Al-Shabab’s brazen attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall was the desperate act of a terrorist force on the wane, a brutal way of punishing Kenya for its recent efforts to oust the al-Qaeda-affiliated militia from its homeland of Somalia.
“We’ll not negotiate with the Kenyan govt as long as its forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest,” al- Shabab ominously tweeted last weekend.
But Kenya, in many ways, was simply carrying out the West’s bidding. As the death toll continues to mount from the horrific attack, it is now incumbent on the West to stand by Kenya, which now faces tough questions on how to move beyond what some are calling its “9/11 moment.”
The attack also serves as grim reminder that there is no such thing as an arms-length intervention. While Washington has carried out limited drone strikes in Somalia, it has largely depended on African forces to combat al-Shabab on the ground, which merged with al-Qaeda last year.
Indeed, the attack has brought into sharp relief how crucially important Kenya has become as an ally, as al-Qaeda’s franchises in the Horn of Africa evolve.
In 2011, “Linda Nchi” (Swahili for “Protect the country”) was a joint operation of the Somali, Kenyan, French and American militaries. It was Kenyan troops, however, who crossed the border by the thousands into southern Somalia in the wake of the abduction of several foreign tourists and aid workers inside Kenya.
The invasion, of course, was about much more than that. Under the influence of al-Shabab, Somalia had become a lawless haven where piracy and kidnappings flourished. Kenya’s incursion was largely successful in driving al-Shabab out of strategic strongholds, allowing the Somali government to consolidate its power in the capital, Mogadishu, and extend its influence beyond.
With the Westgate attack, however, a splintered but more radicalized al-Shabab has demonstrated its ability to strike outside its homeland. The West and its African allies should continue to work together to assess and respond to what happened in Nairobi. Kenya’s decision to entangle itself in Somalia did not happen in isolation. The casualties of Westgate include scores of foreigners, including two Canadians. Kenya’s bitter fruit, in many ways, is all of ours to harvest.