It had all the trappings of a spy movie that many movie buffs may have seen at one time or the other. A group of terrorists seize and take control of an aeroplane or building. Then, in a fit of delirium, they gloat about their success and begin to rave about the havoc they have caused and what they can still inflict, amidst debris and corpse that resulted from their wave of violence. Fear, pandemonium and desperation sweep through the land, leading to frantic actions by the government in a bid to contain or stop the violence. That indeed, was the situation in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall on September 21, up until September 24, when Kenyan security forces dislodged the invaders, the Somali terror group, al-Shabab. By the time the dust caused by the terrorist act had settled, no fewer than 67 persons had lost their lives, while at least 175 persons sustained injuries. Sections of the Westgate Mall that was the scene of the onslaught were, on their own, reduced to rubble.
Among the dead was the popular Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor, who had travelled to the East African country to attend a literary event; Mbugua Mwangi, nephew to Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta and his fiancée Rosemary Wahito; Ruhila Adatia-Sood, a Kenyan radio journalist; as well as Annemarie Desloges, a Canadian diplomat. Kenya’s security forces had to muscle all the strength and tactics in their arsenal to regain control of the mall four days after. The attack on Kenya sent shock waves throughout the world and attracted solidarity messages for the country and condemnation for the insurgents. In the opinion of security experts, it reminded people just how increasingly unsafe the world was becoming. “Tales of terror attack across the world have become too frequent in recent years and the attack on a busy shopping mall in Kenya, by a Somali terror group, is a lesson for all, from Nigeria to Uganda, South Africa to Tanzania and others,” one of such experts noted, adding: “The incident shows that boundaries pose no barriers to terrorists.”
Kenyatta, while acknowledging the havoc caused by the insurgents, insisted that Kenya had shamed and defeated them. For many observers, the attack on Kenyan soil by al-Shabab did not come as a surprise, given the no love lost relationship between the Kenyan authorities and al-Shabab. The Somali-based organisation is known to have long posed a threat to Kenya, and it was this fear that informed Kenya’s decision in 2011 to deploy its troops to Somalia, its next-door neighbour, to fight the insurgents. Kenyan authorities chose that option after al-Shabab reportedly killed one and kidnapped another tourist in a resort in northern Kenya earlier that year. For a country that derives much of its revenue from tourism, Kenya viewed al-Shabab’s assault on its territory both as an affront and a negative signal to the international community that the country was not safe. That informed the decision to invade Somalia to help the Somali government fight al-Shabab. It hoped to, by so doing, defeat or at least whittle down the influence of the terrorist group in Somalia, and stop further incursion into Kenya. It was an act that al-Shabab has never forgotten, and the threat of an attack in Kenya as retaliation for Kenya’s effrontery had long been speculated.
This much was confirmed by Abulaziz Abu Muscab, al-Shabab’s spokesman for military operations. According to Muscab in an interview last week, al-Shabab’s attack in Kenya had in fact been long in coming. “We had been late in attacking Nairobi. We did not attack before because they were expecting us to attack. Our aim is to attack our enemy when they least expect us to attack. This time, they were not expecting us to attack. We choose when to attack and best time to attack.” He refused to confirm whether the Westgate attack was al-Shabab’s first on Kenya, but he did reveal that the choice of Westgate as target was well thought-out. “The place we attacked is Westgate shopping mall. It is a place where tourists from across the world come to shop, where diplomats gather. It is a place where Kenya’s decision makers go to relax and enjoy themselves. Westgate is a place where there are Jewish and American shops. So, we have to attack them.”
Some reports suggested that the terrorists were not just Somali militants, but foreigners as well. Although investigations into the incident had not been concluded as at the time of going to press last week, Kenyatta revealed that “Intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack.” The British woman, according to unconfirmed reports could be Samantha Lewthwaite, the “white widow” of Jermaine Lindsay, who masterminded the July 7, 2005 terror attacks in London. Details of how the attackers gained entry and masterminded the attack in Westgate have been sketchy, but some accounts claimed that the terrorists hired a shop at the mall. However, Joseph Ole Lenku, Kenyan interior minister, said last week, that nothing had been confirmed yet. “Whether the terrorists hired a shop in the mall is a rumour. We will treat it as such, until the forensic exercise and any other investigation taking place prove it otherwise,” he added.
The attack on Kenya was the second major terror attack on Kenya since the1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi that was linked to al-Qaeda. Almost 200 people died in that assault. Since then, al-Qaeda’s influence as an international terror group had gained ground mainly in Asia and North Africa, but also in parts of West Africa. The group is known to have links with al–Shabab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Their association shows the wide network of the terror groups, and just why it is possible to spread terror across boundaries.
Alade Fawole, a professor of international relations at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, told TELL that Kenyan Westgate incident does not teach anything new that “we do not already know.” Given the network and connections people maintain from one country to the other, the attack, he says, shows that terrorism transcends boundaries. His words: “What has happened to Kenya can also happen to Nigeria as we have seen a similar incident in the UN Headquarters building in Abuja. Nigeria is more vulnerable because we have more open places like malls, discotheques, markets, bus terminals, railway stations, airports, most of which are not adequately secured. So, what happened to Kenya can also happen to us.” While the attack on Kenya calls for countries to take their security seriously, Fawole believes that no single country can tackle terrorism alone. “There has to be co-operation between transnational, international and multinational organisations, intelligent services to share and exchange ideas,” he said, adding: “This is even more important because individual countries relations and transactions with some other African countries could have a backlash on the citizens of such countries.”
Additional reports by OLUWATOSIN AKINTOLA