Thoughts on the Nairobi Terrorist Attack, Pt. 2

Another photo from Jonathan Kalan (Copyright AP/Jonathan Kalan)

In the last post, I gave a brief history of the events leading up to this horrible terrorist attack. Now, I want to talk about why this is happening now.

If you were to Google “Somalia” anytime in the last six months, you might be surprised to see mostly positive press about the country. The Kenyan-led invasion brought a period of stability to the country. For the first time in many years, the central government controlled most of Mogadishu. The Somali diaspora began to return to the country, looking to invest in rebuilding the institutions that had crumbled over the previous 20 years. In a move filled with symbolic significance, Turkish Airlines launched its first direct flight to Mogadishu on March 12th, 2012. For the first time in many years, optimism returned to Somalia.

In the background, Al Shabab appeared to be on the ropes. They had been beaten back to more remote areas of the country, and continued to lose what little popular support they still had. And the return of the Somali diaspora was perhaps the best indication that things were possibly taking a turn for the worst.

There are a lot of theories about why this happened now. Some people are saying that this attack was an inevitable backlash against the Kenyan invasion of Somalia. Others are saying that it is only the beginning of an Al Shabab resurgence, as it tries to push back and regain control of the country’s destiny. And some believe this is Al Shabab’s way of re-asserting its loyalty to Al Qaeda. Within Al-Shabab, there have always been power struggles between two factions – one which is focused on gaining control of Somalia, and another with jihadist ambitions of restoring the Islamic caliphate. By attacking a symbol Western influence, like an upscale mall in Nairobi, it is following through on its jihadist goals.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it is more complex than any of the reasons above. Ken Menkhaus, a scholar on Somalia at Davidson College, believes that this is an act of desperation by a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organization that has been all but defeated in its own country. I urge anyone who wants to understand the underlying roots of this conflict to read Menkhaus’ post in ThinkProgress. In it, he explains the logic behind this brazen attack:

The Westgate attack is the latest sign of the group’s weakness. It was a desperate, high-risk gamble by Shabaab to reverse its prospects. If the deadly attack succeeds in prompting vigilante violence by Kenyan citizens or heavy-handed government reactions against Somali residents, Shabaab stands a chance of recasting itself as the vanguard militia protecting Somalis against external enemies. It desperately needs to reframe the conflict in Somalia as Somalis versus the foreigners, not as Somalis who seek peace and a return to normalcy versus a toxic jihadi movement.

I think he is largely right in the sense that this is the action of an organization whose back is against the wall and is flailing wildly. But I disagree that this is was a calculated strategic bid to gain support from a population that has turned against them. They already lost that support, and it is never coming back. A few weeks ago, Somalia’s future was bright. If Al Shabab were to have its way, the country would regress to chaos and destruction. And without a common enemy like Ethiopia – which is how Al Shabab rose to power in 2008 – there is no reason to support an organization that claims to fight for the people while callously leaving so many of them to starve to death.

Rather, I think this attack is the action of a few psychopathic, manipulative mass murderers who justify their actions under a banner of religion, and a dozen deeply misguided and sociopathic followers who have no real understanding of why they are doing what they are doing.

(In the original version of this post, I used information that wasn’t verified.  The names and nationalities of the attackers have not been released)

The Al Shabab Twitter account, which keeps getting shut down by Twitter and resurfacing again, released the names and countries of the attackers. Of the 17 names listed, six are from the United States, two from Sweden, two from Syria, and one each from Russia, Canada, and the UK. Only three are even from East Africa – two from Somalia and one from Kenya. When 15 of the 17 attackers are foreigners, it is hard for me to believe that the goal of this attack is to re-assert the power of a weakened regional Islamist organization.

Back in 2008 and 2009, Somali kids from Minneapolis began disappearing and resurfacing as fighters in Al Shabab. A detailed article in the New York Times magazine explains what happened:

For many of the men, the path to Somalia offered something personal as well — a sense of adventure, purpose and even renewal. In the first wave of Somalis who left were men whose uprooted lives resembled those of immigrants in Europe who have joined the jihad. They faced barriers of race and class, religion and language. Mr. Ahmed, the 26-year-old suicide bomber, struggled at community colleges before dropping out. His friend Zakaria Maruf, 30, fell in with a violent street gang and later stocked shelves at a Wal-Mart.

If failure had shadowed this first group of men, the young Minnesotans who followed them to Somalia were succeeding in America. Mr. Hassan, the engineering student, was a rising star in his college community. Another of the men was a pre-med student who had once set his sights on an internship at the Mayo Clinic. They did not leave the United States for a lack of opportunity, their friends said; if anything, they seemed driven by unfulfilled ambition.

“Now they feel important,” said one friend, who remains in contact with the men and, like others, would only speak anonymously because of the investigation.

These are not native Somalis committed to the restoration of a Sharia-controlled government in Somalia. They are radicalized, deeply insecure, and easily manipulable kids believe they are fighting for a cause that they have been convinced is noble.

I think this is the action of nihilistic psychopaths who pervert religion as an end to justify their evil means. They understand nothing about Kenya, other than what they have been told, and callously murdered nearly 100 people this weekend. They fight under the banner of an organization with the blood of 260,000 Somalis – including 120,000 children – on its hands. What they have done is inexcusable and they deserve to die, which they know too well is their inevitable fate at the end of this standoff.

While I don’t agree entirely with Ken Menkhaus’ analysis of the situation, I do agree with his conclusions about what to do next:

The Kenyan people and government now control the next move. If they respond to this terrible tragedy with restraint and respect for due process and rule of law, they will do more to undermine Shabaab than all of the counter-terrorism operations conducted inside Somalia.

Kenya and Kenyans are not the only players who have the next move. Somalis – in Kenya, in Somalia, and in the diaspora – also face an unavoidable and immediate choice. Either they can mobilize against Shabaab and take the movement out once and for all – by drying up its financial sources, exposing its operatives, and denying the movement any safe space from which to operate – or they can sit on their hands and make vague calls for a negotiated settlement, as they have done for years. Somalia desperately needs a “Sunni uprising” against the hard-core extremists who now make up what is left of Shabaab. If Somalis refuse to act decisively against Shabaab, then it will be up to foreign governments to crush the group. But this will entail crackdowns that will almost certainly impact innocent Somalis and legitimate Somali businesses in Kenya and around the world, and that is not in anyone’s interest except Shabaab’s.

This is ultimately a Somali problem, and requires a Somali solution that is swift and unequivocal. If that happens, the terrible attack of September 21 will go down as the day Shabaab dug its own grave.

I know it will be hard to forgo retribution against Somalis living in Kenya. But Kenya is a beacon of optimism in East Africa, and its people are rallying in support. They will be shaken, but unnerved. They are resilient, and will respond in a measured and thoughtful way. And, with any hope, the Al Shabab and all of its leaders will die a quick death.

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