With casualty numbers rising, at least 62 people are dead, many missing, and hundreds injured in a brazen al-Shabaab attack at the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
According to unconfirmed reports, between 10 to 15 attackers were involved in the double-pronged operation. Al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage stated, “Kenya will not get peace unless they pull their military out of Somalia.”
Many media reports cited witnesses who said that al-Shabaab militants were specifically targeting non-Muslims by allowing Muslims to leave, asking potential victims “recite a Muslim prayer,” or correctly answer “who was the mother of the prophet Mohamed.” However, much of the casualties appeared to be caused by indiscriminate fire and explosions from AK-47 and G-3 assault rifles and grenades.
Given the tempo, nature, location, and quantity of al-Shabaab attacks in the last year (spanning Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya), it is misleading to say the group is on the back foot or merely seeking a “desperate” cry for publicity amid infighting. The Shabaab “civil war” appears to be winding down in favor of top leader Ahmed Abdi Godane due to the death [e.g., Sh. Ibrahim al-Afghani, Omar Hammami], silence [Sh. Mukhtar Robow], capitulation [Sh. Fu’ad Shongole] or fleeing [Sh. Hassan Dahir Aweys] of dissidents.
Rather, al-Shabaab’s Westgate attack could be intended to show it still has sophisticated capabilities and look to provoke an unwarranted response against Somalis or Muslims that would further underline the group’s argument regarding the marginalization and abuse against these communities.
As of Monday, Kenyan forces were plotting the next step of its response with the alleged help of Israeli, British, and American advisors. After the Westgate saga ends, it will be critical to see how Kenya adjusts its security strategy both inside Kenya and Somalia.
Kenya In Somalia
Since launching Operation Linda Nchi (“Protect the Country”) in October 2011 after a series of kidnappings blamed on al-Shabaab, many observers have noted that the KDF’s ongoing presence has failed to achieve its objectives of:
- Routing the group from its “center of gravity” in Somalia and
- Establishing a buffer zone in the bordering Jubba region through key Somali allies like Ahmed Madobe’s Ras Kamboni.
The offensive by the Somali government, AMISOM, and Ethiopia that forced al-Shabaab to withdraw from many (but not all) major towns has stalled after forcing al-Shabaab to withdraw from its financial hub of Kismayo.
As a result, al-Shabaab is under much less pressure and has continued to focus on its bread-and-butter of asymmetrical attacks on convoys and logistical lines while holding most towns and roads outside the regional capitals. It also has tried to maintain local support through its charity work, recreational events, and construction efforts.
Importantly, al-Shabaab continues to freely cross the border to attack (and in some cases kidnap) Kenyan security forces–even when Kenyan officials were aware of intelligence indicating an imminent attack.
Rather than create a stable “buffer zone,” Kenya’s role in the “Jubaland issue” has led to potentially destabilizing inter-clan feuds and a political quagmire that is only now temporarily being held together by a deal reached in Ethiopia among only a few parties to the conflict.
Lastly, accusations that the KDF in Kismayo has profited from the illegal charcoal trade or are exploiting its relationship with the Ogaden clan-dominated Ras Kamboni have resulted in some calling for KDF troops to be placed in Kismayo and could make certain communities susceptible to collaborate with al-Shabaab or other armed groups, as well as to deny providing the KDF with helpful info for its operations.
It is also feeding into a familiar narrative.
In recent years, al-Shabaab spokespersons and pro-Shabaab media have continued to message its presence as trying to govern and marginalize Somalis in traditionally Somali lands–even recently translating into Somali a controversial 2008 Kenyan op-ed calling for Ethiopia and Kenya to “annex” Somalia, as indicated by the mock map.
Kenya’s long-term presence and perceived bias in Somalia could make these narratives more resonant and make it tougher for the KDF to solicit the help of local communities during the course of its operations.
Kenya’s Weakness versus Al-Shabaab’s Strength
Though it receives some AMISOM assistance, Kenya continues to spend valuable resources in Somalia where its forces do not have significant experience in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations.
This has also removed Kenyan forces that could be monitoring al-Shabaab and other criminal activities in many areas of its under-guarded northeastern province, which some Kenyan police have warned are too risky for travel.
In contrast, al-Shabaab has responded against Kenya with a series of attacks that fit within its expertise in asymmetrical warfare and are comparably low cost operations. For example, the Westgate attack likely took sophisticated planning and coordination but it does not appear to be a financially prohibitive one.
Put all together, Kenya’s Somalia operations arguably are weakening Kenya’s domestic security sector and may have a role in exacerbating the fundamental socio-political drivers of conflict in Somalia’s Jubba region where it seeks to create a stable buffer zone.
Projecting long-term, Kenya’s strategy in Somalia could prove expensive (note bin Laden’s call to drain enemies’ economies), ineffective, and a threat to security in Somalia and its own domestic security if not approached in a more balanced and prudent way.
Security in Kenya
After a series of small explosions in Kenya in 2012, Kenyan officials often blamed insecurity on Somali refugees or Kenyan-Somalis, which caused ethnic scuffles that created concerns violence was going to escalate to levels seen during in the electoral crisis of 2007-2008.
The scapegoating and abuse meted out to certain communities is a key driver in decreasing the trust and cooperation needed from all Kenyans to fight pro-Shabaab elements and it is hard to measure how much sympathy this has created for al-Shabaab.
In reality, the logic to target ethnic Somalis ignores the fact that al-Shabaab has recruited a notable number of non-Somalis for attacks in the country.
Additionally, some of the most high-profile pro-Shabaab figures in Kenya have been ethnic Kenyans, including the late radical cleric Sheikh Aboud Rogo, who’s killing blamed on Kenyan security officials drew ire across ethnic lines, and Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali, a student of Rogo who may or may not be in Somalia.
Rogo and other radical religious figures have been able to exploit these abuses and use their own charismatic preaching in recruitment efforts. However, many youth–especially in Nairobi’s Eastleigh and Majengo areas–also have been drawn in due to financial incentives and in one alleged case–kidnapped.
The Kenyan government may find more progress in combatting the influence of al-Shabaab and its sympathizers by building bridges between communities rather than scapegoating, offering under-served communities more resources to serve youth and families, and undertaking serious reform and accountability for security forces’ actions on civilians.
While Kenya’s current approach to al-Shabaab has garnered some successes, it has created tension in Somalia and left unaddressed shortcomings at home. Rather than respond in blind rage to the Westgate attack, Kenya should meditate and answer soberly to the real questions that it is confronting in trying to increase stability at home and abroad.