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In the Aftermath of the Nairobi Nightmare – Professor Hussein Solomon

October 2, 2013


In the Aftermath of the Nairobi Nightmare

by Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 22 (October 2013)

With close to 70 people confirmed dead and scores more injured, the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall must surely rank amongst the most atrocious attacks this year in Africa. Beyond the numbers however was the callous manner in which Al Shabab militants carried out the attack – indiscriminately killing women and children and first confirming whether the intended victim was Muslim or not. It is hoped that this latter aspect does not exacerbate the religious divide which has been simmering between Muslim and Christian Kenyans for some time. In this regard, it is important to recognize the positive role played by President Uhuru Kenyatta in uniting all Kenyans in this period of national tragedy. This is important in plural Kenya where many ethnic, regional and religious fault-lines exist.

Three reasons account for the Al Shabab terrorist assault on Nairobi. First, and historically, Al Shabab has both an Islamist and a nationalist agenda. Regarding the latter it believes that the Somali inhabited parts of Kenya – should be incorporated into Somalia.

Second, and more immediately, Kenya is part of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and supporting the Mogadishu government. In the past few years AMISOM has had remarkable success in reducing the territory controlled by Al Shabab. The self-styled emir of Al Shabab – Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr (also known as Godane) noted that they attacked the mall in response to Kenyan troops being in Somalia. Moreover he warned of further attacks, “Take your troops out or prepare for a long-lasting war, blood, destruction and evacuation”[i]. If this was the strategic aim of striking at Nairobi, it proved to be a dismal failure. Far from weakening their resolve, the Westgate attack has re-invigorated the Kenyan government’s determination to neutralize Al Shabab on Somali territory. Indeed, this was predictable. In July, 2010 Al Shabab bombed the Ugandan capital of Kampala on account of its involvement in AMISOM.  This, too, served only to bolster the resolve of Yoweri Museveni and his government to stay the course in Somalia. No government wishes to be dictated to by terrorists via blackmail.

The third reason accounting for the attack on Kenya could also be the result of internal power struggles inside Al Shabab. For some time the Somali militant movement has had two power centres. One, nominally associated with Robow, which was perceived to be more pragmatic, more nationalist in orientation and one willing to work through Somalia’s clan system. The other was reflected by Godane – more hardline, more extremist, more in tune with the global jihadi project represented by Al Qaeda. In June, this year, following fierce internal fighting which saw the assassination of rivals, the Godane faction was in the ascendancy. The attack on Kenya is a direct result of both the dominant ideology of the new Al Shabab as well as an attempt by Godane to consolidate his control over the organization. The “success” of the operation will clearly in the short-term boost his jihadist credentials and grant him greater legitimacy amongst the rank-and-file of Al Shabab.

At the same time, in the medium to long-term, Godane’s success is Al Shabab’s failure. The Nairobi attack is an acknowledgement of the success of AMISOM which has considerably reduced Al Shabab’s ability to occupy territory and even to manoeuvre within Somalia itself. Second, the terrorist attack has re-invigorated foreign assistance to the government in Mogadishu. Third, there is a realization that with Godane as the leader of the organization that there is no possibility of some mediation between Mogadishu and Al Shabab – the neutralization of the movement has become the goal of regional countries and foreign governments.

From a counter-terrorism perspective, the Nairobi attack brings home the reality that there is much room for improvement. This is obvious given the scale of the attack and the tremendous planning that went into it. According to Nairobi-based security expert, Colonel Benjamin Muema, the terrorist cell that struck at the Westgate mall was operating in Kenya for some time. They had the blueprint of the building. They rented premises within the mall to stock up supplies of explosives, grenades and ammunition[ii]. In contrast to this meticulous planning on the part of Al Shabab, the Kenyan counter-terrorism force took over an hour to deploy. In addition, Kenya’s parliament is probing its security services given the fact that there were warnings of an imminent assault on Nairobi. In addition, it would seem that the security services were unaware of the existence of a storm water drainage system through which the surviving attackers could have fled.

At the same time, as evidence mounts of a South African connection to the Kenya attack through British-born Samantha Lewthwaite, it should not be forgotten that Al Shabab is already an international organization with links to Boko Haram, the Movement for Unity and Jihad, Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. For this reason, a critical re-examination of the existing African counter-terrorism security architecture is sorely needed.

[i] Sudarsan Raghavan, “A bookish control freak who kills off his rivals,” Cape Argus, 27 September 2013, p. 15.

[ii] Afua Hirsch, “Morgues in Nairobi prepare for an influx of bodies,” Mail and Guardian, 27 September-3 October 2013, p. 4.


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