Kenya heaved a collective sigh of relief when the four-day siege at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall finally ended. Yet the aftermath of the massacre is in many ways turning out to be as dramatic — and grisly — as the event itself.
The sophistication of the plot has stunned investigators. The attackers — members of the Somalian Islamist extremist group al-Shabaab — spent weeks reconnoitering the site. They knew every exit and safe haven, and they appear to have leased a shop where they pre-positioned ammunition, explosives and heavy weaponry. Their use of social media was a case study in digital virtuosity.
The attackers issued a clear demand: Kenya must withdraw the forces that it deployed two years ago as part of an international effort to drive al-Shabaab out of Somalia and return the country to government rule and a semblance of normal life. Their strike, they said, was intended chiefly as a warning to Kenya’s government: Change your policy, or else. The attackers also made a great show of telling the world that they had taken special care to safeguard the lives of fellow Muslims during the assault.
Tell that to a colleague here in Nairobi who was trapped in the mall for five hours as gunfire echoed all around. She emerged unharmed to find that two members of her family were dead and a third wounded. The survivor was a nine-year-old boy, shot in the hip. As he lay bleeding, terrorists trained their guns on his mother and 15-year-old sister.
Recite a passage from the Koran, they ordered. Being Muslim, they did so. The terrorists shot them anyway.
“Why did you do that? Why did you shoot them?” the boy wailed.
“Because they were not wearing the hijab,” one of the gunmen replied.
Amid the chaos, a French woman grabbed the child and carried him to safety.
We have heard many such stories in recent days. Brutal as they sound, worse is likely to come.
A police doctor working with forensic teams left the scene in shock, telling reporters of seeing bodies beheaded and others bearing clear evidence of unspeakable torture.
He recounted entering the still-smoldering ruins of the mall last week and seeing bodies hanging from hooks. Many of those taken hostage suffered terrible deaths. There were bodies with their noses and ears wrenched off with pliers. Others had their eyes gouged out. The terrorists seem to have used knives to shave some victims’ fingers like pencils, he said, forcing them to write their names in their own blood.
At least 72 people were killed in the attack. How much that toll increases and how graphic investigators will be in describing the scenes they encounter remains to be seen.
It is important to understand what is at stake in this gruesome episode, not only for Kenya, but for the region and beyond.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta made clear almost immediately that last week’s events will not weaken Kenya’s determination to maintain its policy on Somalia, even as he confirmed that he, too, lost loved ones in the Nairobi massacre.
The warlords of al-Shabaab are not the only threat to the region’s security. Today, an arc of crisis stretches from Somalia on the Indian Ocean across the African Sahel to the Atlantic coast.
Sudan, another country in Kenya’s neighborhood, is fractured by rebellion. In the south, secessionist groups are fighting in Kordofan and Blue Nile. To the west, in Darfur, protesters burned government buildings in the provincial capital of Nyala while the siege in Nairobi played out. Days later, riots erupted in cities across Sudan, including the capital, Khartoum. According to news reports, security forces have shot more than 100 people, adding to a toll of casualties that has made this year one of the deadliest in Sudan’s recent history.