A week after the bloody Westgate mall assault, with the attackers and hostages all apparently dead, authorities are still struggling to identify who did it. But while many are blaming Somali or even British or U.S. militants, a key clue is emerging from survivors who report that several attackers spoke Swahili – the most common language in Kenya.
Mounting evidence suggests that Kenyans were among those who supported and led the brutal attack that killed at least 67 people. It’s the latest sign of growing links among Islamist radical networks in East Africa, extending beyond the Somalia-based militia that is typically cited as the main threat.
The spectacular four-day siege at the luxury shopping mall by an estimated 10 to 15 attackers – described by the Kenyan government as a “multinational” force – was so highly planned and carefully prepared that it must have had extensive logistical support from within Kenya, analysts say. The use of Swahili by some attackers has been cited in local and international media reports, based on witness accounts.
Kenyan officials have acknowledged that the attackers may have rented a shop at the Nairobi mall, months in advance, allowing them to smuggle in explosives and heavy machine guns before the siege. One report, by a British television network, identified a former Kenyan special forces soldier as the main leader of the assault.
Al-Shabab, the Islamist militant group in Somalia that at one point controlled Mogadishu and still holds much of southern Somalia, has claimed responsibility for the Westgate assault. But while the group may have been a driving force behind the attack, analysts believe it may have drawn support from a non-Somali affiliate in Kenya known as al-Hijra.
Al-Hijra, formerly known as the Muslim Youth Centre, was born in mosques and youth clubs in the neglected slums of Nairobi, where its membership is largely drawn from unemployed and alienated young Kenyan men, including many who have converted to Islam. While it endorses the rhetoric of Islamist radicalism, it is also fuelled by a range of economic and political grievances in Kenya.
Al-Hijra is reported to have recruited several hundred Kenyans to join al-Shabab. It has an active propaganda wing, including a presence on Twitter, where it heaps praise on al-Qaeda and al-Shabab. It has had links to Tanzania, and one of its members was reportedly involved in a Shabab bombing attack in Uganda that killed 74 people in 2010. And while it was temporarily disrupted by the death or arrest of several of its leaders last year, it has been seeking to organize a high-profile attack in East Africa, analysts say.
“Despite suffering setbacks, in the near term al-Hijra is likely to become more active: its principal leader, Ahmed Iman Ali, remains at large, gaining experience, confidence and credentials as a jihadist leader,” said a report published in May on the website of Canada’s official intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
The report, based on information compiled by CSIS from scholars and other specialists, said “hundreds” of al-Hijra members have received training and combat experience in Somalia from 2008 to 2012.
“Those al-Hijra members who return to Kenya may be able to take advantage of widespread disaffection within parts of Kenya’s Muslim community,” the report said. “Kenya itself remains a relatively permissive environment for terrorist groups, given its large, poorly governed urban spaces, endemic corruption, and high density of attractive potential target. ... Over the long term, the plight of the youth in slums like Nairobi’s Majengo, where al-Hijra was born, is likely to provide a steady flow of recruits.”
Over the past 18 months, dozens of small-scale terrorist attacks have taken place in Kenya, including grenade attacks and armed assaults on police stations. They are routinely blamed on al-Shabab, but many of the attacks are just as likely to have been committed by al-Hijra, analysts say.
While largely ignored by the world, these smaller attacks may have been a foreshadowing of the Westgate assault. “I think we’re going to find that al-Hijra was an integral part of this plot,” said Matt Bryden, a longtime Somalia expert and director of Sahan Research, a think-tank in Nairobi.
“Over the past four years, with hundreds of al-Hijra fighters in Somalia, I think it’s probably a safe assumption that a small hard core has emerged among them that is willing to take this kind of action and die in the process.”
Al-Hijra and al-Shabab have been trying to conduct joint attacks in Kenya, he said. The attack on the Westgate mall is “probably their first big operation together,” Mr. Bryden said. “This could be their first success. They’ve been trying for a while, but they finally made it.”
Another reported source of Kenyan militants is the Nairobi neighbourhood of Eastleigh, sometimes called “Little Mogadishu,” where an estimated 100,000 Somalis live, including Somali refugees and Kenyan-born Somalis.
While it is a vibrant business and trade centre, it has been long neglected by the Kenyan government. Its infrastructure is poor, its roads are muddy potholed tracks, its sewage pipes are often broken, and its residents are routinely harassed by Kenyan police. Marginalized by high unemployment and discrimination, some of Eastleigh’s young men have been attracted into the ranks of al-Shabab, which reportedly offers money to Kenyan recruits.
“These young boys have no chance of employment,” said Hassan Guleid, chairman of a business association in Eastleigh. “They’re desperate, they’re living a horrible life, so they join al-Shabab for money. They’d rather die than live in hunger. They get brainwashed by al-Shabab, but mostly it’s for money.”
Radical networks in Kenya’s coastal regions, where Muslim extremists have long been active, may also have expanding links to groups such as al-Shabab and al-Hijra.
“There are lots of East Africans fighting with Shabab and East Africans that benefited from training inside Somalia, so there’s a lot of commonality of interests,” said Cedric Barnes, a Nairobi-based analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“There have been long-existing radical networks in East Africa that have used Shabab as a kind of safe haven or facilitator for their activities.”
With these networks in existence, there is likely to be a “pretty large Kenyan dimension” to the Westgate attack, he said.