Al-Shabaab’s Westgate Siege was all about Somalia
Last month’s siege at the Westgate mall in Nairobi – a brazen and calculated attack which left at least 67 people dead – shocked people around the world. The families of victims are in mourning and citizens are demanding to know what really happened. Many are also wondering what attack tells us about al-Shabaab, the Somalia Islamist militant group responsible for the assault, and the future of security in the region.
Crucially, many are asking whether Westgate marks the start of a new international focus for al-Shabaab.
Indeed, the Westgate attack was notably unlike the vast majority of al-Shabaab violence. The group is not typically known for commando-style takeovers, targeting of civilian locations, or specifically avoiding Muslim casualties. Al-Shabaab’s operations are also primarily contained within Somalia.
However, while the attack could on the surface be seen to mark a turning point in the evolution of the outfit to encompass a more international scope, the details of the Westgate attack actually demonstrate the group’s a continuing preoccupation with events within Somalia. Far from heralding a newfound preoccupation with global jihad, the dynamics influencing al-Shabaab’s decision to target Westgate suggest that for the Islamist militants, all roads still lead back to Somali.
We are here because you are there
The Westgate attack was unique in many ways, and its similarities to other international terrorist violence such as Mumbai in 2008, is at least a signal that al-Shabaab’s operations can be influenced from abroad. It was also the first major violence claimed by al-Shabaab outside Somalia’s borders since bomb blasts during the 2010 World Cup in Kampala, Uganda.
However, since Kenya’s incursion into Somalia in late 2011, small grenade attacks and armed assaults, primarily in northern Kenya and Mombasa but with a few incidents in Nairobi as well, have become more frequent. Much of this violence has been blamed on al-Shabaab or likeminded sympathisers. An al-Shabaab press release in January 2012, entitled ‘Kenya: Your Security Depends on Our Security’, claimed to explain this rise by asserting that the deepening involvement of Kenyan troops in Somalia would come at the cost of security in Kenya.
Al-Shabaab’s argument in that statement pertinently demonstrated how it sees violence in Kenya as a means to an end – the end being a reversal of its waning fortunes within Somalia. The group’s communication after the Westgate attacks contained a similar rhetoric with al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane warning Kenya to: “Take your troops out [of Somalia] or prepare for a long-lasting war”.
This is not to say al-Shabaab was not expanding its presence outside Somalia prior to the Kenyan invasion. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has reported on ties between al-Shabaab and likeminded organisations in the region such as al-Hijra in Kenya and the Ansar Muslim Youth Centre in Tanzania. Al-Shabaab’s campaigns also contain slick productions in Swahili and English, attempts to appeal to an international crowd. And significant documentation exists regarding the recruitment of foreign or diaspora fighters from various Western nations. Finally, of course, al-Shabaab announced it had merged with al-Qaeda in February 2012, after apparently courting the organisation for years.
However, rather than seeing these moves solely as indicating al-Shabaab’s desire to broaden out, much of this can be seen within the prism of al-Shabaab’s strategies back home in Somalia. One of the main benefits of ties between clerics across the region, for example, is that they have facilitated the flow of recruits into Somalia to fight al-Shabaab’s war, or out of Somalia to target specific combatant countries such as Kenya. Additionally, rather than resulting in deep operational ties, the UN Monitoring Group has referred to the merger between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda as “largely symbolic.”
Home and away
Thus, rather than looking internationally to explain the Westgate attack, the most compelling explanations in fact lie within Somalia. Al-Shabaab under Godane has recently undergone a serious leadership purge, with former top brass such as long-time Somalia Islamist Hassan Dahir Aweys, co-founder Ibrahim al-Afghani, senior official Ma’alim Burhan, and American fighter Omar Hammani, all either killed or forced to flee.
Given that the Westgate operation was planned months in advance but occurred within two weeks of Hammami’s reported demise, the incident may have been timed to distract from possible criticism of Godane’s assassinations, and solidify his hold on the organisation.
In addition, there have been recent developments in the simmering controversy over the formation of an Interim Juba Administration in southern Somalia, an agreement between Kenyan-backed Ahmed Madobe and his Ras Kamboni militia, and the internationally-supported Somali Federal Government.
Madobe, with Kenya’s help, pushed al-Shabaab out of the lucrative southern port of Kismayo in September 2012. And since then he has been adamant about establishing a Jubaland entity, encompassing the areas of Gedo, Lower Juba, and Middle Juba in southern Somalia. Many see this as an Ogaden clan-dominated project backed by a Kenyan government looking to create abuffer zone. While this stance put Madobe and Kenya at odds with the Somali Federal Government, which even demanded the replacement of Kenyan troops with more impartial forces, an agreement in late August 2013 was seen as a new start for the region.
Nonetheless, non-Ogadeni clans expressed reservation, and resent the idea of a meddling Kenya carving up Somali territory to suit its interests. Drawing on this, al-Shabaab’s violence towards Kenya could be seen as an attempt to appeal to certain marginalised populations in southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab has proved adept at targeting historically discriminated and minority clans for support in the past, and after Westgate, the organisation can reassert its status as the ‘defender of Somali sovereignty’. Al-Shabaab’s rise and height in popularity occurred during the years of Ethiopian occupation, and by attacking Kenya, the Islamist organisation may be attempting to recreate similar dynamics.
By conducting terrorist violence in Kenya, al-Shabaab also likely hopes to either force the Kenyan government to revisit its Somalia policy or perhaps provoke a backlash against ethnic Somalis within Kenya, potentially allowing it to take advantage of aggrieved populations to increase recruits. In either case, the goal remains the same – combat Kenya in Kenya, so al-Shabaab can take Somalia back.
All this is not to say that al-Shabaab is not a broader regional threat; many countries apart from Kenya are also involved in Somalia. But it is important to realise that al-Shabaab’s external operations tie back directly to internal dynamics within Somalia. The threat to the region in many ways revolves around the threat to al-Shabaab. And Kenya, as a leader of the most recent intervention in Somalia which resulted in significant battlefield defeats for the militants including the loss of Kismayo, is understandably a prime target.
The ultimate irony, however, is that such attacks will likely only strengthen the Kenyan mindset in favour of a buffer zone for protection, and thus result in more determined efforts to secure a southern Somalia Jubaland region free from al-Shabaab.
Given these opposing interests, additional targeting of Kenya seems inevitable – but not because al-Shabaab want to instigate a campaign of global jihad, but more to ensure it remains relevant at home.