However, the attack also has local roots.
A report for the UN security council in July suggested that Kenyan radicals, including a movement known as al-Hijra, were an increasing threat. Al-Hijra operates through a network of preachers based in the Majengo slum, in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh — home to many of the Somali exile community. President Kenyatta has been at pains to prevent cracks appearing in Kenyan society. He went out of his way to refer to Westgate as an attack on the “national family.”
Yet, to young, unemployed ethnic Somalis, living in Nairobi slums, this will have a hollow ring. Many feel discriminated against and persecuted by the authorities. With al-Shabaab holding out the promise of a US$300 a month salary if they join the struggle, there has been a ready flow of recruits.
It is the international and local dimension of the Westgate attack that makes it so difficult to respond to. The Kenyan government is right not to unleash the police or military against the vulnerable Somali community. At the same time it has to strengthen its security. The Kenyan reaction to the mall assault was slow and hesitant.
The international community will have to find a means of matching al-Qaeda’s global reach if further local atrocities like this are to be avoided. Providing assistance after the event is just mopping up spilled blood. Intelligence needs to be shared, training provided and links put in place before the next attack takes place — because one thing seems certain: We will not have long to wait.
Martin Plaut is senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.