The UK, the US, Germany, Canada and Interpol have begun assisting Kenya’s investigation into the recent attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, where 61 civilians have been killed in a ruthless assault and subsequent hostage situation. This active support comes in the wake of international pledges of assistance to the Kenyan security services while the siege was underway.
With numerous individuals from France, the UK and the US having been caught up in the attack, there is the general impression that terrorism in Kenya is a question of international conflict. While it is true this atrocity has been claimed by al-Shabaab to be a response to the occupation of Kenyan forces in Somalia, the attack on the Westgate shopping centre comes as part of a long line of terrorist activity in the region that predates Kenya’s 2011 invasion of Somalia.
As we try to come to terms with the catastrophe that has befallen Kenya, we need to think hard about the nature of the threat and what the best response might be. This means, first of all, understanding that Kenya and Somalia are intimately connected.
Two percent of the Kenyan population is ethnically Somali—living in, and enjoying, Kenyan citizenship. The “Somali” peoples have been spread across territory that is now Kenyan since 1885 when Ogaden Somalis broke the power of the Orma tribe. The jagged line in the map below shows the part of Kenya heavily populated by those of Somali ethnicity.
This map was featured in a 1964 publication and, at that time, the author was concerned about the role the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya would have for future conflict. The context he was writing in was the Shifta War, held between 1963 and 1967 between the Kenyan state and ethnic Somalis who sought secession from Kenya so as to join a “greater Somalia”.
While in the 1960s, division between Kenya and Somalia was one of territory, it has now become extra-territorial. However, any such terrorist activity predates Kenya’s 2011 military entrance into Somalia. The earliest case of terrorist activity in Kenya similar to what we have witnessed in these past few days was the bombing of a Jewish-owned hotel on New Year’s Eve in 1980. The Nairobi hotel was targeted by a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. (Note the similarities with the Westgate shopping centre which has also been targeted for being Jewish-owned.)
The most significant terrorist incident in the region, however, was when al-Qaeda conducted twin bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) in 1998. The attack in Tanzania led to 11 deaths and in Kenya to 213 deaths. This brought to the attention of the US administration al-Qaeda’s ability to organise large and devastating operations long before 9/11, and helps explain their ongoing interest in all terrorist developments in East Africa.
The fact of a long list of precedents demonstrates how the sad events we have witnessed in the Westgate shopping centre have not come out of the blue.
The common impression is that al-Shabaab, which is formally allied to al-Qaeda, is acting in response to Kenya’s 2011 invasion. That is certainly what al-Shabaab has been tweeting. The truth is that the Kenyan military entered Somalia only after al-Shabaab militants crossed the border into Kenya to kidnap and attack aid workers of the Dadaab refugee camp. The camp, which is the largest refugee camp in the world, hosts those who have fled violence and famine in Somalia. Kenya acted in response to a developing situation that was brought about by al-Shabaab’s misuse of the southern Somali peoples.
It is important, therefore, to note two things about the current al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda threat. The first is that al-Shabaab’s political justification for the atrocity conducted in the shopping centre carries no weight. In some ways the Westgate attack is similar to the multiple bombings carried out in 2010 by al-Shabaab in Kampala, Uganda, which killed 74. While it may be true that in both the Kampala and Westgate attacks al-Shabaab acted in opposition to each country’s military occupation of Somalia, the reality is that in both cases likely-international targets were chosen. Members of al-Shabaab hold an ideological and strategic commitment to target Israeli, US and European persons. They seek international attention, and support for a supposed global Jihad. Whether Kenya has forces in Somalia or not is an important but insufficient reason the terrorist networks act in this way. Indeed, such is the desire for international attention, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda care little for whether East African Muslims are killed in the process.
The second point to note is that fighting al-Shabaab is not a question of strengthening counter-terrorism or security personnel. While it is understandable that foreign governments wish to pledge support for Kenya’s security forces, this is not something that can help anything more than short-term reactions to atrocities. The border between Kenya and Somalia is 682 kilometres long, a straight line drawn in the dust. Since even before the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, Somalis have sought refuge in Kenya and other countries, rendering their population arguably the most extra-territorially networked in East Africa. This has led to both the “ups” of economically booming mini-cities such as Eastleigh in Nairobi, and the “downs” of an ever-enduring refugee crisis. The graph below shows total numbers of refugees in Kenya over a 15-year period according to UNHCR, and the proportion that have come from Somalia. The number of Somali refugees in Kenya has fluctuated just below a quarter of a million, which means it is ludicrous to imagine that tightening border-crossing checkpoints will inhibit a determined terrorist network.
Responding to the terror threat requires a winning of hearts and minds among both Somali refugees and existing Kenyan nationals of Somali ethnicity. Kenya has been independent for 50 years but Somalis have lived in Kenya for 128 years—this is something that must be recognised by both Kenyans and the international community. Experience testifies to how beating local terrorist cells is only achieved when local residents have reason to trust the police. That is, unfortunately, not something most ordinary Kenyans feel they can do, let alone those living in Kenya illegally or as refugees.
The fates of Kenya and Somalia are inextricably tied. Any policies that come out of evaluating the Westgate attack need to remember this. So long as in Somalia there is periodic famine and constant violence, and in Kenya a state that rewards the rich of certain tribes, the threat of political frustrations leading to terrorism will sadly endure from within Kenya’s borders.