Tag Archives: al-Shabaab

Westgate Centre's location in relation to Nairobi Central and Eastleigh, the center of the Somali population in Nairobi.

Five things you should know about al-Shabaab and the Westgate, Nairobi attacks

So far at least 62 people are confirmed dead in Westgate, Nairobi, after al-Shabaab carried out the attack that they have been threatening in retaliation for Kenyan occupation of Kismayo. You can read about the attack on the BBC news or elsewhere. What I am interested in is the situation surrounding the attack and the implications for future regional dynamics. Hopefully we will be able to gain more understanding of the attacks as time goes on. I will be watching the news closely in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, here are five preliminary points I’d like to make in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe.

  1. Al-Shabaab’s terrorism in Kenya is tied into the successes of foreign troops in Somalia. Like many terrorist attacks, there was some forewarning that something like this would occur. In fact, despite being totally disgusted and horrified by what al-Shabaab has done, and totally against everything that the group stands for, I cannot say that it was completely unprovoked. Killing harmless citizens is definitely an illegitimate form of warfare, but al-Shabaab claims that this attack is in retaliation for Kenyan troops’ continued occupation of Kismaayo and surrounding areas, Jubbada Hoose (Lower Juba), Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s attack comes about two and a half months after Kenyan troops were involved in firefights in Kismayo that left 65 dead. Now that is hardly an excuse for the violence of the past three days, but that is likely one of the excuses that will be used by al-Shabaab in recruiting Somalis from the area to its cause. Prior to its occupation by Kenyan troops, Lower Juba was a stronghold for al-Shabaab – who, driven from much of their previous territory, have decided since 2010 to begin exporting their violence beyond Somalia’s borders.
  2. Al-Shabaab’s agenda appears to be steered significantly by groups outside of Somalia, and the group works without the support of most Somali people. Al-Shabaab did not appear until 2006, and did not turn their attention beyond Somalia’s borders until 2010, after the War on Terror was well under way and focused on the Horn of Africa. The group probably used events such as U.S. airstrikes that, while targeting “terrorists,” killed civilians in Dhoobley and other areas, to recruit disaffected locals. The War on Terror in Somalia was driven by fears that Somalia’s lack of government and “chaos” made it a likely place for international terrorists to seek refuge; however, it doesn’t appear that international terrorists were present in large numbers in Somalia prior to the Ethiopian invasion of 2006. Actually, during 2006 the Union of Islamic Courts had apparently succeeded to some extent in bringing down the number of cases of piracy in Somalia (Bjorn Moller, 2013), and possibly had a deterring effect on terrorism in the country as well. The 2010 attacks in Uganda marked the first export of terrorism from Somalia. The 2006 invasion and subsequent international attacks seem to have caused radical Somali elements to look beyond their borders and to welcome international terrorist groups to support their cause. These groups took advantage of the situation to push their own agenda, and al-Shabaab has gone along with that. It remains to be seen where this will lead either al-Shabaab or al-Qaeda, and it also remains to be seen whether foreign intervention in Somalia under the “war on terror” paradigm can have any positive effects (for anyone, really).
  3. Although some of the attackers are likely from Somalia, there is also a sizable and prominent Somali population native to Kenya – this attack is not about ethnic Somalis vs. Kenya. Wars have been fought over the issue of the division of Somalia between four separate countries in East Africa. One of the points of the five-pointed star on Somalia’s flag represents the Somali homelands of Northeastern Kenya – formerly called North Eastern Province (and before that, Northern Frontier District – NFD) – now the counties of Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa. Not only is a significant fraction of Kenya’s population made up of ethnic Somalis; they also play a prominent role in politics. Among others, I would point out Maxamed Yuusuf Xaaji (Mohamed Yusuf Haji), an ethnic Somali from Garissa, Kenya, who currently serves as Kenya’s Minister of State for Defence. Many Somalis support Kenyan politicians from other ethnic groups – when I heard Raila Odinga speak in Sandton (South Africa) last year, I traveled to the venue with a number of Somalis who strongly supported him. On another note – this is a topic for another post, but I do find it interesting and possibly problematic for Kenya’s future cohesion that the Somali-dominated areas have historically been largely neglected by the Kenyan state. In a recent book chapter, Kidane Mengisteab (2013) draws on the 2006 APRM Country Report for Kenya (see pp. 47-48), which suggests that in Northeastern Kenya, 73.1% of the population was considered impoverished, compared to 35.3% in central Kenya; primary school enrolments were charted at only 17.8% (compared to 52% in the next lowest region); and apparently only 9 doctors were present in the entire North-Eastern region, compared to over 100 doctors in basically every other region (statistics as of 2000). With discontent already welling over the past years in the coastal region near Mombasa, it remains to be seen whether and how this marginalization may affect regional relations in Kenya in the future.
  4. (Related to #3) – Although this attack marks a violent turn in regional dynamics, this is not the first violent Somali group that has been wont to haunt Nairobi’s shopping scene. Nairobi hosts some prominent Somali warlords who made bank off of the chaos of the 1990s and decided to retire. I was in Yaya Shopping Centre, Nairobi with some friends from Afmadow area last year, and they pointed out a former Somali warlord and his posse while whispering stories about the atrocities he had committed in the 1990s. In the interest of my friends, I will not drop names. I am not saying that these former warlords are in any way related to al-Shabaab’s attacks, but this provides a glimpse into the complexity of the historical and current connections between Kenya and Somalia with regard to violent groups.
  5. This attack is a caution flag for other countries currently involved in Somalia. Again, al-Shabaab by no means represents the feelings of the majority Somalia’s citizenry. But they use foreign incursions to legitimize their behavior to their potential followers and members. The group was formed when the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) fractured during the Ethiopian invasion of 2006, and elements connected with al-Shabaab began making connections with terrorists in Ethiopia in order to strike at that country in reaction to their invasion. They are liable to use any foreign intervention in Somalia as an excuse to strike beyond Somalia’s borders, and are particularly focused on Ethiopia and the United States as enemies of their ambitions to control southern Somalia. As long as foreign forces are present, threats will likely continue. Unfortunately, al-Shabaab has ruined it for many Somalis living in the regions they purport to defend. Attacks over the past years have forced groups like Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF/Doctors without Borders) to withdraw their humanitarian programs from Somalia (August 2013). This will cause more suffering for the people of Somalia.

Hopefully this has shed some light on a few factors related to the Westgate Mall attacks. International actors pursuing a violent agenda have hijacked the cause of Somalia and use it to legitimize their acts of terror while in reality hurting the very people that they claim to support.


Kidane Mengisteab, 2013. “Poverty, Inequality, State Identity and Chronic Inter-State Conflicts in the Horn of Africa,” in R. Bereketeab, ed. The Horn of Africa: Intra-State and Inter-State Conflicts and Security. Pluto Press: pp. 26-39.

Bjorn Moller, 2013. “Militia and Piracy in the Horn of Africa: External Responses,” in R. Bereketeab, ed. The Horn of Africa: Intra-State and Inter-State Conflicts and Security. Pluto Press: pp. 178-196.