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The Westgate Attack Shows How Desperate al-Shabaab Have Become

The group are losing power in Somalia, so have turned to killing people in Kenyan shopping malls instead.

by Alex Chitty
02 October 2013, 11:00am

The last couple of weeks have been incredibly rough for the people of Nairobi. On the 21st of September, ten or 15 AK-wielding terrorists – almost certainly from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab – took control of the city’s largest shopping centre, the Westgate Mall. Over a long and nasty three-day siege, with much of the world’s media camped out outside, the "militants" killed at least 61 of their civilian prisoners and six members of the Kenyan security forces.

Finally, after days and nights of sporadic gunfire and frenzied confusion, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the end of the siege. Three floors of the mall had been reduced to rubble (seemingly thanks to the heavy-handed "rescue" techniques used by Kenyan Special Forces), and the worst fears of experts who’d warned of this type attack had been realised: Al-Shabaab, a group whose attacks are mostly limited to their home turf of Somalia, had carried out a spectacular, embarrassing and tragic attack in the heart of one of Africa’s most important cities.

When I arrived outside the mall on the 27th on a very quick visit to Nairobi, much of the action was over. Only the dregs of the rolling news crowd were left in the makeshift media centre, analysing the events of the previous days every half-hour. The general mood among the press was one of disappointment – as one Dutch reporter told me, "The worst thing now is that the building has stopped smoking, so there’s nothing to film – it really sucks."

Locals, however, were still shocked by the events; one told me that he'd been expecting a Shabaab attack in the city for some time, but never expected anything quite as bloody as a three-day siege. The city’s main morgue was busy, and a series of funeral processions sat in Nairobi’s famously heavy traffic. Police outside the mall were skittish, some barking at me to go away when I approached (although others were keen to pose for pictures). Needless to say, my pleas to be allowed inside for a poke around didn’t work out.

The incident pointed to what look like major failings in Kenyan intelligence work over the past few years. Like the man I spoke to outside the mall, experts have worried about an attack in Nairobi for months, and this siege hinted at growing international ambitions for al-Shabaab. Until recently, the group had been seen as in terminal decline, losing territory in Somalia throughout 2012 and hundreds of their estimated 5,000 fighters to African Union peacekeeping operations in the World’s Most Dangerous State.

But as al-Shabaab has lost power and influence in Somalia, it seems to be changing tactics. The number of terrorist attacks (as opposed to more conventional military manoeuvres) in the capital Mogadishu seems to be on the rise, and the Westgate attack is their most deadly yet outside their home turf. Not content with stoning adulterous women, recruiting child soldiers and taking young girls as "wives", they also want to set up an Islamic caliphate across the whole of Africa, linking up with their Islamist brothers in the west.

Ironically, the group perhaps most affected by the attack has been Kenya’s massive Somali population, who, in general, hate al-Shabaab more than anyone. Since the outbreak of all-consuming civil war in 1991, more than a million Somalis have made a home in Kenya – many as refugees in the world’s largest refugee camp and many in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi (and the only Somali ghetto to be named after a leafy town in Hampshire).

Somalis in Eastleigh and elsewhere have already felt the aftershock of the attacks. My friend Mohamed, a Somali who spends half his time in Nairobi, has already been shaken down at the airport while trying to leave the country. Thanks to a UN visa, he managed to get through. But many of his friends have been verbally abused at the airport and prevented from hopping on to (expensive) flights back to Mogadishu. Others had trouble getting exit visas, meaning delays and more cancelled flights.

Mohamed says residents of Eastleigh are worried about reprisal attacks, as there's a risk of racism among Kenyans toward Somalis flaring up. Others have reported abuse in public, increased stop-and-searches of Somalis around Nairobi and a rise in the number of police squads cruising Eastleigh. They worry, says Mohamed, that over time the blowback from angry Kenyans may get much worse – small-scale al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya over recent years have each resulted in violence and intimidation against the Somali community.

The attack could have even been deliberately designed to stoke conflict between Somalis and Kenyans in Nairobi, according to one expert. Until now, goes the logic, al-Shabaab has avoided pissing off Kenyans so as to prevent a backlash against Somalis living in the country, because that could cause bad blood between the terrorists and their compatriots.

Now, with al-Shabaab panicking and in disarray, they’re ready to lash out regardless of the consequences. Al-Shabaab may even want to fire up Kenyans and Somalis, promoting conflict between them and portraying itself as the only thing protecting Somalis from the non-believers abusing them in Eastleigh and across Kenya. In order to stop that, Kenyans need to rein it in a bit on the anti-Somali rhetoric and racism.

The next stage for many over here is a hang-wringing session over whether Shabaab "poses a threat to the West"; it probably doesn’t. Westgate was an organisational coup for al-Shabaab (it looks like they managed to rent a shop space in the mall to prepare for the attack), but it lies just a few hundred miles from the porous border between the two states.

Western pundits really don’t need to worry. Aside from the work of peacekeepers in Somalia, al-Shabaab’s biggest problem is the good will of the Somali people, most of whom want to move home in peace and live lives free from cultish lunacy. The number of these Somalis is constantly growing, while al-Shabaab looks increasingly fractured and scared. The militant group is still extremely dangerous in Somalia and beyond, but its days are definitely numbered.  

Follow Alex on Twitter: @alexchitty

More from Somalia and al-Shabaab:

Somali Jihadists Growing Pains Are a Pain For Everyone

Al Qaeda's Somalia Cell is Fractured and Dangerous

Rapping for Peace in Somalia