What’s behind the bloodshed in Nairobi?

September 26, 2013

David Whitehouse provides the background to the deadly violence in Kenya.

THE BLOODY assault on an upscale mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi is being portrayed in the media as the violence of mindless fanatics. But the roots of this atrocity lie in neighboring Somalia, where the Kenyan government carried out a military intervention at the behest of the U.S.--as part of the same "war on terror" in Africa that may well escalate following the mall attack.

Kenyan troops, with help from Israeli commandos, recaptured the Westgate mall on Tuesday, four days after an assault by 10 to 15 heavily armed Islamist militants. The Somali-based Al Shabab militia took responsibility for the initial assault, which killed more than 60 patrons and injured more than 170.

Mainstream commentators made much of the idea that the attack on the mall was Al Shabab's first venture into "international terrorism," especially since British and American Shabab members appeared to participate. U.S. intelligence, however, suggested that the attackers were chosen specifically because their command of English would help them operate in Kenya, a former British colony where English is widely spoken.

People fleeing the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya
People fleeing the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya (Anne Knight)

Al Shabab itself claimed that its objective was local--to punish Kenya for its 2011 invasion and continued occupation of southern Somalia. The nature of Al Shabab's target, a shopping center frequented by foreign tourists, attests to the narrowness of Shabab's aims--the tourism industry is Kenya's largest source of foreign exchange.

Many of those who emphasized the "international" character of the attack are trying to make a case for closer U.S. "anti-terror" cooperation with Kenya. Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed made the argument directly on PBS NewsHour--that the Nairobi attack pointed up the need to work even more closely with the U.S. and its allies.

In fact, the U.S. military and its spy agencies already work closely with all of the region's countries--Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda--that sent troops to occupy Somalia following the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of 2006. As the New York Times noted during the siege at the mall, "Kenya is a crucial American partner, whose security forces work closely with their Western counterparts to contain Islamist militants in the region."

In recent months, however, the U.S. has played down its intimate connections to the Kenyan state because the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has more Kenyan blood on his hands than Al Shabab does. He is currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for financing and directing death squads during the violence that killed more than 1,200 people and uprooted hundreds of thousands after the disputed 2007 election. Kenyatta is the son of Kenya's most prominent founder, Jomo Kenyatta, and is one of the richest men in Africa.

When Barack Obama visited Africa in June of this year, he skipped a visit to Kenya, his own father's birthplace, to avoid any public association with Kenyatta. Following the Nairobi attack, however, Obama telephoned Kenyatta and "reaffirmed the strong and historic partnership between the United States and Kenya."

U.S. OPERATIVES may have been busy coordinating regional actions in Somalia for years, but U.S. presidents have been leery of playing any open role inside the country since 1993, when Somali warlords dealt a humiliating blow to U.S. forces in the "Battle of Mogadishu," later depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down.

Whether U.S. action has been covert or overt, however, American presidents since Jimmy Carter have helped create the conditions that spawned Al Shabab, including the misery and desperation that has driven young Somalis to join the group.

In the late 1970s, Carter began to prop up Somali president Siad Barre as a counterweight to the neighboring Ethiopian regime, which was allied with the former USSR. Barre was a dictator whose administration favored particular Somali clans over others. At the end of the Cold War, both the Russian and Ethiopian regimes fell apart, and then-president George H.W. Bush had no more use for Barre.

The withdrawal of U.S. support in 1991 led to Barre's overthrow by rival clans, and the central state collapsed, with clan-based warlords breaking up the country into private fiefdoms. A U.S. military intervention, begun by Bush in 1992 and continued by Bill Clinton, aimed to "stabilize" Somalia by elevating one warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, above the others.

Aidid, however, raised his own status among Somalis by turning against the unpopular American occupation, thus setting the stage for the Battle of Mogadishu, in which 18 U.S. Special Forces troops died.

According to Somalia specialist Stig Hansen, who wrote Al-Shabaab in Somalia, some of the Somali fighters were veterans of the U.S. proxy war in the 1980s against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The United States and Saudi Arabia had financed and coordinated this first major venture into "international jihad," drawing Muslim militants from around the world, who gained fighting experience and brought an international outlook back to their home countries when they returned. Some of these Somali veterans of the Afghan war were later founders of Al Shabab.

Warlords consolidated power in their local strongholds in the second half of the 1990s, combining business enterprise with arbitrary armed force. In the absence of a central state, the only way to defend life or property was to command one's own militia, so clans and even urban businesses built militias alongside those of the warlords.

According to Hansen, popular hatred of the warlords grew because of their record of extortion, murder and rape, while urban business owners saw the fragmentation of Somalia as an obstacle to commerce.

THESE DEVELOPMENTS provided an opening for a new movement in the 1990s for "Islamic courts," which dispensed independent--if sometimes harsh--justice and became popular among both ordinary people and the business class of Mogadishu, Somalia's biggest city. The courts were based in the region's sub-clans and began to unite in the early 2000s as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

After years of fragmentation and arbitrary rule, the UIC seemed to represent the embryo of a future state, built from indigenous roots--unlike the client state of Siad Barre, or the state that the U.S. had tried to create from scratch in the early 1990s. Some of the courts were run by Islamist radicals, but according to Hansen, most dispensed a version of Sharia law that was adapted to local clan traditions.

In the early 2000s, Al Shabab did not exist, and its future members did not have an organized presence in the courts movement.

In those same years, the CIA, in collaboration with cooperative warlords, began a series of "shadow wars" against the Islamic courts. The courts represented a rival to the authority of the warlords, and their independence sowed fears in the George W. Bush administration of a "new Somalia" that owed nothing to the U.S. and contained a significant Islamist component.

The formal foundation of Al Shabab, says Hansen, took place in 2005 as a defensive response to CIA-financed warlord assassination attempts on Afghan war veterans. At the same time, the U.S. and its regional allies were concocting a "Transitional Federal Government," which would be headed by a Somali ally of Ethiopia.

As the influence of the UIC grew and Al Shabab took its place as part of the movement, the U.S. gave a green light to an invasion by Ethiopia at the end of 2006. U.S. Special Forces accompanied Ethiopian troops, and U.S. warships bombarded Somalia from offshore.

The militias of the UIC scattered and dissolved, except for Al Shabab, whose core members had significant battle experience. The Shabab militias were able to outlast Ethiopian forces, which withdrew in 2009, but the objective of the invasion--to derail the formation of an independent Somali state--was achieved.

Those involved in the remaining resistance force grouped around Al Shabab represented the most extreme wing of the courts movement--many maintained personal ties to al-Qaeda. As a result, the group became a target of the U.S. and its allies in the "war on terror." Al Shabab did not actually pledge its allegiance to al-Qaeda until 2012.

The Ethiopian invasion unleashed the warlords as contenders for power along with the fragments of the courts movement. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG), installed in Mogadishu after the invasion, had a very weak indigenous base and ruled a small part of Mogadishu surrounded by foreign troops. Alongside the Ethiopians, Uganda was the second regional power to send U.S.-trained troops, this time under the flag of the African Union.

Eventually, the occupying alliance installed Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a popular leader of a moderate part of the courts movement, as a president stripped of his base in the defunct UIC and completely dependent on foreign protection. Ethiopian troops reentered Somalia in late 2011, soon after Kenya invaded the South.

WESTERN OFFICIALS have chimed in to back the Kenyan government's official assessment that the attack on the Westgate Mall demonstrates Al Shabab is stronger than ever. These claims are clearly intended to justify strengthening the military and political ties that the countries share. Many analysts, however, think the attack may really be a sign of weakness.

Earlier this year, Kenyan troops drove Al Shabab out of Somalia's third-largest city, Kismayo, and occupied territory in the south that Al Shabab had ruled for years. In this light, the assault on the Nairobi mall must be seen as a counterattack by Al Shabab forces that have absorbed a major defeat inside Somalia.

After the military setbacks, Al Shabab's leadership started to splinter. The group's top leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, consolidated his power by executing four of his top commanders. As the Guardian's Simon Tisdall wrote:

Al Shabab's spiritual leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, fled for his life, and was subsequently detained by Somali government forces.

The infighting continues. Earlier this month, the Alabama-born Al Shabab commander Omar Hammami, known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, or "the American," and a British national known as Usama al-Britani, were shot dead in a dawn raid on their hideout by Godane's allies. Hammami, who was on Washington's most wanted list, had previously accused Godane of behaving like a dictator.

Tisdall goes on to argue that the attack on the mall represents the victory of Al Shabab's advocates of "international jihad" over those who emphasize more local Somali objectives. He may be right that the attack signals some kind of shift, since Godane has a reputation for spectacular mass murder.

Targeting the Nairobi mall, however, clearly serves a local objective--to strike a blow against the country that has handed Al Shabab its greatest defeat since the Ethiopian invasion. The attack also serves as a recruitment tool for an organization that had an estimated 14,000 fighters in 2010, but is said to have dwindled recently because of the military defeats and internal conflicts:

The Shabab's attack on the Westgate mall is in line with early applications of modern terrorist doctrine, as perfected by Algerian rebels seeking to oust the French in the 1950s: create an event so dramatic that it puts you back on the map. "It's the only way to get recruits and seem relevant," said Mathieu Guidère, a terrorism specialist at the University of Toulouse. "It's an action of propaganda and recruitment, to show that jihadism is the best way."

Regardless of whether al-Shabab is on the rise or on the decline, the U.S. is bound to use the atrocity in Nairobi as an excuse for bolstering its connections to regional strongmen--and trying to exert even more control over the economy and politics of the region.

U.S. influence has produced suffering and violence for four decades--there's no reason to think that increasing that influence will start benefiting the people of the region.

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