Kenya’s Brutal Coming of Age
Kenya’s Brutal Coming of Age
Drought and Conflict in Laikipia, Kenya
Drought and Conflict in Laikipia, Kenya
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Kenya’s Brutal Coming of Age

The terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall, in the center of this increasingly prosperous — for some at least — capital, is a cruelly ironic indicator of the arrival of Kenya as a serious regional power, a hub for international business and diplomacy, and a target for international Islamic armed radicals.

Even more so than the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies here and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the deadly mall attack — a four-day siege that began on Saturday and resulted in at least 60 deaths — is a reminder of Kenya’s coming of age. It heralds a difficult period for a country waging a war that is at once beyond its borders and very close to home.

Almost two years ago, the Kenyan military and allied Somali militias crossed into Somalia in an intervention with little consideration of the risks and consequences, for either country. Kenya’s military officers were convinced it would be a quick campaign, but they promptly ran into difficulties on unfamiliar terrain as their Somali allies squabbled.

Al Shabab, the Somali Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for the mall attack, turned, quickly and predictably, to guerrilla warfare. Two years later, Kenya (now part of the African Union force for Somalia) and its allies hold Kismayo, the main port in southern Somalia, but Al Shabab continues to control much of the hinterland and has made nationalist appeals to the local population against “foreign occupiers.” In addition, Al Shabab has strategically triggered heavy-handed security responses in Kenya to help radicalize and recruit Kenyans.

The weekend mall attack contradicted the conventional wisdom on Al Shabab — that it is divided and in decline — and shifts the onus to Kenya to demonstrate its unity and resolve.

Indeed, the complexity, planning and timing of the attack suggested a formidable and calculating enemy that is able to project influence well beyond its Somali base.

Beyond Somalia, Al Shabab is linked to other radical armed groups in Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula. It has developed a clandestine support network among Muslim populations, including Somalis, along the Kenyan coast.

As news reporting already suggests, the attack was the product of months of groundwork, to ensure both an immediate, horrific impact but also a lengthy standoff to preserve the media spotlight. The assault almost certainly drew on long, patient work by local networks and cells.

Commentators are asking a question as obvious as it is puzzling: What did the attackers hope to achieve?

Sadly for Kenya, there is no short answer. Al Shabab can on the one hand claim to have scored a major nationalist victory against Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, and on the other to have furthered a jihad against more abstract Western and “Zionist” interests. (The Westgate Mall, popular among foreigners, is owned by Israelis, and Kenya is a staunch friend of Israel.) As the standoff at the mall worsened, Al Shabab’s public messages became ever more strident. Its military spokesman, who goes by Abu Musab, even said in a radio broadcast that the attackers were mujahedeen, or holy warriors.

Unlike the last major terrorist attack in Nairobi, in 1998, this one was aimed at Kenya’s internal stability.

It will inevitably sow suspicions in Kenya, a country still raw from a recent, divisive election. President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto face charges before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for their alleged involvement in deadly violence following the 2007 election. A new system of decentralizing power has brought uncertainty and conflict over the respective roles and responsibilities of central versus local government.

Mr. Kenyatta has commendably urged national unity, recognizing that a sweeping, draconian crackdown on Kenya’s Somali population, or on Kenyan Muslims in general, would only radicalize more individuals and increase the threat of domestic terrorism. Although there has been an increase in ethnic profiling, so far the police and military have been relatively restrained — there have been arrests in Eastleigh, a predominantly Somali neighborhood here, but nothing like the widespread arrests and harassment of Somalis late last year and early this year. The government seems to recognize that any counterterrorism operations will need to be carefully implemented and monitored by the government and neutral observers.

Nairobi is a robust city, and away from the mall, much of daily life is returning to normal. But as the enormity of the attack sinks in, recriminations against internal and external enemies, real or perceived, are inevitable.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.