Al-Shabaab’s Perfect Target in Nairobi

September 27, 2013

Nairobi Westgate Mall Siege: Islamic Militant Fears as White Europeans and Wealthy Kenyans Targeted.

That was the headline that appeared in my inbox Saturday morning.  I research and write about regional militant Islamist groups for my doctoral studies, and the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab is one of my cases studies.  As any modern analyst of current events is expected to do, I have Google Alerts set up with a variety of pertinent keywords, and one of my al-Shabaab alerts pulled the article with that headline.  On an average day, I get 5-10 emails with several articles each about al-Shabaab.  Some are interesting and relevant.  Most are not.  This one stopped me in my tracks.

Several months ago, I spent a month in East Africa conducting interviews for my PhD.  While in Nairobi, I stayed at a hotel in the city’s Westlands neighborhood.  The hotel was situated immediately adjacent to a shopping center that was everything a Westerner would expect at home.  It had a coffee shop, a movie theatre, a well-stocked bookstore, and a food court.  It was also chock full of foreigners.

The shopping center was the Westgate Mall.  As I followed the breaking details on Twitter, I remembered sitting at the coffee shop in the shopping center’s atrium, and noted the retrospective and grotesque coincidence of the fact that I had sat editing a chapter on al-Shabaab’s target selection at a table immediately inside the main entrance to the mall that was at that very moment under siege by the group.

But the question as to why the Westgate Mall was chosen by al-Shabaab to be the site of this major attack is a complex one.  Intelligence services conceptualize the magnitude of terrorist threats as a function of the combination of a particular group’s capability and its intent.  Essentially, identifying what a group wants to do and what it is equipped to do allows for a prediction of what it is most likely to do.

In terms of capability, al-Shabaab has demonstrated its capacity to continue sustained, high levels of violence over extended periods of time.  On average, it conducted nearly 80 attacks annually between 2008 and 2011.  Most of these were in Somalia.  However, it has also proven itself able to project its violence abroad, most notably with a pair of bombings in Uganda in July 2010.

But the group’s intent is less clear.  Al-Shabaab claimed on Twitter that the attack was executed in revenge for Kenya’s two year old military intervention in Somalia.  Yet it chose to target a site disproportionately populated on a daily basis by foreigners – diplomats, expat workers, and their families.

But besides the foreign embassy employees enjoying a Saturday with their families and the droves of students from the International School of Kenya a few miles up the road, the mall also attracts an affluent strata of Kenyan society from which originates much of the country’s governing class.  American and European media will surely emphasize the casualties from the former groups.  At least 18 foreigners were among the dead.  But dozens more Kenyan civilians were also killed, as were at least six soldiers during the military response to the attack.  And these deaths must also be accounted for in an examination of al-Shabaab’s targeting calculus.  The only group that would almost certainly not be present during the siege is Nairobi’s Muslim community, often impoverished and much of which is comprised of Somali refugees and their descendants.

Finally, it is important to consider the level of Westgate Mall’s security.  The site is guarded by security personnel, and visitors face metal detectors, bag searches, and frisking prior to entering the building.  From a Western perspective, it is heavily secured.  But in Nairobi, where the central business district is marked by iron fences, soldiers armed with automatic rifles, and widespread surveillance coverage, the mall’s security is comparatively light.  In this city’s context, Westgate represents a soft target.

Al-Shabaab watchers disagree on the nature of the threat posed by the group, and rather than offering clarification, this attack will be used to bolster the claims of both camps.  Those that argue that the group remains focused on Somalia will point to the attack’s revenge component, which suggests that Kenya has suffered this tragedy because of its government’s decision to intervene in Somalia.  Those who argue that al-Shabaab has fully embraced the universalist, anti-Western ideology of al-Qaeda will claim that Westgate’s heavily foreign customer base drove the group’s decision to lay siege to the mall.

In reality, both views are correct.  In recent years, al-Shabaab has embraced al-Qaeda’s global worldview with increasing fervor.  The group’s emir, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, appears to be solidifying his control over the organisation, muscling out those within the leadership cadre who support a more Somalia-focused strategy.  But regional militant groups find it impossible to fully shed their local identities.  And the enemy on a group’s doorstep will remain a priority.

Westgate Mall, then, represented an ideal target.  Weakly guarded compared to other potential targets in Nairobi, it was guaranteed to be filled with both foreigners and affluent Kenyans.  The military response would provide an opportunity to engage directly with soldiers from the force that has pushed them out of much of the territory in southern Somalia that the group had previously controlled.  And the Muslim minority from which it seeks to elicit support would be unaffected by the casualty tolls.

Successful terrorist attacks require an element of surprise, and indeed, their terrifying impact is rooted in it.  But while fully acknowledging the benefit of hindsight, al-Shabaab’s choice of Westgate Mall as the target for Saturday’s attack should come as anything but surprising.


John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.  A former United States Army intelligence officer, he has been featured in print and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada.  Follow him on Twitter @johnamble.


Photo Credit: ابو سعد العسيري