From the 21st-24th of September 2013 the world watched in horror as the tragic events of the Westgate attack unfolded in Nairobi, Kenya. For most people in Nairobi, the enormity of this tragedy hit so close to home that it will take a long time to wrap their heads around it.

Westgate is such a hub for residents and visitors to Nairobi, so much so that everyone who wasn’t at the mall that particular Saturday is thinking ‘That could have been me in there.’ I believe this was the point; that is why the militants chose Westgate. For a terrorist group that has lost ground significantly in the last few years, it’s one hell of a point to make.

Al-Shabaab (“The youth”) is a Somali-based Islamist militant group. It’s an off-shoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Al-Quaeda backed group that rose to power in the 1990s and was later defeated in 2006 by a United States backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace ant Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT).

Al-Shabaab is thought to have members in the thousands with several hundred recruits from Middle Eastern countries and young recruits from Somali communities in the U.S.A and Europe. That said, they are fond of exaggerating their numbers and their ‘victories’ so who knows how many there actually are out there?

This is not the first such attack Al Shabaab has carried out in the region. This group has staged multiple major attacks within Somalia for years. In July 2010 they attacked two popular restaurants in Uganda as gatherings of people merrily watched the world cup final. More than 70 people were killed.

The Kenyan government suspected Al-Shabab of conducting a series of grenade attacks in two bus stations and a bar in Nairobi in 2011 and 2012. These incidents in Kenya and Uganda are apparently retribution for the role their troops have played in diminishing Al Shabab power in Somalia. Al Shabab demands Ugandan and Kenyan troops withdraw from Somaila. That is not likely to happen for very many reasons but here’s my pick of the winners:

Firstly, no government on earth wants to be seen to give in to terrorist demands. That’s just really bad PR. “We do not negotiate with terrorists” is the mainstay as far as political stands go. Kenya has a reputation for being tough, (at least in the region.) This country has been through a lot, the people as a whole are so resilient and they are not afraid to stand up. Kenya doesn’t get bullied (at least not in the region.)

Secondly, Somalia is the ‘most failed state in the world’ according to the Foreign Policy and Global Fund For Peace. Violence is rampant with military factions and international military forces constantly doing battle. Somalia suffers from extreme tribalism, fighting warlords, terrorists and hunger. The African Union has peacekeeping troops, a collection of military from African countries including Kenya and Uganda, which support a UN-backed Somali government.

Al-Shabaab’s animosity towards Kenya is mainly due to the fact that Kenyan troops, since establishing their role in the AU mission in 2011, have managed to drive the militants out of a key port Kisimayu which was their main base and essentially their lifeline. Since then the group has been faced with a major loss of resources and a brutal power struggle among top leaders.

Some have said this attack was a final kick by the rapidly failing terrorist group, or perhaps an attempt to retain and reunite disillusioned members. Perhaps the new leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, is trying to prove himself?

Al-Shabaab claims that the international military operations in Somalia have led to the loss of countless innocent Somalis and that this attack was punishment to Kenya for its role in this. While it is true that innocent Somalis have been lost in the crossfire, killing more innocent people is not the way to make this point. Furthermore, Al-Shabaab is guilty of carrying out systematic attacks on Somalis in Somalia itself. Forgive me if I don’t buy their proclaimed concern for their fellow countrymen.

There is no denying the sophistication it took to execute this attack, which leads to more speculation about possible help from their more experienced allies in terrorism a.k.a Al-Quaeda. Al-Quaeda bombed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998 killing about 200 people and injuring scores more.

Thirdly, their mission statement as of 2007 was “Seeking to establish an Islamic state along the lines of the Taliban-ruled, by-the-law-of-Allah in the land of Somalia; regards the rulers of the Muslim world today as branches of the international conspiracy against Islam, and thus they are to be regarded as infidels and overthrown; [and] seeks to expand the jihad to Somalia’s Christian neighbours, with the intent of driving the infidels out of the Horn of Africa, along the same lines as al-Qaeda has been striving to do under the slogan, ‘expelling the infidels out of the Arabian Peninsula.'” This point is pretty self-explanatory. The world ‘Lunacy’ has bee thrown around…

During the Westgate attack, Al-Shabab live tweeted: “The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar inside their own turf,” The reference is clear: they consider themselves participants of some sort of ‘holy war’ and they are specifically targeting ‘Kenyan Kuffar’ i.e. Kenyan Non-Muslims. Reports that the militants selected out Muslims during the attack and let them go while they killed non-Muslims reaffirm this fact.

Many prominent public figures in the Islamic community, ordinary Muslims and Kenyan-Somalis have stood up to denounce the attack. It is very easy to synonymise extremist with Muslim, given that the majority of acts of terrorism the world over are perpetuated by self-proclaimed ‘Mujahideen suffering for the cause of Islam’. Concerns over Islamist militants are growing; but let us not confuse the fight against extremists with a fight against Islam. That said, the need to address the issue of hardline Islamic views leading to extremism cannot be overstated.

There were initial fears of revenge attacks on Somalis living in Kenya. After the grenade attacks in 2011, many people took to the streets rioting and spreading negative messages against Somalis. What people forget is that Somalis, particularly those living in Somalia, have been by far the most victimised by Al Shabaab activity. Thankfully, Kenyans have steadily moved away from ethnic divides. Heaven knows they have learned from their past mistakes.

The issues leading up to this attack on Westage are complex. Of course with any story there are three sides, your side, their side, and the truth. When all is said and done, any normal (non-extremist) person can agree that attacks like this are never the solution. No doubt Al-Shabaad did this to provoke a response from the Kenyan government and the international community at large. What will actually be done about Al-Shabaab is yet to be revealed but we can be sure it will not be a white flag.

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi.

Image © UN Photo/Stuart Price
Caption: “Soldiers of the Somali National Army (SNA) walk at dusk under a rising crescent moon near the outskirts of Afgooye, a town to the west of Somali capital Mogadishu. On the third day of the SNA’s joint offensive with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), dubbed “Operation Free Shabelle”, troops have advanced to almost two kilometres outside the strategically important town, having captured along the way swathes of territory previously under the control of the Al Shabaab insurgent group.”


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