Terror in Nairobi

Print edition : November 01, 2013

Smoke rises from the Westgate building after explosions at the mall on September 23. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/REUTERS

President Uhuru Kenyatta. Photo: THOMAS MUKOYA/REUTERS

In this image released by the Kenyan Defence Forces, men carrying automatic weapons are seen in a shop before the siege at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Photo: AP

Kenyan soldiers move in formation, clearing the top floor balcony and interior of Westgate mall on September 24. Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP

A security officer helps a wounded woman outside the mall on September 21. Photo: Khalil Senosi/AP

Women carrying children run for safety as gunmen go on a shooting spree in the mall on September 21. Photo: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

Security personnel, crouched behind a ledge, near the beseiged shopping mall on September 23. Photo: TONY KARUMBA/AFP

A picture released by the Kenyan presidency shows a destroyed section of the Westgate mall on September 26. Photo: AFP

Al Shabab, which is battling Kenyan troops inside Somalia, guns down 67 people inside an elite Nairobi mall in a “Mumbai-style” attack.

NAIROBI, KENYA’S CAPITAL, was among the first major cities to experience an Al Qaeda terror attack. In fact, the 1998 dual attack on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, announced the terror organisation’s arrival on the world stage. This time, the terror attack in Nairobi, which started on September 21, was a prolonged and bloody affair, lasting more than three days. The al Shabab (Islamic Youth) militia, which is battling Kenyan troops inside Somalia, claimed responsibility for the occupation of Nairobi’s biggest mall, Westgate, for more than four days.

Although there was a show of national unity when the terrorists struck, questions are now being asked in Kenya about the government’s handling of the incident. The Kenyan media have reported that there were clear signals that a terror attack was imminent. An intelligence file leaked to the media had warned of a “Mumbai-style attack” in Nairobi “where the operatives storm into a building with guns and grenades and probably hold hostages”. Senior Kenyan officials, according to the media, including four Cabinet Ministers and the defence chief, were aware of the intelligence intercepts. The intelligence was passed on to the Kenyan authorities as early as January. Al Shabab, according to reports coming from the region, had painstakingly planned the logistics of the attack over a long period of time. The location for the attack was chosen carefully.

The Westgate mall is frequented by the Kenyan elite and expatriates. An al Shabab spokesman noted that the mall was frequented by “the one per cent of the one per cent”. Nairobi is a city polarised by class. The rich elite, who constitute a tiny portion of the population, lead a comfortable life while the majority of its residents live a miserable existence in slums and crowded localities.

President Uhuru Kenyatta went on national television on September 24 to announce that the security forces had ended the siege by the terrorists. He said 67 people had been gunned down inside the mall. The President’s nephew and his fiancé were among those killed in the attack. In the casualty list were people of many nationalities, including at least three Indian citizens. Many Kenyan Indians, belonging mainly to the business community, were killed or injured. Five security personnel died in the operation to flush out the terrorists. More than 150 people were injured in the attack. The casualty figures are bound to increase as the debris is cleared. Three floors of the mall collapsed in the course of the three-day gunfight. The Kenyan forces, according to reports, used heavy weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, in their effort to secure the mall. In the first week of October, video footage that had emerged showed soldiers engaged in anti-terror operations looting cash and valuables from the mall.

Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed had initially stated that it was Al Qaeda and not al Shabab that was behind the attack and that some Westerners, including a wanted British female terrorist, were involved in it. Al Shabab vehemently denied this and stated that only Somalis were involved in the attack. Western governments have not subscribed to the Kenyan government’s claim that their citizens were involved in it. Among the foreigners named by the Kenyan authorities was Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of Germaine Lindsay, who blew himself up on a London underground train in 2005 killing 27 commuters. It is not clear how many terrorists were involved in the operation although Amina Mohamed put the number at 20 at the time of the attack. Western intelligence sources now say that only four or six highly motivated fighters were involved in the attack.

“We have been badly hurt, but we have been brave, united and strong. Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed. We have defeated our enemies and shown the whole world what we can accomplish,” Kenyatta said in his speech. But as the dust settles down, many questions will be asked. There are fears that the Kenyan economy could be adversely impacted by the recent events. The economy has been on a steady growth track but is at the same time heavily dependent on tourism revenues and foreign direct investments.

During the latest attack, an al Shabab spokesman threatened more action of a similar kind if Kenyan troops persisted in prolonging their stay inside Somalia. Al Shabab said Kenyans should be prepared for more terror strikes if their government did not withdraw its forces from Somalia. “Take your troops out or prepare for a long war, blood, destruction and evacuation,” was one of the messages posted by the al Shabab leader, Ahmed Godane. Godane’s jehadist resume includes fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir. He had got a scholarship to study Islamic theology in Pakistan in the 1990s.

Al Shabab had staged a terror attack in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, in 2010, killing more than 74 people. Uganda had taken the lead in sending troops to fight the Somali insurgent groups. Kenyan and Ugandan troops constitute the bulk of the African Union (A.U.) troops deployed in Somalia.

In 2011, Kenya suddenly decided to send thousands of its troops to Somalia to fight al Shabab. Until then, the Kenyan government had been reluctant to get involved directly in the internal conflict that had been raging in Somalia since 1991. The A.U. was initially against neighbouring states sending troops to Somalia under its flag. Kenyan troops took more than a year to drive out al Shabab from its stronghold in the port city of Kismayo. Before that, A.U. forces drove out al Shabab from Mogadishu and handed over the Somali capital to its government. But the Kenyan forces have not permitted the provisional government to administer the Kismayo port and airport independently and have instead backed a local warlord.

In February 2012, the al Shabab militia formally announced that it had started taking orders from Al Qaeda. That decision led to many of its fighters quitting in protest. The group’s goals since its inception were geared towards achieving national unity, not global jehad. The attack on the Nairobi mall also fits the pattern. Al Shabab was initially part of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), funded by the Somali business community, which had briefly brought peace and stability to most of Somalia in 2006 by expelling a bunch of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-supported warlords from Mogadishu.

But the West suspected the ICU of harbouring a few Al Qaeda-linked elements. In 2007, with the help of its allies in the region, notably Ethiopia at that time, it ousted the ICU from power in Mogadishu. The capital city and much of Somalia was once again plunged into anarchy and chaos after Ethiopia invaded the country. Al Shabab was further radicalised when many of its leaders fell prey to American missile and drone attacks. Their popularity waned among the Somali public as they refused international aid in 2011 to famine-struck areas under their control. More than a quarter of a million Somalis perished, many of them children, owing to famine. But the dispatch of Kenyan troops to Somalia and al Shabab’s determination to resist made the militia acceptable to large segments of the Somali population.

Kenya, along with Uganda and Ethiopia, are key allies of the United States in the Horn of Africa region, in its so-called war on terror. The U.S. has been bankrolling the Ethiopian, Ugandan and Kenyan military thrusts into Somalia. The Los Angeles Times reported last year that the U.S. was “heavily engaged” in Somalia but this time “African troops are doing the fighting and dying”. “Officially the troops are under the auspices of the African Union. But in truth, according to interviews with U.S. and African officials and senior officers and budget documents, the 15,000 force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon, trained and supplied by the U.S. government and guided by dozens of retired foreign military personnel, hired by private contractors,” it had reported.

Close cooperation between the Kenyan government and Western security agencies was on display during the latest attack. Kenya is one of the largest recipients of the U.S. State Department’s anti-terrorism assistance (ATA). The Kenyan government, according to reports, took the help of U.S., United Kingdom, and Israeli anti-terror experts to flush out the terrorists. The Westgate mall was promoted by a Nairobi-based Israeli entrepreneur. According to media reports, Israeli Special Forces were the first to arrive to help their Kenyan counterparts. Britain anyway has Special Forces training the Kenyan army, and MI6 officers are stationed in the country. The CIA station in Nairobi is among the largest in Africa.

Kenyatta, after winning the presidential election earlier in the year, had reiterated the government’s commitment to continue with its strong military presence inside Somalia. Kenya, besides sharing a 700-km border with Somalia, has a large Somali-speaking population of its own. Anti-Somali riots had occurred in Nairobi on previous occasions, leading to the death of many ethnic Somalis. Around 20 per cent of Kenya’s population is Muslim. Many Kenyans fervently hope that the sizable Somali-Kenyan population that resides in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh is not subjected to another backlash. Mobs had targeted Somali residences and shops last year after a bomb exploded on a mini bus.

A prominent Muslim cleric, Sheikh Ibrahim Ishmail, was killed in early October in Mombasa along with three others while he was travelling in his car. Kenyan authorities and the media had accused the cleric of supporting al Shabab. Rioting broke out in the important port city and tourist hub, with Muslim mobs targeting Christian places of worship. Four people were killed in the riots.

As it is, the wounds left behind by the inter-ethnic clashes in the wake of the disputed December 2007 elections are yet to heal. Both the President and the Vice-President, William Ruto, are facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged culpability in the killings that took place then. Kenyatta managed to defeat Raila Odinga by a narrow margin in the presidential election earlier this year.

The result of the election clearly showed that Kenyans mainly voted on the basis of ethnic affiliations. Kenyatta is a Kikuyu while Rutto is a Kalenjin. The Kikuyus and the Kalenjins have been the two most dominant ethnic groups in the country and have shared the presidency between them since the dawn of independence. The West had indicated its preference for Odinga, who belongs to the Luo ethnic group and is not indicted by the ICC. President Barack Obama, in a pointed snub to Kenyatta, visited neighbouring Tanzania earlier in the year.