By Beverly Lwenya
Sunday, September 21, marks the one-year anniversary of the Nairobi Westgate Attack that rocked the East African capital of Kenya. The brutal terrorist and hostage attempt carried out by al-Shabaab terrorists killed 65 people, and the attack included a standoff that lasted four days. Now, one year later, what was left of the upscale Westgate shopping mall is being rebuilt along with the lives of those who lost loved ones.
For Kenyans, justice is hard to pin down. Since last year’s attack, instability has been disturbingly on the rise. Kenyans previously felt the blow of terrorism in 1998 after the al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi that claimed 213 lives. Now, more than 15 years later, there is even more resolve to stamp out a new threat.
Kenya has turned a corner in the global battle against terrorism, entering a period in history where terrorist acts are sadly becoming more commonplace and disruptive. Kenyan determination to combat these cowardly acts, however, is at an all-time high. And with it, hard questions are being lobbied against the Kenyan government about its countermeasures. So far, President Uhuru Kenyatta has sought international assistance from the United States in securing the porous Kenya-Somalia border, but his domestic response has been far more muddled, at times focusing more on political opponents than the militant group. In addition, the president-promised official Commission of Inquiry to look into the Westgate Attack has yet to be formed.
There are similar lessons here for the United States and Kenya. Ironically, both countries are now key recruiting grounds for al-Shabaab. Due diligence by the Kenyan government in hunting the homegrown threat reveals a sensitive fault line over respecting innocent Muslim citizens and blocking a very real and relatively easy mobilization effort by terrorists. That is, how to protect the freedoms of Somali citizens while at the same time stopping the marginalized Islamic Kenyan youth that might be sympathetic to al-Shabaab from being radicalized and trained internally. Analyst Paul Hidalgo notes how strategically uncomplicated it has been for the group to infiltrate key Kenyan towns, while the Kenyan government’s response has proved “self-defeating” by creating even more disenfranchisement among Muslims, particularly Somali Kenyans.
Since the Westgate Attack, al-Shabaab has taken credit for deadly consecutive raids in the small coastal town of Mpeketoni in Kenya between June 15 and June 17 this year. President Kenyatta, however, asserted that the attacks were “politically motivated ethnic violence” by local networks. The National intelligence Service (NIS) and Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku have been accused of being slow to action and ignoring key intelligence of threats released by the terrorist group. Kenyan intelligence and police have at times struggled to contain the threat, focusing more on political wrangling and neglecting intelligence, resulting in the resignation of NIS head Michael Gichangi. His successor, Major-General Philip Wachira, holds promise, resolving to retrain intelligent agents.
Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to destroy the terrorist network have ramped up with a September 1 U.S. drone strike, targeting the al-Shabaab head Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was later confirmed dead. John Kirby, spokesmen for the Department of Defense, highlighted the importance of this strike in connection with the Westgate bombing:
“The operation occurred south of Mogadishu, located in south-central Somalia, and it did result in the destruction of that vehicle. I think it’s important to remind everybody that in September 2013, Godane publicly claimed Al-Shabaab was responsible for the Westgate Mall attack, which killed and injured dozens in Nairobi.” Kirby highlighted US resolve to “dismantle Al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups who threaten U.S. interests, as well as the interests of our allies and our partner nations.”
The world is now witnessing what a radicalized Islamic state (i.e., ISIS), funded and led by terrorists, would look like. Al-Shabaab on the other hand is not particularly interested in global jihad, making it an easier target to dissolve. The death of al-Shabaab head Godane leaves behind a weakened network; however, they are not to be underestimated. A counter strategy to the recruitment of freshly radicalized militants must move to the forefront of domestic and international counter-terrorism policy for both the United States and Kenya. In Kenya, military action must be accompanied by engagement of disenfranchised Somali populations and more dialogue among leaders and youth.