Marginalized in Somalia by Kenyan, Ethiopian and other African military forces, al-Shabab tried to show that it was still a potent instrument of terror by striking cruelly in Nairobi. Since Kenyans had helped significantly to overcome al-Shabab’s strongholds in Kismayu and Merca, in southern Somalia, al-Shabab attacked Nairobi, Kenya’s soft security underbelly, instead of attempting to battle Kenya’s 4,000-strong soldiers in Somalia itself.
An upscale shopping mall filled with children and wealthy Kenyans became an easy target because many ordinary Kenyan Somalis live, work, and shop in the city and frequent its malls. Security is known to be lax in and around the big malls. And so it was, with appalling loss of life, hostage takings, and committed al-Shabab militants holed up in a supermarket as late as Sunday evening.
It is easier to attack civilians in a shopping mall than to continue to be harassed and contained by African forces in Somalia, where al-Shabab has steadily lost control since 2011. Al-Shabab now holds sway in but a handful of southern Somali towns and parts of the countryside. Three years ago it lorded over nearly all of Somalia from Mogadishu south to the border with Kenya. Within that conquered zone it imposed strict observance of Sharia law, together with oppressive fundamentalist Islam, on Somalis of several clans who, before the coming of al-Shabab and its less well-organized precursor the Islamic Courts Union, had a more secular approach to the practice of Islam.
Then, in 2011, the Kenyans joined the fight to extirpate al-Shabab, bolstering an African Union and Western-backed attempt to support the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. First Kenyan troops captured a swath of territory in southwestern Somalia, near their own border. Subsequently its soldiers laid siege to Kismayu, Somali’s second city and port. When al-Shabab lost Kismayu to the Kenyans, it lost its hold on profits from imports and exports through that harbor. The export of dates, bananas, sheep, and goats provided revenue for al-Shabab, as did imports of consumer goods and the mild narcotic qat.
Additionally, al-Shabab has long been backed by funding from al-Qaeda central, from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and from the widespread Somali diaspora in Canada, Britain, the United States, Sweden, and even from the large resident Somali community in Nairobi. The raid on the mall was an attempt to continue to justify funding from all of those backers.
Battalions from Ethiopia, Burundi, Uganda and other African countries have joined the Kenyan attacks on al-Shabab as have American special forces, American drones, and British and French military operatives. But for al-Shabab, Kenya was the main and an easier target. It hardly has the manpower or reach to attack in the capitals of those other African countries, or to threaten the West.
Ultimately, al-Shabab has again demonstrated that its leaders believe in terror rather than building Islamist civility. The raid on Nairobi was the lashing out of a wounded leopard. Other than maiming the innocent and traumatizing a city, al-Shabab has accomplished little that can threaten Somalia or Western interests who seek a strengthened Somalia and who support the new government in Mogadishu.
The attack on Nairobi shows how weak, how desperate, al-Shabab has become. However the crisis in the mall is resolved, al-Shabab has marked itself for destruction under the laws of war, intensifying its own vulnerability. Ahmed Abdi Godane, its unquestioned leader, may have needed the raid to improve his standing within al-Shabab and al-Qaeda. He recently purged competitors. But now he has made himself a target, along with others in the top ranks of his movement.
Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School, Carleton University and Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo .