The Westgate Mall Attack: Responding to al-Shabaab through a Unified Africa

 

The following is the second installment of  a continuing series for Heinz Voices by Tepper-Heinz alum Nathan Jayappa.

 

I am unable to go to work this week. The Kenyan army is currently using my workplace as a remote facility to strategically assess how to effectively end the siege and make sense of the attack by Somali al-Shabaab rebel group at the Westgate shopping mall, located no more than 10 meters away. I frequent this mall daily for coffee, lunch, and grocery shopping, as it is conveniently located and reasonably secure. I was incredibly lucky that I did not go into work on Saturday, September 21st, choosing instead to work from home. However, more than 1,000 people in that shopping mall on Saturday were not so lucky, as they frantically tried fleeing the mall soon after grenades and gunshots ripped through their anticipated casual afternoon. The world watched as hostages were being held by 10 to 15 gunman in the Westgate mall for over 4 days, questioning how such an atrocity can happen.

Hicks/The New York Times

 

I am left desperately searching for answers: Who is al-Shabaab? Why Kenya? Why Westgate? Why now?

In order to gain an understanding of al-Shabaab, it is critical to understand their origins and motives.  The Council on Foreign Relations describes al-Shabaab as “an al-Qaeda-linked militant group and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization fighting for the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia.” This group formed from decades of lawlessness in the failed state of Somalia. Al-Shabaab formed from Al-Ittihad Al Islami (AIAI), a Salafi extremist group funded by former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The AIAI strengthened after the fall of the Said Barre military regime in 1991. Tensions were cultivated between older and younger members of the AIAI, and in 2003 the younger members – al-Shabaab, meaning “the youth” – allied with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) to establish a fundamentalist Islamic rule. In June 2006, al-Shabaab and the ICU gained control of the capital of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital and largest city, spreading increased violence throughout the country. Six months later, in December 2006, Ethiopia, a Christian nation, invaded Mogadishu and ousted the ICU from power, largely due to the fear that violence would spill into Ethiopia and by requests for intervention from Somalia’s transitional government. According to Rob Wise, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Ethiopian invasion was responsible for transforming al-Shabaab from a small, relatively unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement, into the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country. In 2012 the leader of al-Shabaab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, pledged obedience to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Kenya-Somali relations have been strained throughout the duration of Somalia’s civil war. In October 2011, al-Shabaab kidnapped three western tourists in northern Kenya, with two of the victims being killed soon after abduction.  With an economy heavily reliant upon tourism, Kenyan officials deemed this threat a good launchpad for an invasion into Somalia to eradicate al-Shabaab. Currently, there are about 4,000 Kenyan troops in Somalia fighting alongside 17,700 African Union forces to bring stability and order to the failed state. However, al-Shabaab has subsequently made inroads within the Muslim Kenyan community and is actively recruiting local youths to join their organization.

There are about 500 Muslim Kenyans currently in the al-Shabaab ranks in Somalia, many of which join for religious and monetary reasons. A student of mine who resides in Kibera, on of the biggest slums in Africa, shared with me a story of a friend who recently decided to join al-Shabaab. He cited the reason as to why his unemployed 16 year-old friend joined an extremist organization was because the Somali government raped and murdered his family. Seeking revenge was, in his mind, the only option.

The Kenyan government mostly views al-Shabaab as Somalia’s problem and that there was little reason to believe local terrorist organizations exist within Kenya. This naïve view of fighting terrorism must be addressed by first educating and employing Kenya’s youth. Unemployment is one of the largest social and economic problems in Kenya, with an unemployment rate rising from 12.7% in 2006 to a 40% in 2011. According to the USAID, unemployment of out of school youth is 75%, and is reported to be even higher among Muslim youth. Al-Shabaab is reported to offer youth approximately 40,000 Kenyan shillings per month ($470 USD), four times the average national pay, to join their organization and train in Somalia. This terrorist organization carried out attacks in Uganda, which killed 76 people in 2010 who were watching the World Cup final on television; the premise of that suicide bomb is similar in reasoning behind the Westgate mall attack. In 1998, al-Qaeda attacked the US Embassy in Nairobi, killing 200 civilians, and in 2002, the same group attacked an Israeli-owned hotel on the coast of Kenya. Although considerable time has passed since the last terrorist attack in Kenya, al-Shabaab has a substantial influence in the region, and Kenya must act quickly to ensure that its youth are not persuaded to join a Somali terrorist organization in lieu of little employment opportunity at home. It is apparent that curbing unemployment would help – to some degree – stymie the recruiting efforts of extremist organizations.

Al-Shabaab was quick to claim responsibility for the Westgate attack, using twitter to say “The Mujahideen are still strong inside #Westgate Mall and still holding their ground, All praise is due to Allah!” In an interview by Al Jazeera, al-Shabaab’s spokesperson for military operations, Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab, stated:

“The place we attacked is Westgate shopping mall. It is a place where tourists from across the world come to shop, where diplomats gather. It is a place where Kenya’s decision-makers go to relax and enjoy themselves. Westgate is a place where there are Jewish and American shops. So we have to attack them. On civilian deaths, Kenya should first be asked why they bombed innocent Somali civilians in refugee camps, why they bombed innocent people in Gedo and Jubba regions.”

It is clear that the motive behind the attack is premised on protecting Muslims and Somalis through fulfilling an anti-western rhetoric. By assessing the gruesome number of innocent lives lost, it appears that one of al-Shabaab’s motives was to provoke Kenyans to act in defiance of the Somali population living in Kenya. The taking of hostages appears to have not been in the interest of spawning negotiations with the Kenyan government, but instead to prolong the conflict as long as possible in order to gain credibility and legitimacy by striking fear into the Kenyan peoples.

Kenya’s government must not overact in this situation and should act to protect, not alienate, the approximate 1 million Somali minority in the country. Many of these refugees have come to Kenya for a peaceful life, and disenfranchising them will only act as fuel to al-Shabaab’s legitimacy. The very premise of the attack could be that the extremist organization is losing popularity; therefore, Kenya needs to embrace the 4 million Muslims (11% of population) as members of a unified society. Doing so will not only create a more peaceful Kenya, but it will also decrease the likelihood that ridiculed and estranged youth will join extremist organizations. Change should simultaneously start with the citizens of Kenya as well as their government.

Throughout the prolonged four-day assault at Westgate, conflicting reports from Kenyan officials, media, twitter feeds from al-Shabaab, local police, and live video streams of Westgate added to the hysteria in the city. As military officials constantly reminded Kenyans that they are in control of the situation on day 1, simply turning the TV to a live feed outside the mall proved otherwise. Sporadic shooting and explosions occurred up until the 4th night of the siege. Body counts fluctuated, along with the number of hostages and terrorists within the mall. The “one final assault” that police proclaimed on September 22nd proved to be wrong, leaving citizens throughout the city confused and worried that authorities were not in control. To bring order to this chaotic situation, the Kenyan government needs to appoint one person to clearly communicate the situation and what is being done to resolve the crisis. Unfortunately, the government lost some credibility through ineffectively communicating a clear message to its citizens, ex-pats, tourists, and investors. Communicating the steps and processes in order to gain control is substantially better than reassuring stability of an entropic condition.

Kenya’s economy will inevitably suffer from this attack. Tourism is its second-largest source of foreign income and contributes to 10% of GDP. After the 1998 embassy attacks, tourism declined in the following year, and it is anticipated that this will be the case this year. The good news for Kenya is that the assault did not have a large impact on its stock market, declining only 0.3% the week following the incident.  It may, nevertheless, have an affect on the $1.5 billion international bond, the largest ever-African debt offering, it was scheduled to debut in two months. East Africa’s biggest economy will need to communicate an accurate and clear message that it is a viable and safe investment zone, in order to attract debt capital. This message should start with the calling for a united front against terrorism with the African Union (AU).

Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, all contribute troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in order to bring stability to the region. Al-Shabaab may have specifically targeted Kenya because it has lost more territory to Kenyan troops than to that of any other AMISOM country. Moreover, Kenya was the only country to have used air and navy forces against al-Shabaab, killing innocent civilians in the process. Kenya has a few options with respect to Somalia in response to the Westgate attack: it can increase its presence in the region, withdraw troops, or not change its current strategy in country. With President Uhuru Kenyatta stating that his government will take a defiant stance against terrorism, he should look toward the AU for unified support in Somalia. Kenya alone does not have the intelligence nor the resources to completely eradiate sophisticated extremists groups, but a collective AU does. AMISOM will need to develop a new strategy for fighting its domestic war on terror with or without the support of the US and the UK. The United States is unlikely to engage significantly in this war, as it has had a long and ugly presence in Somalia for the last 20 years. From having boots on ground during The Battle of Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down), to its largely drone-led presence today, asking the US for additional arms and intelligence-gathering may suffice. Little has changed with respect to law and order in the country for the last 20 years, and it is highly unlikely that anything will change in the near future unless the AU acts immediately and democratically.

Undoubtedly this is a horrendous event that will scar Kenyans for the unforeseeable future.  Despite the confusion and trauma, the immediate response within the community to help in any possible form is remarkable; queues lined Uhuru Park and hospitals for blood donations, while thousands have provided monetary contributions via mobile payments, amounting to almost $1 million. Kenyans have come together in unprecedented levels to support one another in this time of need. Along with the 44 million Kenyans, I hope peace will return to this nation soon, and my heart goes out to the innocent our world has needlessly lost. In honor of the national motto for the people of Kenya, “harameee”, Swahili for “let us all pull together.”

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Nathan Jayappa works for The Grassroots Business Fund as a BizCorps Associate. He assists the impact investing fund in deal sourcing and delivery of Business Advisory Services through conducting due diligence, financial modeling, assessing social returns, and strategic planning. Nathan graduated in 2013 with both an MBA from the Tepper School of Business and an MSPPM from the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. He currently resides in Nairobi.