Subscribe to FDD

Al Shabab Strikes Kenya

Al Shabab Strikes Kenya

22nd September 2013 - FDD Policy Brief

At least 59 people died and 170 were injured yesterday in a terrorist attack on one of Nairobi’s most popular shopping malls. The Somali militant group al Shabab, an affiliate group of al Qaeda, took responsibility for the deadly attack, and witnesses say that gunmen from the group first told Muslims to leave Nairobi's Westgate Center before opening fire on non-Muslims. The siege, meanwhile, is not yet over.

Kenya is no stranger to terrorism. Notably, al Qaeda targeted the US embassy in Kenya in 1998, and a suicide bomber targeted a hotel filled with Israelis in 2002. Now, however, the African nation is directly in al Shabab’s crosshairs. In 2011, Kenya made a bold decision to send troops to Somalia to weaken al Shabab's capacity to operate, particularly in its northern region bordering Somalia.

While the attack yesterday was shocking, it is actually surprising that an al Shabab strike of this scale in Kenya has not happened sooner. In January of this year, al Shabab killed five and wounded many others in an attack on a restaurant in eastern Kenya, apparently targeting a high-ranking police officer. UN reports indicated there are now extensive Kenyan networks linked to al Shabab that recruit and raise funds and even train fighters. 

More broadly, radicalism is on the rise in the country. Officials have expressed concern, in particular, over Mombassa, where there is a large Muslim minority. Just 150 miles across the Red Sea from Mombassa lies Saudi Arabia, which has reportedly made strides in exporting Wahhabism, which has led to rising tensions and increased radicalization among Mombassa youth. For example, the assassination of Aboud Rogo Mohamed last year, an al Qaeda operative who was on a UN sanctions list for supporting al Shabab resulted in riots that left four people dead.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has promised to “hunt down the perpetrators” of the attack, and is calling for Kenyans to stand together in its wake. However, Kenyatta’s challenges are many.  He lacks a strong mandate and is not widely viewed as a strong leader. Looking ahead, he will require Western technical assistance to help maintain stability and security in the weeks and months to come. But for the moment, he will require Western intelligence and military assistance in neutralizing the Kenya-based al Shabab network that perpetrated the attack, which officials are now calling the most deadly since the 1998 embassy bombing.

Dawit Giorgis is a visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


al-shabaab, kenya, somalia