Can Kenya prevent future attacks by Al Shabab?
As police scour the rubble in Nairobi's Westgate mall, analysts warn that the country will be vulnerable to future attacks unless security policies are changed.
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Latin America Editor
Whitney Eulich is the Monitor's Latin America editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She also curates the Latin America Monitor Blog.
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The Kenyan government announced today it was clearing the upscale Nairobi shopping mall where terrorists staged a four-day operation that left more than 60 people dead. As police scour the rubble for remaining hostages, attention is now turning to Kenya’s ability to deal with the attack launched by Somali militant group Al Shabab.
“Part of the reason the attack was so devastating is the Kenyans’ lack of experience with a situation like this,” Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counterterrorism official told The Wall Street Journal.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, elected earlier this year with little experience in high-level government positions, declared three days of national mourning starting Wednesday. “In resolutely looking forward and never turning back, we have defeated our enemies,” Mr. Kenyatta said.
RECOMMENDED: What is Somalia's Al Shabab?
This is the largest attack on Kenyan soil since a 1998 US embassy bombing by Al Qaeda killed more than 200 people.
The government claimed to subdue the terrorists earlier this week, only to have gun battles reignite, reports the WSJ.
And some worry that ending the siege at Westgate mall is a short-lived victory in Kenya's fight against Al Shabab. The Telegraph reports there was little “chatter” intercepted about an attack in the leadup to the mall siege, which began on Saturday afternoon. According to the BBC, “difficult questions about whether the country should rethink its security are now being asked.”
A huge part of Kenya's security is handled by private contractors, which employ low-paid workers who have limited contact with the state security system.
Some members of the National Assembly have called for the overhaul of intelligence and immigration departments, blaming their laxity for allowing militants to enter the country.
Kenya and neighbouring Ethiopia are regarded as key allies of the West in the region, and are considered the major bulwarks in stopping the spread of terrorism.
With 11 suspected militants in custody and at least five dead, officials now hope to piece together the backstory on the attack.
Social media accounts reportedly linked to Al Shabab claimed the attack was retaliation for the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia, where soldiers were sent in 2011 to fight the Al Qaeda-linked militant group.
"Everybody knew this was coming," Cedric Barnes, an analyst at the International Crisis Group told Al Jazeera. "It demonstrates that al-Shabaab is an active threat against these targets. We know that many other plots have been disrupted over the past two years – this is the one that got through."
Al Shabab is accused of a swath of attacks against religious sites and minibuses in a Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, as well as towns and refugee camps along the border, reports Al Jazeera.
Some analysts believe Al Shabab received greater outside support for this attack, according to WSJ.
Analysts have said that the resources involved in mounting this size of an attack in Kenya would be difficult for Al Shabab, suggesting the Al Qaeda affiliate might be working more closely with the worldwide terror organization to receive help with recruits, funding, and logistics.
“They can’t just walk into Westgate from rural Somalia,” said Cedric Barnes, the Horn of Africa director for International Crisis Group.
Numerous unconfirmed reports of international participation have emerged. One British man is in custody after trying to fly out of Kenya this week, and two or three Somali-Americans were reportedly involved.
The Christian Science Monitor notes that while this attack may not be a sign that Al Shabab is on its way out, “many analysts argue the siege signals desperation – a final effort to reverse a decline – rather than some form of resurgence.”
The choice of a soft target like a shopping mall, for example, where victims are unarmed citizens as opposed to soldiers, is evidence of the terrorist group trying to gain attention and come off as in control, Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studied (CSIS), told the Monitor.
“This was an attack against a pretty defenseless mall on a Sunday afternoon,” she points out.
“The speculation is that Al Shabab leadership wants to make a big, bold show that Shabab is still relevant and still has the capacity for horrific violence,” she adds.
But as horrific as it is, it is not a particularly sophisticated attack requiring “the sort of command and control” seen in other terrorist groups.
That could speak to their ability or inclination to carry out attacks in the United States as well. To date, Al Shabab has had relatively parochial ambitions.
Declan Galvin writes in Foreign Policy that one goal in choosing the Westgate Mall target may have been to draw out a stronger reaction from Kenya.
Judging by the large number of civilian casualties they sought to inflict, one of their aims was almost certainly to provoke an overreaction by Kenya's armed forces and government against the Somali population living in Kenya. Kenya has a long history of carrying out draconian military campaigns against "problem groups" within the country, and the country's large Somali minority (pop.: ca. 1 million) presents an obvious target for reprisals. Terrorist groups often try to provoke overreaching by the governments they target. The resulting polarization contributes to instability in the target country, sometimes allowing terrorists to boost their legitimacy by posing as protectors of the persecuted.
Kenyatta has dismissed calls by militants for Kenya to pull out of Somalia this week, and a sense of national unity has swept the mourning nation.
Kenya’s Standard newspaper published an editorial entitled “Why terror will never break Kenya spirit – not now, not ever,” that supports the president’s decision to stay in Somalia.
One lesson to be drawn from past terrorist incidents from around the world, many of which left scores or hundreds of people dead and even more injured, is that giving in to their demands only emboldens them to stage more spectacular acts leading to more deaths. This is why Kenyans support President Kenyatta’s resolve that the country will not withdraw its troops from Somalia as the terrorists demand.
On the contrary, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) will stay in Somalia until their mandate — which is to stabilise the war-torn nation — is over. It is to be hoped, too, that the elements in the Somali government who at one time agitated for the Kenyan troops to leave their country before their job was done, will take into account the high cost it is paying — not just in the number of soldiers killed in war but also the civilians made up of men, women and children who die in terrorist attacks like the current one — to offer even greater support and co-operation to KDF in particular and Amison in general….
In the meantime, the country remains united in grief and in courage.
RECOMMENDED: What is Somalia's Al Shabab?