There has been much discussion of whether the murders and siege at Westgate, one of the poshest malls in East Africa, indicate a resurgence for the Somali group or the desperate act of a desperate terrorist movement. This is in some ways the wrong question.
A group of committed men with rifles will almost always have the capacity to take over a shopping mall, or a hotel, or even a school and wreak havoc, particularly in parts of the world like Kenya, which has a highly unstable and lawless neighbor in Somalia on its northeastern flank and imperfect security services. While in this case the attackers say they were motivated by Kenya's involvement in the military effort to dislodge Al Shabab from Somalia, the lasting impression for most observers will be the savagery of killing men, women and children enjoying a weekend day out.
To be sure, some will disagree. Fox News ran a story yesterday citing "experts" as determining the rampage would lead to a surge in recruitment for Al Qaeda and aligned movements in the US, since it demonstrates a continued potency for terrorist tactics.
Those experts, I think, are going to be proven fortunately mistaken.
The nihilistic violence that Al Qaeda and aligned groups engage in has long been a major hindrance to recruitment for Al Qaeda. During the height of the war in Iraq, the penchant of Al Qaeda's local affiliate for murdering civilians at prayer, on the way to work, or out shopping for dinner, played a crucial role in stiffening the Iraqi public's resolve against the movement.
In 2005 Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri entreated the then leader of the movement in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to leave off the wanton killing of civilians, saying it was undermining Al Qaeda's long term goals. He was ignored, and by 2007 Sunni Arab tribes that had been passively supportive of Al Qaeda fighters had turned on the movement.
The Westgate attack is precisely the sort of killing that Zawahiri, if his statements are anything to go by, understands hurts the movement. The death of one of the victims helps explain why.
Elif Yafuz, a Dutch woman who was 8 months pregnant, was gunned down when the attack began, along with her Australian partner Ross Langdon. I learned a little bit about them from friends on Facebook, who knew the couple from their time in Jakarta. Ms. Yafuz had devoted her adult life working on malaria and HIV eradication in Asia and Africa.
She received her Ph.D. from the Harvard School of Public Health earlier this year, with a dissertation that focused on malaria in eastern Africa, building off of fieldwork in Uganda. She and Mr. Langdon had recently returned to Africa, and she had started a job with the Clinton Foundation, focusing on malaria vaccine programs in Tanzania.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the mosquito-borne disease is one of the great killers of children. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that malaria claimed 655,000 lives in 2010, 91 percent of those in sub-saharan Africa. Of those who died from the disease that year, an estimated 86 percent of the victims were children. As bad as that picture is, it's a big improvement from the middle of the last decade, with deaths down about 30 percent since then.
One of the reasons for that is the work of people like Yafuz. Former President Bill Clinton said in a statement on her death: "Elif devoted her life to helping others, particularly people in developing countries suffering from malaria and HIV/AIDS. She had originally worked with our Health Access Initiative during her doctoral studies, and we were so pleased that she had recently rejoined us as a senior vaccines researcher based in Tanzania. Elif was brilliant, dedicated, and deeply admired by her colleagues, who will miss her terribly."
Nairobi has become a regional hub for both aid workers and businessmen in eastern Africa, and if Al Shabab gets its way, the ability of those people to work and contribute to improving standards of living will grow harder and more dangerous. Less work would be done, and more children would die, if the Shabab gets its way. And that's the message sent by the attack.
While some people may find that a compelling message, they are thankfully few and far between. Will more attacks like the ongoing one in Nairobi follow? Certainly possible. But these are the acts of people striking, directly and indirectly, at the innocent and the weak. Such attacks do resonate - but they generate revulsion and horror.