Thoughts on the Nairobi Terrorist Attack, Pt. 1

A photo taken by my old roommate, the incomparable Jonathan Kalan (http://www.kalan.me/)

This weekend a dozen gunmen stormed the Westgate Mall in the Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi. Armed with AK-47s and grenades, they killed 70 people and injured 150 more. As I write this, a former colleague at Bridge is in the hospital and my friend Ravi is still missing. Waiting to hear any news has been painstakingly difficult as we all pray for him. I am not a particularly spiritual man, but, for the last 36 hours, I’ve been praying for some good news.

There is so much I want to write about here that I don’t even know where to begin. This will be a long series of posts.  I’m going to start by giving the context for while all of this is happening.

A Brief History of Terrorism in Kenya

When I moved to Kenya in May of 2011, Somalia was characteristically a mess. The country barely had a functional central government, and the majority of the country was (and still is) lawless. The country is technically split into three semi-autonomous regions: Somaliland, Puntland, and Somalia. Somaliland is a functional region within Somalia that is far more stable than the others. Puntland is second in terms of stability, but it is best known for being the epicenter of piracy off the Horn of Africa. Somalia, which covers the southern half of the country, is a fragmented, war-torn region controlled by warlords from different clans. Despite being one of the most homogenous country in Africa – everyone speaks the same language (Somali) and follows the same religion (Sunni Islam) – the country has an extensive clan structure that dominates what little political landscape exists.

A bit dated, but an accurate depiction of the situation in 2011

In May 2011, Al Shabaab (literally translated as “The Youth”) controlled huge swaths of Somalia. They had been firmly in control for several years, and wreaked havoc on the population. During the worst famine in decades, Al Shabaab refused to allow foreign aid organizations into the country to deliver food to starving populations. As a result, the food crisis escalated into a famine, and tens of thousands of people starved to death. Later, they bombed a public square in Mogadishu where young students were applying for scholarships to study at university. It was despicable to watch then, and many times I wrote on this blog about the nihilistic and wanton brutality employed by the group towards its own people.

The turning point came in late 2011, when pirates on two occasions crossed the Kenyan border and abducted tourists from the pristine island of Lamu off the northwestern coast of Kenya. After a French tourist died during the ordeal, Kenya decided to invade Somalia and neutralize the threat to its border. Over the course of a few months, working in tandem with UN peacekeepers from Uganda and other nations, the Kenyan military drove the Shabab from its strongholds in Mogadishu and Kismayo, where it controlled the port and extracted a large amount of the revenue that kept it in operation.

In effect, two complementary forces led to Al Shabab’s weakening. Most directly, military intervention by Kenya and the Uganda-led peacekeepers killed much of the group’s leadership and rank-and-file. Military force, however, would not have been sufficient had Al Shabab not lost the support of the people. The group claimed to fight for the Somali people against foreign powers that sought to control the country, rising to prominence in the wake of a failed US-backed invasion by Ethiopia. But the Al Shabab’s cruel indifference to the suffering of the people during the famine, its brutal enforcement of Sharia law, and its callous efforts to violently prevent any semblance of Western influence to permeate the country, led Somalis to turn against them and support their neutralization. All of these events – the kidnapping, the bombing in Mogadishu – occurred in October 2011, which is when the tide turned.

After the invasion, Al Shabab vowed retribution against Kenya. My friends and I became warier of our surroundings. We would frequently hear from a friend of a friend at the U.S. embassy that the Al Shabab was planning an attack and that we should stay away from certain places. During the summer of 2011, my friends and I would often go to the Westgate mall and get brunch at ArtCaffe, the restaurant that became the epicenter of the attack yesterday. After Kenya declared war on Somalia, we stayed away for a while.

Over the next few months, there were random attacks here and there, though none appeared to be coordinated terrorist plots. I remember sitting in London Heathrow Airport in January 2012, waiting for my connection to Nairobi, and watching a report on the BBC warning people not to go to Kenya because of an imminent terrorist attack. But the alert came and went, and no attack was staged.  It remained like this for months, as broad warnings thankfully never came to fruition.

We were all surprised that there were no attacks from Al Shabab that year. Nairobi has so many soft targets that creating havoc would be easy. But, at the time, people surmised that the reason for the apparent peace was not because of the tactical difficult of staging an attack, but rather the extensive Somali diaspora in Nairobi whose business interests were so intertwined with the Kenyan economy. If the Al Shabab were to commit terrorism in Nairobi, there would inevitably be a backlash against the Somalis, which would compromise Somali business interests and further alienate the group from its population. So, as a result, they staged more attacks closer to home – in Mogadishu and in Kenyan border towns like Garissa.

I left Nairobi for good in May 2012 having avoided any violence. There continued to be a lull until this weekend, when the Shabab committed the worst terrorist attack the country has seen since 1980.

In my next post I will give my thoughts on why this happened.

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1 comment for “Thoughts on the Nairobi Terrorist Attack, Pt. 1

  1. February 7, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Two years ago Al Shabab militants strutted through the streets of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and the port city of Kismayo enforcing their Islamist zealotry at gunpoint. Today, driven into the hinterland by African Union troops tasked with bringing peace to the troubled country, the Al Qaeda-linked terror group has taken to slaughtering shoppers in a neighbouring country’s biggest city.

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