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

Behind Al Shabab's Latest Attack

Jihad Comes to Kenya, Again

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.

That is certainly the message that a Twitter account linked to al Shabab was pushing just after the siege started. Those running the account claimed responsibility for the attacks but placed blame at the feet of the Kenyan government, whose military has participated in the African Union operation in Somalia. On Wednesday, Mukhtar ali Zubeyr, the leader of the al Shabab faction behind the attack, reiterated that logic, explaining, “The attack at Westgate Mall was to torment the Kenyan leaders who’ve impulsively invaded the Islamic Wilaayat [Islamic state].” He went on to say that it was also “retribution against the Western states that supported the Kenyan invasion and are spilling the blood of innocent Muslims.” For many al Shabab members, who follow the standard script of jihadist ideology, the fight in Somalia is only one of multiple fronts in this struggle -- and countries such as Kenya are legitimate targets for retaliatory attacks. The Westgate shopping mall, which is frequented by Kenyan officials and Western tourists and is owned by Israelis, was thus a way to hit three birds with one stone.

In his statement, Zubeyr also directly addressed the Kenyan people -- in much the same way that Osama bin Laden addressed the American public in some of his most famous statements. Like bin Laden, Zubeyr tried to justify his group’s actions to the general public. “You have entered into a war that is not yours and is serving against your national interests,” he said. “You have voluntarily given up on your security and economy and lost many of your sons.” He further suggested that, by supporting the government through voting and paying taxes, all Kenyans have been tacit supporters of the war on Islam. It is up to them, he reasoned, to change or to remain targets.

Al Shabab has another audience to think of as well. Of all the al Qaeda affiliates, the group is among the most successful at recruiting Westerners. It has produced slick, English-language propaganda videos as part of a concerted effort to attract Western Muslims to its cause. If a Western Muslim is to truly fulfill his or her religious duty to protect Muslims worldwide, so goes the propaganda, then fighting -- and dying -- for al Shabab should be a top priority. This line of thinking has been effective at swaying Western converts and attracting members of the Somali diaspora. Around 100 people from the United Kingdom and the United States alone are thought to have been drawn in. The move to target Kenya itself will not likely push those people away.

It is far too soon to know who, exactly, carried out this particular operation. The vast majority of attacks in Kenya have been perpetrated by a mixture of Somalis and indigenous Kenyans, the latter having been targeted for recruitment over the last three years because of their local knowledge. Ahmed Iman Ali, a Somalia-based Kenyan leader of an East African contingent of al Shabab, whom I profiled in my previous article, is still alive and has been suspected of masterminding attacks in his homeland. 

Some, including Kenyan officials, have suggested that Westerners were involved. And, although unlikely, that is certainly not out of the question. Jermaine Grant, a British citizen, is currently on trial in Kenya facing charges of connections to al-Shabaab and plotting bomb attacks in the country. There are also some claims that a British-born convert to Islam named Samantha Lewthwaite was involved in Westgate. The widow of Germaine Lindsey, the July 7, 2005, London suicide bomber, Lewthwaite is thought to be in the region as part of the al Shabab network in East Africa. There is no public evidence as yet that she -- or any Westerner for that matter -- had a hand in al Shabab’s most recent mission. The fact that Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for her this week, at the behest of the Kenyan government, will send speculation about her into overdrive. It is wise to avoid rash conclusions, though, since the warrant is in relation to terrorism charges from 2011, with no mention of Westgate.

Whatever the identity of the assailants, last week’s strike at the heart of Kenyan high society is a reminder that al Shabab and its cadre of battle-hardened recruits will remain a threat to the region for some time to come. Western observers should watch carefully, as this is unlikely to be the last such atrocity. 

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