National Geographic News
Members of Somalia's al-Shabab jihadist movement exercise near Mogadishu.

Members of Somalia's al-Shabab jihadist movement. The group has claimed responsibility for the gun and grenade attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

Photograph from AP

Michael Lokesson

for National Geographic

Published September 23, 2013

As the terrorist siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, dragged into its fourth day, the attackers and security forces still appeared to be battling each other, despite claims by the Kenyan government, via Twitter, that the mall had been secured. At least 62 civilians had been confirmed killed and more than 175 injured, according to government figures.

The Somali militant group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks, via Twitter, and said it was retribution for recent Kenyan military actions against the group in Somalia.

Kenya is no stranger to terrorist violence. Groups linked to al-Shabaab have carried out many attacks in Kenya, and elsewhere in East Africa, over the past decade.

"Kenya is living with the fallout every day of what is happening in Somalia," said Christian Leuprecht, associate professor in the department of political science and economics at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Somalia, one of the poorest and most conflict-riven countries in the world, is often cited as an example of what political scientists refer to as a "failed state." After the fall of longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre's administration in January 1991, the country's national government collapsed, and rival warlords and factions battled for supremacy.

Al-Shabaab, a radical offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union – the preeminent Islamist faction in the country during the early part of last decade – established itself in the mid-2000s and eventually became allied with al-Qaeda. Spurred by the 2006 Ethiopian incursion into Somalia to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union from the capital, Mogadishu, al-Shabaab rapidly gained support and expanded into new territory, wresting control over most of the southern part of the country.

But like the Islamic Courts Union, al-Shabaab is a loose confederation of Islamist warlords and not a highly centralized organization. Altogether it has approximately 5,000 dedicated fighters, as estimated by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.

Somali Conflict Spills Into Kenya and Uganda

Kenya shares a 400-mile border with Somalia, and has had to endure an overflow of refugees during the past two decades. Recognizing a need to restore some stability to its neighbor, the Kenyan government hosted the internationally recognized Somali Transitional Federal Government, as well as European training facilities for Somali soldiers.

After Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia in 2009, an African Union peacekeeping force stayed behind. This force, led by Ugandan troops, managed to provide some cover for the Transitional Federal Government to operate, but had to cede most of the south of the country to al-Shabaab.

In retaliation for the African Union establishing a mission within Somalia, al-Shabaab in 2010 staged a series of attacks in Kampala, Uganda, killing 74 people.

Then in mid-2012, Kenyan forces (nominally under the auspices of the African Union) began an offensive against al-Shabaab in the south of Somalia. The Kenyans restored the rule of the recognized government in several areas, including the important port town of Kismayo, al-Shabaab's primary economic center and political stronghold.

Shabaab anger over its loss of territory and economic resources likely spurred the Westgate Mall attack.

“Similar to what they did in Uganda, [al-Shabaab] wanted Kenyan civilians to pay a price in order to drive up the cost of keeping troops inside of Somalia,” said Daveed Gartinstein-Ross, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

And while the Westgate Mall siege was by far the most complex and ambitious terror attack al-Shabaab has staged within Kenya, more than two dozen smaller-scale grenade and small arms attacks linked to al-Shabaab have taken place there over the past two years.

An Earlier Wave of Terrorism

Kenya’s deadliest terror attack, however, was the August 7, 1998, bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi. Carried out by an al-Qaeda cell, the coordinated attack against the American embassies in Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed a total of 234 people, 223 in Nairobi alone.

Prior to the Kenyan intervention in Somalia, and with the exception of the 1998 embassy bombing, most high-level terror attacks within Kenya targeted Israelis or Israeli interests.

In 1980, Arab terrorists bombed the Norfolk Hotel, killing 20 and injuring 80, in retaliation for Kenya allowing Israeli forces to refuel in the country during the 1976 hostage rescue at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

On November 28, 2002, Islamist radicals with ties to Somalia and al-Qaeda bombed the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 13 and injuring 80. At the same time, terrorists fired two shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles at a Boeing 757 airliner in Kenya owned by Israel-based Arkia Airlines. The missiles failed to hit the plane, which continued on its flight to Israel.

This story was updated on 9/24.

Chuch Panu
Chuch Panu

A week since the worst nightmare any Kenyan including myself could possibly go through. A full blown terrorist attack. 

A country where people humbly get on with their day to day lives and push on making Kenya what it is today, one of Africa's leading nations.

I happen to have been there when all this calamity began and watched all of it unfold day by day. Many people have been killed in this what i see clearly as an unethical way of using innocent people to prove we have 'International Issues' that seemingly cannot be addressed or resolved.

So what did Kenyans do? How did they react? What did they think? Did they all just sit back and speculate? Did they get up and run? 

I think the whole world should take a leaf out of this and learn and more to the point KNOW about Kenyans.

A Nation became united!!

I saw a culture of people from all walks of life instantly came together instantly with one another. Everyone from the local press, to the government, all the forces and most of all the Kenyan people. 

My hats off to all the civilians that so very quickly 'became' volunteers. Everyone wanted to help despite knowing or maybe in some cases oblivious of the potential threat or danger to themselves. Hospitals, local communities, local businesses and the everyday households who supplied tonnes of food, water, and there were cases where the locals were offloading lorry loads of supplies to help. Hot food and drinks day and night to support the forces, the media, the volunteers at the hospitals as an example.

There was no merit at the end of the day for any Kenyan who decided to help. No one was going to get an award, or get hundreds of pounds for doing what they did as a community. The Kenyans did this out of CHOICE, the choice to be ONE.

This is not to say that this kind of unity does not happen in other parts of the world should there be such calamities, i am sure it does.

What i am saying is Kenyans preach "Peace, Love & Unity" - This was an example. 


Adie Nicholson
Adie Nicholson

My question is why people are relying so heavily on the UN to clear everything up for them. What we need to do is take action toward eradicating al-Shabaab, al-Quaeda and other Islamic extremist groups from the Middle East to protect the nations around them from being wiped out.

Sam Arnold
Sam Arnold

where is the UN when all this is happening?

Nazimudheen Haneefa
Nazimudheen Haneefa

True islamist folow the Holy  Koran and teachings of Prophet.These Terrorists are not following the Koran or the teaching of the prophet. So we cant consider them as Islam or Islamist.

Claudia Burns-Walters
Claudia Burns-Walters

The picture depicts them to be armed to the teeth.  Begs the question:  Considering that they are from "one of the poorest" nations in the world, where are they getting the weapons (or the money to buy them)? 

Phish Len Apter
Phish Len Apter

There almost no terrorist attacks untill the Bushes started their oil grabs in the Middle East, in the name of the "War on Terror??". You can look it up

peng lei
peng lei

the vacuum of power is the most deadly threat to any body,no matter what kind of power the "body" is defined.

Seth Bonilla
Seth Bonilla

@Phish Len Apter Or it could be that when the "Bushes started their oil grabs" society started focusing on terrorist attacks. I do not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but to blame terrorism on the Bush administration is a poor assertion.

Terrorism is not a new concept and has been around for centuries. The term terrorism originates from the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Hezbollah originated after the Lebanese Civil war in the 1980s. The 1972 Munich Olympics saw an act of terrorism later to be called the Munich Massacre. Home grown terrorism has also been around for much longer than the War on Terror. For instance, the Patty Hearst incident in 1974 is a prime example. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Chechen Rebels gained some notoriety for their attack on a Russian theater. Just a few examples off the top of my head. Terrorism is not new. Look it up. 


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »