The attack

On 21 Saturday September 2013, at midday local time, a group of armed individuals entered the up-market Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya and began an assault on those present. They used grenades and automatic weapons, and other equipment stored over-night in a shop in the mall that the attackers had rented earlier using false identities. The Kenyan army and police were deployed, initiating a siege that lasted at least four days (until Tuesday 24th) and resulted in the deaths of some 70 people, including the attackers.

The incident was widely reported and the world was shocked not only by the death toll but by the audacity of the attack and by its duration. The operation appears to have involved a handful of militants and was clearly well-planned. Not only were the attackers able to establish a base inside the mall from which to launch their attack – killing and injuring many and taking some hostages – but they were able to hold out against the Kenyan security forces for several days, maintaining their position inside the mall and apparently hiding in air shafts to escape detection.

How they managed to infiltrate into Kenya and set up their operation without alerting the Kenyan security services was much debated during and after the attack. But the implication that the attackers all entered Kenya together from Somalia appears not to be correct. It clearly involved a far more complex operation than an incursion from outside the country.

Who was involved?

There seems little doubt that the attack was planned and implemented by a group associated with the Somali Islamist group Al Shabaab. There were rumours that Samantha Lewthwaite (wife of the London bomber Germain Lindsay and dubbed 'the white widow' by the British press) was involved, and a 'red notice' has been issued for her by Interpol at the request of the Kenyan government. So far, her involvement has not been confirmed, but she is believed to be a member of Al Shabaab, and in March this year was reported to have been living in Mombasa, Kenya.

Four of the attackers have now been identified. One of them (his jihadi name is Omar or Umayr) was a former member of Kenya's special forces – a Kenyan national from Nairobi and formerly a Christian – who converted to Islam and left in 2005 for Somalia, where he joined the Kamboni militant Islamist group that later merged with Al Shabaab. A second man has been named as Khattab el-Kene, a Somali national, who worked in an Islamic bookshop in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi. The others were Abu Baara al-Sudani, from Sudan, and Omar Nabhan, described as 'a Kenyan of Arab origin' (whose brother Saleh was killed in 2009 in a US operation against Al Shabaab). The attack on Westgate clearly involved a complex operation bringing together Islamist militants from inside Kenya as well as from outside.

What is Al Shabab?

Al Shabaab, which claimed 'official' responsibility for the attack, has been labelled an Islamist 'terrorist organisation' by many governments, including those of the USA and UK, and by the African Union which sanctioned the military intervention in Somalia since 2007, ostensibly as part of a peace-keeping operation. Supporters of Al Shabaab, however, prefer to characterise it as an Islamist nationalist movement, whose actions outside the borders of Somalia are part of its essentially defensive, anti-imperialist strategy, responding to unwarranted and illegitimate intervention by outside forces.

Al Shabaab ('Youth' in Arabic) emerged in 2006 as the radical youth wing of the indigenous Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), largely to fight against Ethiopian troops who invaded Somalia that year, with the encouragement and support of the USA, in order to crush the UIC – some of whom were thought to be linked to Al Qaeda and many of whom were certainly radical Islamists – because they allegedly represented a threat to the stability of the region as well as to the Western-sponsored Transitional Federal Government in Somalia. Al Shabaab considers itself the legitimate representative of the Somali people in a struggle against what it regards as a puppet government that it claims does not have popular support, and against imperialism.

It is suggested there may have been a power struggle inside Al Shabaab, and that the attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya shows that the more internationalist faction, led by Ahmed Abdi Godane, has now emerged victorious over that previously led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the former head of the shura (council) of the UIC. But the Sheikh is currently in government custody and several of his allies have been killed, so it seems more likely that Godane is now effectively the leader of Al Shabaab.

The reasons for the Al Shabaab attack on Kenya

There has been much speculation as to why the attack on Westgate took place. Western analysts have tended to see it as an aggressive attempt by an Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist organisation to extend its operations into Kenya, as part of a regional strategy to develop a more extensive 'terror' network in East Africa.

This may be so, but Al-Shabab itself has declared that the attack on the Westgate shopping mall was a response to what it saw as illegitimate Kenyan military operations on sovereign Somali territory. There are more than 5 000 Kenyan troops in southern Somalia today as part of an African force (AMISOM) sponsored by the African Union that has been there since 2007 as part of a coordinated international effort to crush the Islamists in Somalia. Al Shabaab has often threatened attacks on Kenyan soil if Kenyan troops were not pulled out.

There have been previous interventions by Al Shabaab inside Kenya, involving, for example, the kidnapping of foreign tourists and smaller attacks, but the assault on the Westgate complex is a different order of things and seems to represent Al Shabaab's intention to hit hard at what it sees as illegitimate invaders, used over the last five or more years as proxies in the wider 'war against terror' by Western imperialism.

Foreign intervention in Somalia

Foreign military intervention in Somalia began in July 2006, when Ethiopian troops invaded the country, at the invitation of the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and with the open support of the USA. This was part of a strategy to crush the Union of Islamist Courts (UIC) that had emerged as a popular nationalist Islamist movement, and which opposed the imposition of the TFG by foreign interests. Former head of the UICshura (council), Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, declared at the time: 'Somalia is in a state of war, and all Somalis should take part in this struggle against Ethiopia'.

Over the next year, Somalia descended into chaos as the struggle continued between the UIC (and its supporters) and the Ethiopian invaders (supported by US aid and occasional military intervention). In January 2007, the African Union was persuaded to establish a so-called 'peace-keeping force' (AMISOM) – comprising troops from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone and Nigeria – with an initial six-month mandate to intervene in Somalia. This was approved by the UN Security Council in February 2007.

In January 2009, the Ethiopian troops withdrew, leading to a decline in the authority and territory under the control of the TFG and a power-sharing deal (brokered by the UN) with an Islamist splinter group, the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), whose leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was nominated President of the TFG. Al Shabaab rejected the deal and remained opposed to the TFG.

In November 2011, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia for a second time, opening up a new front in an intensifying international offensive against Al Shabaab. This intervention was strongly supported by various Western powers, notably the US, as part of a regional strategy, linked to the so-called 'war on terror', to crush Islamist militancy across the Horn of Africa – and more widely across the Sahel and the Sahara. However, although described as a terrorist group by the West and by the African Union, Al Shabaab allied itself formally with Al-Qaeda only in 2012, after years of fighting simply as a nationalist Islamist movement.

The war continues

The Kenyan, Ugandan and Burundian troops in Somalia total around 15 000 men, while smaller contingents from Djibouti, Sierra Leone and Nigeria add a further 2 000. These foreign forces are also equipped with heavier weaponry than the Al Shabaab militias, are trained by the USA, and benefit from UN logistical support, bilateral donations, and voluntary contributions to the UN-managed Trust Fund in Support of AMISOM. The EU provides the resources needed for the payment of troop allowances and other related expenses, under the African Peace Facility (APF).

Forced out of Mogadishu in August 2011, Al Shabaab nevertheless continued to control the port of Kismayo, which provided a source of revenues and enabled it to supply the areas under its control. Despite losing control of Kismayo in September 2012, Al Shabaab has been able to deploy its 7 000 to 9 000 fighters effectively against the larger invading forces, and to maintain control over much of the country.

One explanation for Al Shabaab's continued success is that it still enjoys strong support among the Somali population. In the meanwhile, however, it is undoubtedly hard pressed by African forces, including Kenyan troops, from the south-west, while Ethiopian troops have taken the central towns of Beledweyne and Baidoa. Al Shabaab is somewhat on the back foot, and may feel the need to demonstrate its capacity to fight back not only inside Somalia but outside as well.

Latest developments

On Wednesday, 25 September, as the siege of Westgate came to an end, Al Shabaab attacked Wajir, a Kenyan town not far from the Somali border; one person was killed and four wounded when gunmen opened fire and threw grenades. The same day, Ahmed Godane of Al Shabaab posted a statement online, warning the Kenyan public that they should prepare for a 'war of attrition' inside their own country: 'Make your choice today and withdraw all your forces,' he said. 'Otherwise be prepared for an abundance of blood to be spilt in your country, economic downfall and displacement.'

He told the Kenyan public that they had entered into a war that was not theirs and did not serve their national interest. He pointed out that their troops were taking part in massacres of local Somalis and were also dying themselves. He addressed the public, he said, because it was they who chose their politicians and supported their government's decision to go to war, and were now paying (in taxes and the lives of their own people) for waging war on Muslims in Somalia.

The following day, Al Shabaab launched an early morning attack on a police station in the Kenyan town of Mandera, also near the border. This time, two police officers were killed and three others injured (including the regional police chief); eleven vehicles were destroyed.

A few days later, on 4 October, as the world mulled over the Westgate incident, unknown gunmen (rumoured to be members of the Kenyan security forces) shot four people dead in Mombasa, including the popular Muslim cleric, Ibrahim Amar, as they returned from prayer at the Masjid Musa, a mosque linked in the past to Somali Islamist militants.

The next day, there were reports (confirmed on 6 October by the Pentagon) that 'US special forces' had attacked an Al Shabaab stronghold near the coastal town of Barawe about 180 km south of Mogadishu, while at the same time, thousands of miles away, Anas al-Libi, an alleged Al Qaeda operative (but more probably a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group opposed to Qaddhafi) suspected of involvement in the 1998 East African Embassy bombings, was kidnapped in Tripoli, Libya, also apparently by 'US special forces'. The battle for control and display of power continue on both sides, and the story itself is set to continue.

David Seddon

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