Kenyan Terrorist Attack Speaks to Trouble in Somalia

The mall massacre reflects Kenya's struggles with al-Shabaab.

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.

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.