Terror in Nairobi

A four-day-siege of a mall in Nairobi by terrorists of the Somalia-based, al Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab is turning out to be a nightmare similar to the one India experienced in November 2008 in Mumbai. The parallels are striking.

On Saturday, around 15-18 heavily armed terrorists stormed a multi-level mall, the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, which houses scores of shops, offices, a movie hall, restaurants, etc.  The terrorists roamed the mall hurling grenades and spraying bullets into terrified people, many of them children. The official death toll is 74 so far and is expected to surge. Kenyan authorities say the counter-terror operations are over and they have wrested control of the mall from the terrorists. However, blasts and gunfire continue. Many are missing, triggering fears that the terrorists are holding people hostage. Besides, a section of the building has collapsed, leaving scores trapped under the rubble. Clearly, the nightmare is far from over.

Al-Shabaab’s attack in Nairobi is reportedly in response to Kenya’s support to ongoing military operations against the militia in Somalia. Kenya has sent troops to Somalia as part of an African Union force to stabilize that country. Kenya’s government faces challenging decisions in the coming weeks and months. Calls for withdrawal of its soldiers from Somalia will grow. The African Union must remain steadfast in its commitment to putting Somalia back on its feet again.

Kenya is West Africa’s biggest economy. The upmarket Westgate mall symbolised the new economic boom in African countries. Its targeting by Al-Shabaab appears to have been motivated as much by the prosperity that it symbolised as it was to inflict maximum damage and capture world attention. A predominantly Christian country which has experienced repeated conflict between Christians and Muslims in the past, the attack on the Westgate mall by the Islamist al-Shabaab could prompt Christian extremists in Kenya to engage in tit-for-tat attacks by unleashing mob violence on their Muslim countrymen. Militias like al-Shabaab draw on simmering anger among the poor, exploiting the latter’s exclusion from the new prosperity of a few in Africa to recruit youth into their outfits. The Kenyan government must fight al-Shabaab not just through military means, tighter security and effective intelligence gathering but by denying terrorists new recruits. That will happen by building an inclusive society.

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