise to Western observers, engrossed as they were in Syria and chemical weapons, but it should not have.

Al Shabab has long threatened to strike within Kenya, and this is not the first time that it has shown itself capable of walking the walk. As I wrote in January, Kenya has suffered a wave of attacks in recent years, as have other countries in the region. In 2010, for example, an al Shabab bombing spree against groups of people watching the World Cup in Kampala, Uganda killed more than 70. The assailants’ tactics this time were not new, either: For a long time, al Shabab fighters have tended to prefer using grenades and AK-47s to pick off those unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Attacks on soft targets gain attention and guarantee higher death rates than those on heavily guarded government buildings.

The differences in this case are the level of sophistication -- the mall siege was much better orchestrated than the slap-dash efforts of the past -- and the decision to take hostages, which was a grim new twist. The hostage-taking ensured that the siege was protracted, and thus gained the maximum attention possible, and that security forces were unable to be as ruthless as they might otherwise have been. It has also been reported that al Shabab spared Muslims, a demonstration of its (and the wider jihadi movement’s) increased concern about its public image. For a group that claims to be the vanguard of Islam, its members have been killing Somali Muslims for years, and al Shabab’s leadership is well aware that such behavior drives away recruits and public support.

Al Shabab is also feeling the pressure in other ways. The group has suffered heavy losses in Somalia, where it has been fighting African Union forces since 2011, and is eager to prove that it remains relevant. A terrorist group can be at its most dangerous when cornered, and this attack proves the rule. It also demonstrates that blows in Somalia have perhaps pressured al Shabab to focus more of its resources on operations in neighboring countries.

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