Is the Nairobi Mall Carnage Bigger Than Kenya?

How groups like al-Shabaab counter the "Africa rising" narrative.

People take cover behind their vehicles along a road during heavy gunfire at Westgate shopping center in Nairobi on September 23, 2013. (Reuters)

The weekend’s horrific al-Shabaab attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall is still not over, and the context and consequences of the attack are uncertain. Despite Kenyan authorities’ claim of “full control” of the building, at last report the militants were still “hiding” and many hostages remained unaccounted for. Westgate is upmarket, and the victims are also up-market, including the nephew of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his fiancé.

There are also many unanswered questions, such as:

-Who exactly are the attackers?  There are competing twitter feeds with lists of names that are promptly withdrawn or repudiated by al-Shabaab in Somalia.

-Was the attack directed from Somalia, or did it originate within the large Somali community in Kenya, some of whom support al-Shabaab?

-Presumably the motivation for the attack was the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia.  But were there other motivations as well, such as an attack by the poor and dispossessed from the Nairobi slums on the rich?

Perceptions of apparent progress in Somalia may be seriously compromised by the Nairobi attack. The Nairobi attack marks the continuation of a disturbing trend in a growing number of countries and regions in northern and sub-Saharan Africa. The last year or so has seen an intensification of the “Boko Haram” insurgency in Nigeria, an Islamist jihad in Mali, and attacks on a natural gas facility in Algeria. Authorities in countries as diverse as Senegal and Niger express concern about the potential for jihadist movements to take root. All these insurgencies use the protest language of Islam—there isn’t really any other available. All have elements of millenarian religion—the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth—and use that to justify horrific violence against innocent people. Some have a criminal dimension. Others may be supported clandestinely by marginalized politicians.

Insurgencies and terrorism appeal to the victims of bad governance in the context where “Africa rising”—especially the boom in commodities—has made a few very rich, the construction of upmarket shopping malls possible, and many others poor. Jihadis brag about cross-border links and drawing on an international pool of fighters, though how significant such links are remains unclear.

Yet despite these commonalities, each jihadist group appears to have been formed by the unique circumstances of the country or locale where they operate. Actors appear to be part of a movement, but not of an organization. Their activities are not coordinated by a politburo operating out of an Afghanistan cave. Nor is there a charismatic leader such as Osama Bin Laden to unite and inspire the faithful from highly diverse backgrounds. Each insurgency must be understood in its own terms and context; facile generalizations mislead.

The consequences of terrorism and insurgency, such as what is currently unfolding in Nairobi, is devastating for the African states affected by it. Mali had to be rescued by outsiders led by France and parts of northern Nigeria are currently ungovernable. It remains to be seen what the consequences will be for Kenya, though the drawing together of that country’s fractious political class in the aftermath of the tragedy has been encouraging. For several years “Africa rising” has been an important narrative, especially in the Western investor and business community. How credible that narrative remains will be clarified over the coming months, especially given chronic political and social issues yet to be resolved. But, a decline in outside investment would be bad for most African countries.

The jihadist and millenarian movements in sub-Saharan Africa remain so diverse and so rooted in particular local circumstances that it makes a future “twin towers” style attack on the United States highly unlikely. However, that does not preclude a small band of the home-grown disaffected actors from wrecking mayhem and appealing to an international context, as has already happened in the United Kingdom. But, any such attack would be a criminal matter, rather than the political and millenarian challenge that jihadist insurgencies pose for African states.

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