Westfield Mall in Nairobi. Photo via Getty.
When I left Somaliland (northern Somalia) a few weeks ago, after two months spent listening to the chatter and news in cafes and ministries, I’d come to believe that the Somalia-based violent jihadist group al-Shabaab, while still dangerous, was fundamentally shattered. During my stay I chatted with former Shabaab supporters and even an ex-Shabaab soldier, Qawdhan, whose stories of infighting between older members, who believed in a limited, nationalist agenda, and the younger recruits who advocated international jihad, led me to believe that the organization, though swollen with manpower, had descended into paralyzed bickering, limiting its ability to act.
Today the president of Kenya announced the siege carried out by members of Shabaab on the Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi was over. Still, the attack, which began on Saturday when armed militants stormed the mall, killing civilians and taking hostages, made it clear my assumptions were incorrect. As of this writing, the body count sits at 67—61 civilians and six soldiers—with almost 200 wounded, at least ten of them officers, and the news remains dominated by images of bodies splayed on the ground and a plume of black smoke rising up from the mall.
Qawdhan was a member of the old Shabaab guard. During his time the group was composed of Somali nationalists pushing for an Islamic state as a means to end foreign interference in the country’s politics. He fled shortly after Moktar Ali Zubeyr (a.k.a. Ahmed Abdi Godane), a member of Qawdhan's Arab clan and Shabaab's current leader, officially affiliated the group with al Qaeda in early 2012, ushering in a new level of chaos and violence between the nationalist and international jihadist camps. By the end of this June, there were signs that the chaos might be tipping in Godane’s favor; Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the group’s longtime spiritual leader and advocate of limited, nationalist goals, fled Shabaab and surrendered to Somali government custody. In another recent boost to his authority, Godane’s forces purged two of his most vocal and visible opponents: Abu Mansoor al-Amriki and Usama al-Britani (the American and the Brit).
It’s hard not to suspect that Godane has just completed a purge of pure nationalists and jihadist dissenters from the ranks of Shabaab and launched this attack on the heels of his power consolidation to demonstrate a new agenda. Yet some reporters and analysts are reading this as a nationalist attack, taking Shabaab statements and Tweets—which claim Saturday’s incident is primarily a retaliation for the 2011 invasion of Shabaab-held southern Somalia by Kenyan troops—at face value.
And perhaps it is, but Shabaab was already retaliating in Kenya through small bombings, mainly on public transportation and in bus stations, from the time of the invasion onward, while it focused the bulk of its terror operations on the UN-backed Somali government in Mogadishu. The situation at Westgate recalls the sophisticated, coordinated tactics of, for instance, the 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks by the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. These tactics appear to be a Godane specialty, given his self-proclaimed role in the coordinated bombings in Kampala, Uganda—the first large-scale international attack by Shabaab—in the summer of 2010. And the targeting of a mall, protection of potential Muslim victims, and duration of the attack are all striking new tactics for Shabaab that suggest long-term, image-conscious policies.
Whether intentionally or not, Godane has placed himself in a good position to remodel Shabaab as a regional arm of al Qaeda rather than just a Somalia-centric affiliate. A network of recruiters bringing Muslim Kenyans into the Shabaab fold already exists—five Kenyans from the largely Muslim coast were arrested Saturday while trying to cross the border to join Shabaab—and Kenya has its own al Qaeda–affiliated organization, al-Hijra, which is a logical partner for Shabaab’s expansion into the region. It’s also farfetched to believe this attack could have been coordinated entirely from the marshes of southern Somalia, meaning it’s likely that local cells or Shabaab collaborators were already active in Kenya.
For Nairobi, the challenge to its security, both governmental and private, may have resounding effects. The city, nicknamed "Nai-robbery," is a place in which I've had the side mirrors stolen off the car I was in, while sitting in traffic, more than once in a single month. But the presence of private security companies, fences, and well-policed areas have created an image of safety and security—a feeling totally undermined by the ease with which one of the fancier establishments in town was taken over by terrorists. Further deflating Nairobi’s sense of self-sufficiency is the participation of Israeli, British, French, and American security experts in the retaking of the mall, which will provide fuel both for Shabaab’s rhetoric and for detractors of Kenya's security agencies. And with a number of foreigners killed in the attack, the large tourism sector will suffer while economic and political actors put Kenya under a new level of scrutiny.
Perhaps, as he claims through proxies and as many analysts seem to accept, Godane’s Shabaab is striking out at Kenya with the sole intention of pushing limited goals in southern Somalia. But if Godane were looking for a way to strike a quick and jagged blow at Kenya—to undermine the state’s security, plant the seed of reactionary violence and discord, and open it as a new front for Shabaab’s expansion into a regional power—he picked a tragically effective target.
Anyone who looks at the attack on Westgate and sees it as an act of desperation may be underestimating the possibility that this group has consolidated its power over a large, more idealistically homogenized and ethnically diverse core of power. By token of that diversity, anyone who believes this Shabaab attack is just a Somali problem is running the risk of both incorrectly singling out Somalis for backlash, and ignoring the fact that Shabaab has far and violently outgrown its original, more localized mission. Similarly, the idea that a withdrawal of Kenyan forces from Somalia will resolve this issue is naively misguided. The fact is, whether he’s thinking strategically or just firing wildly, Godane appears to be changing the nature and calculus of Shabaab—its ideology, composition, and strategy—calling for authorities to brace hard and react fast.
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