Al-Shabab's motives seem clear: a vicious and bloodthirsty strike at the soft, civilian underbelly of East Africa's most important city to provoke a heavy-handed response, one that channels the popular support of disenfranchised Muslims in Kenya and re-energizes a terror group thought to be on the wane. Regardless of the motive, it's not yet possible to assess whether this attack signals the rebirth of al-Shabab as a regional jihadi movement, or the last gasp of a dying organization.
Al-Shabaab means "The Youth" in Arabic. The terrorist group was founded in 2006 as a militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union, a radical group of Sharia courts that had assumed power in southern Somalia and had also gained control of the capital Mogadishu. The young militants saw themselves as freedom fighters against "foreign invaders" from Ethiopia who, with American military assistance, where trying to drive out the fundamentalists.
After a coup in 1991, Somalia had ceased to exist as a nation. The leaderless country, torn apart by conflicts among rival clans, developed into an ideal haven for militant Islamists from around the world -- and al-Shabaab became a melting pot for international Muslim terrorists.
According to US intelligence agencies, mujahedeen from Afghanistan and Pakistan joined al-Shabaab after the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. In February 2012 the organization's leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, swore allegiance to al-Qaida. Apparently, Somali expatriates from the United States and other Western countries have also joined the group since then.
Al-Shabaab, with an estimated 5,000 militants, also staged attacks abroad from the very beginning. In July 2010, suicide bombers killed 74 people who were watching a television broadcast of the soccer World Cup final in the Ugandan capital Kampala. It was an act of revenge against the Ugandan army, which has been in action in Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force since early 2007.
A year ago, Kenyan forces seized al-Shabab's final stronghold, the Somali port of Kismayo, sending the group into the country's rural interior and cutting off their economic lifeline. A long and brutal war against a slippery enemy, it seemed, was nearly won. After entering Somalia's conflict in October 2011, the Kenyan military, working together with the Somali National Army and the Ethiopian Defense Forces, had successfully weakened the Islamist terrorist group and seemed poised to restore peace to a fractured nation riddled by two decades of conflict.
Those gains, it turns out, were fleeting. The three countries' militaries have been unable to wrestle control of Somalia's southern hinterlands from al-Shabab's forces. Provided an operational safe haven, but lacking a city base, al-Shabab transitioned from conventional fighting to asymmetric warfare using guerilla and terror attacks to target the new Somali Federal Government (SFG) in Mogadishu and now, tragically, in the heart of Kenya.
Like any good guerrilla force, al-Shabab knows it has to conserve its sparse resources for maximum impact. Occurring less than a month before the second anniversary of Kenya's Somalia intervention, the Westgate attack comes during a nadir in relations between Nairobi and the SFG, which controls just a small swath of land in and around Mogadishu. Many in the Somali government are wondering when the Kenyan military will exit Kismayo, and doubt its intentions.
The persistent theory in Mogadishu is that Kenya seems reluctant to turn over the valuable port, preferring to relinquish control to a warlord of its choosing rather than Somalia's central government. Meanwhile, many Kenyans are wondering when their troops will return home. For its part, al-Shabab may be hoping that the Westgate attack will convince Kenyans that a sustained involvement in Somalia is just too messy.
And yet, it may also be a ploy to provoke Kenya, encouraging even greater commitment to sustaining forces in Somalia. If the attack provokes Kenya to venture deeper into Somalia, al-Shabab hopes it can exhaust foreign forces in an asymmetric campaign of hide-and-seek insurgency. Inciting Kenya's rage and prompting an extended invasion is almost as positive an outcome for al-Shabab as getting the Kenyan military to unilaterally withdraw. Either way, the goal is the same: it's largely a matter of sequencing.
The Westgate attack may also be intended to fan the flames of xenophobia. Resentment and persecution are familiar feelings to Somalis living in Kenya -- and for native Kenyan Muslims, as well, who have historically maintained a contentious relationship with the central government. It's too early to say whether Westgate will provoke retaliatory attacks against these communities in Kenya: much depends on whether or not the Kenyan government and security forces are willing and able to prevent an upwelling of violence against minority Muslims.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: AFP- A Kenyan lady, escaping the Westgate attack, in Nairobi-Kenya