Just Kenya’s problem? The Westgate Mall terror attack and the internationalisation of al-Shabaab

October 3, 2013

by Sally Ashley-Cound

A week after the climax of the 3-day terrorist attack which started on 21 September at the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, the Frontline Club’s First Wednesday panel on 2 October 2013 – chaired by BBC Africa Editor Solomon Mugera –  gathered to discuss the Kenyan government’s response to the event and how the once regional group al-Shabaab has grown into an international concern.

Solomon Mugera (right) chairs the panel including Mary Harper (left) discussing the Westgate mall attack

Solomon Mugera (right) chairs the panel including Mary Harper (left) discussing the Westgate mall attack

Mary Harper, Africa Editor at the BBC World Service, started off by asking the panel what their initial reaction to the attack was.

Hamza Mohamed, an idependant British-Somali journalist based in Mogadishu, Somalia and currently working for Al Jazeera English said:

“I wasn’t surprised…most of us who have been to that shopping mall [will understand], it was a matter of time… First, the security that was outside the shopping mall; you wouldn’t find that [lack of] in West End clubs to be very honest with you.”

Mugera was boarding a plane to Nairobi just as the attack started and as soon as he disembarked in the city he could sense the atmosphere:

“You could tell this was something serious. Kenya has suffered a number of terror attacks [in 1980, 1998, 2002] and now you’ve got this one. But these are not the only terror attacks on Kenya, you’ve had so many incursions into that country… grenades, insurgents coming in and terrorising police. So it’s not [uncommon], coming at this time [though] why Kenya? Is Kenya such a soft target?”

Kenya has been a target for attack from al-Shabaab since it pushed the terrorist group out of the capital Mogadishu and the highly profitable port of Kismayo, during Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in August 2011 and September 2012.

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Harper asked whether the Westgate mall attack was punishment for the Kenyan invasion but also about telling the world ‘we’re here’:

“It couldn’t have chosen a more spectacular target to get top media coverage in the country, which is the media hub for East Africa for all the international media outlets. And the way that it managed its information campaign was highly sophisticated… the Westgate attack was not just about punishing Kenya, but also about telling the world ‘we’re here’ and a way of becoming a global brand.”

Ben Rawlence, who is an Open Society Fellow working on a book about the lives of Somali refugees in Kenya, said that the Kenyan government’s reaction has been direct consequence of the lessons they’ve learned during the invasion of Somalia:

“…Some of Kenya’s traditional knee-jerk discrimination and racial profiling of Somali’s has diminished in the last couple of years and I think that’s a direct consequence of the invasion of Somalia… It’s actually had to work much harder with the refugees, with the Somali community.

“If there hadn’t been an invasion, now there would be one. But because we’ve had the invasion, some of those lessons have been learned – which is why it’s been perhaps a cooler response.”

To address the problem of al-Shabaab further the panel delved into why they are so popular and what support they have within Somalia.

Jamal Osman, an award-winning journalist and filmmaker working with ITN and Channel 4 News said:

“Initially it was more nationalist; a lot of youngsters joined al-Shabaab when the Ethiopians invaded Somalia. And then later a lot joined for ideological reasons.

“They are very popular in the areas they control because they bring security, stability, law and order. And if you ask an average Somali in those areas, that’s what they care most about – they want to feel safe.”

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Harper added:

“If you watch their propaganda videos and rap songs, they’re so slick and sophisticated and their use of social media is so impressive that you can understand that any bored young person living anywhere in the world… who has an interest or propensity to some kind of rebellion, that is something that would appeal to them… They really have most effective, attractive [ways] – it’s a horrible word to say about a group that can do the sort of thing that happened in Westgate.”

Mugera emphaised that this is no longer solely a Kenyan or East African problem:

“Al-Shabaab is no longer a Somalian militant group – that’s why you are hearing mentions of people from Norway, nationals of America, nationals of Britain… If it’s recruiting people… it’s receiving funding from these countries and therefore that internationalises al-Shabaab and this has got to raise concern by people beyond Kenya… Somalia…Uganda.”

“…You saw some of the people killed in that attack, we had Koreans in there, somebody from Peru. It begins to show you just how globalised a terror organisation can be.”

Watch the full discussion below:



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