Terror Strikes Nairobi Again

Published September 23, 2013
By Patricia Taft
Fund for Peace - Global Square Blog
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The tragedy of the rampage at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya hit close to home for many of us at the Fund for Peace. Like countless others working the fields of international development, defense and business in Africa, most of us have had the occasion to spend time in Nairobi over the years. Nairobi has long served as a hub in East Africa and Kenya has been one of the continental leaders in Africa on everything from providing peacekeepers to the world’s most dangerous places to combating terrorism at home and further afield. It is in these last efforts, Kenya’s participation in the war on terrorism, which may have brought the tragedy home to Nairobi this weekend. It is also yet another example that underscores the dangers to innocent civilians emanating from neighboring weak and failed states and the half-measures employed to deal with them.

The perpetrators of the killings in Nairobi are members of Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-linked radical terrorist group with its origins in the world’s most fragile state, Somalia. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Shabaab emerged from the chaos of the decades of civil war that tore Somalia apart with the goal of imposing a radical form of Islam on the local population. Its rank and file were youth who had grown up amidst the chaos and carnage of Somalia’s many wars and believed that stability and prosperity could only be secured through extreme violence and repression. They briefly managed to gain control of the Somali capital of Mogadishu by 2008 and most of the south of the country before being rousted by a combination of a military offensive and an aggressive peacekeeping mission headed up by soldiers from Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi in 2008. In 2011, Kenya also mounted an attack into Somali territory hoping to stop the kidnapping of tourists by the group and later joined the African Union led peacekeeping force, continuing to stage offensives into southern Somalia to try to dislodge the group. During and following these operations, many fighters fled into remote areas of Somalia, including the restive border regions with Kenya. From there they continued to launch attacks against both Western and African targets, including the kidnappings of aid workers and the bombing of a club in the Ugandan capital of Kampala in 2010.

While it is fair to say that likely no one believed that Al-Shaabab had gone away for good, it is equally fair to say that large-scale terrorist attacks like the one in Nairobi seem to perpetually catch us off-guard. Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, our approach to groups like Al-Shabaab often seems to be little more than “see no evil-hear no evil” until the next horror unfolds. This is not to say that Al-Shabaab has fallen off of the radar screen of analysts and experts, but that in the absence of what is perceived as a direct or imminent threat against Western interests, we are often at a complete loss on how to confront such groups other than using the same medium of violence as they themselves employ--albeit through military campaigns or drone attacks. While this may succeed in the short term in driving terrorist cells to ground, it rarely works in the long term unless part of an overall strategy that includes the eradication of the conditions that foment such radicalism in the first place.

Somalia, which has topped the list as the world’s most fragile state in the Failed States Index for six of its nine years, has been slowly bleeding out for nearly two decades. Although recent international initiatives have, to a certain extent, focused on the development of infrastructure and business in the now somewhat stable Mogadishu, little has been done to address the human tragedy in the country and outside of it. Tens of thousands of Somalis have fled over the years to neighboring African countries, including Kenya, as well as to Western nations like Sweden, Holland, and the United States. While within Somalia itself, hoards die each year from diseases and conditions that are frankly medieval in comparison to even other war zones. If current reports prove true, several of the terrorists that attacked the shopping mall in Kenya were American and British citizens of Somali origin, demonstrating that even thousands of miles away from the chaos and desperation of Somalia, the seeds of disaffection, violence and hatred can still thrive. A recent article on the website of Foreign Policy magazine shed light on the dire condition of the mental health care system in Somalia; noting, essentially, that there is none. And while other reports over the past two years have highlighted the possibility of a Somali renaissance of sorts with expatriate businessmen and foreigners returning to the country, few have given attention to the very real phenomenon of those Somalis who cannot or will not participate. A wasting away of human capital temporarily forgotten under a new coat of paint or cell phone tower, but representing the real undergirding of Somali society.

It is likely then that until we, as a global community, can find better ways to address not only the physical but emotional and social manifestations of state failure on citizens and innocent civilians, tragedies like the one in Nairobi will continue.