The Kenyan security forces are picking through the rubble of the Westgate mall, attempting to piece together the details of the Sept. 21 attack. This was an atrocity that had both a clear international dimension and strong local roots.
Ten nations — from Ghana to China — are mourning their dead. At least six British subjects were killed. US President Barack Obama has promised FBI support in unraveling the plot, while British and Israeli experts are assisting the investigations.
It is highly likely that the attackers also came from many nations. When he spoke to the nation last night, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged the possibility.
“Intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack,” he said. “We cannot confirm the details at present.”
Whether Samantha Lewthaite — the ‘White Widow’ and obsession of the UK press — was part of the plot is, essentially, beside the point. There has been a steady flow of international supporters to join the ranks of radical Islamic movements in Kenya and Somalia for years.
This is how Osama bin Laden planned al-Qaeda. From the time he arrived in Sudan in 1991 until his expulsion five years later, bin Laden established cells across East Africa, including Kenya. Its members acquired safe houses, opened business fronts and married into the local Muslim community, which makes up nearly 30 percent of the population.
The first suicide attacks in the region took place on Aug. 7, 1998, when car bombs were simultaneously detonated outside the US embassies in Nairobi and the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. The explosions left 224 people dead and about 5,000 wounded.
The real boost to regional terrorism came when the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia took power in June 2006, ousting the notorious warlords who had ruled Mogadishu. The Islamic Courts ran the most effective administration the city had known since the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991.
The Islamic courts reached out to the US, but then-US president George W. Bush’s hardline assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, rejected the overtures. In late 2006 Frazer is believed to have quietly encouraged neighboring Ethiopia to invade Somalia, expelling the Islamists from Mogadishu.
The Union of Islamic Courts fled into exile, but its youth wing, al-Shabaab, took its place, launching an increasingly effective military campaign, until it held much of the capital, Mogadishu, as well as most of central and southern Somalia. Only African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi prevented Mogadishu from falling to the militants. Unable to capture the city, al-Shabaab hit back, bombing a sports club in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in July 2010, leaving 74 dead.
The regional dimension of the conflict was further ratcheted up in October 2011, when Kenya invaded Somalia. The Kenyan aim was to halt Islamic militant infiltration across its border from Somalia, by creating a “client” state in southern Somalia to act as a buffer state against Kenya’s enemies. It took months of heavy fighting before Kenyan forces captured the southern Somalia port of Kismayo in May last year and the state of “Jubland” was established.
For al-Shabaab, the Kenyan invasion was the last straw; they took the war on to Kenyan soil. Within days of the 2011 invasion a grenade was thrown into a pub in Nairobi. It was the first of many attacks targeting churches and police stations. These were all a prelude to the Sept. 21 assault on Westgate.
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.