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Nairobi attack: Game-changer for East Africa?

As Kenyans recover from brazen assault, many wonder what response is forthcoming for al-Shabab.

Last Modified: 25 Sep 2013 11:15
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The Westgate raid exposed Kenya's failure to guard the most prestigious shopping centre in its capital [Reuters]

Nairobi, Kenya - As Kenyan commandos fought pitched battles against the remaining few gunmen inside Nairobi's burned and blood-splattered shopping mall, questions began arising about what blowback the sensational siege would have upon a turbulent region.

The Westgate raid is likely to impact Nairobi's war in neighbouring Somalia, and offer insights into the tactics and strength of al-Shabab, the Somali hardliners who claimed responsibility for the carnage.

Security has already been beefed up across Kenya, but analysts say the dozen-or-so masked gunmen, who killed more than 60 shoppers during four days of terror, exposed Kenya's failure to guard the most prestigious shopping centre in its capital.

The Westgate raid may have tentacles reaching back into Somalia, but it appears to have regional and even international expertise in its planning - more like al-Qaeda 2.0 than al-Shabab.

-Cedric Barnes, International Crisis Group

"It's a huge security breach. Attacks on soft targets like this were known to be coming since Kenya intervened in Somalia," said Abdirashid Hashi of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies think-tank. "But small arms are available, and if people who are determined to die storm a shopping mall, there's not much that security agencies can do."

Relatives of the hostages expressed frustration as Kenyan troops painstakingly re-took the four-storey block over four days. Deputy President William Ruto spoke of the need to "up our game". Others praised the commandos for risking their lives against the Kalashnikov-toting attackers.

‘Al-Qaeda 2.0'

Cedric Barnes, from the International Crisis Group, said the strike reveals shifting tactics within al-Shabab, the Islamist rebels behind a string of smaller attacks across Kenya since Nairobi sent troops into its lawless neighbour in October 2011.

"The Westgate raid may have tentacles reaching back into Somalia, but it appears to have regional and even international expertise in its planning - more like al-Qaeda 2.0 than al-Shabab," Barnes told Al Jazeera. "It also couldn't have happened without a serious and entrenched Kenya-based cell." 

The assault marks al-Shabab's first foreign foray since the group underwent a bloody power struggle in June, in which rivals were killed or swept aside and Ahmed Godane - also known as Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed - emerged as a leader.

The new boss could be stepping up activities, said Barnes. The Westgate attack follows deadly recent hits on Turkey's Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia's airports, and a strike on the United Nations compound that claimed 15 lives.

When Kenya's foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, said the attackers included Americans and a seasoned female British fighter, combined with evidence of meticulous planning, fears of orchestration by al-Qaeda grew stronger.

In unverified Twitter handles, al-Shabab apparently said the bloodbath was timely retaliation for Kenya's invasion into its southern Somali heartlands. Spokesman Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab said: "Our aim is to attack our enemy when they least expect us."

Game-changer?

While al-Shabab has a shrunk to some 5,000 fighters and lost Mogadishu and the lucrative charcoal-exporting port of Kismayu, the brazen Westgate raid secured global attention and could represent a game-changing reversal of fortunes.

Kenya began three days of mourning after the mall siege [Reuters]

"Al-Shabab's end is no longer the talk of the town. They deflected the lens from internal strife, are energising their base, and putting fear in the heart of Kenyans," said Hashi. "Al-Shabab is weaker than ever before, but is a phenomenon the region must deal with for a while longer."

Ken Menkhaus disagreed. The political science professor from Davidson College described a "desperate, high-risk gamble" in the face of dwindling support, power struggles and successive defeats to 17,700 soldiers from Kenya and other African states operating under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

"If the deadly attack succeeds in prompting vigilante violence by Kenyan citizens or heavy-handed government reactions against Somali residents, Shabab stands a chance of recasting itself as the vanguard militia protecting Somalis against external enemies," Menkhaus said.

"It desperately needs to reframe the conflict in Somalia as Somalis versus the foreigners, not as Somalis who seek peace and a return to normalcy versus a toxic jihadi movement."

In Geneva on Tuesday, Nicholas Kay, UN envoy for Somalia, described a "once-in-a-generation" chance to defeat al-Shabab and bring peace to Somalia. "The amount of money that we're talking about ... would be very small. But the cost of walking away would be very expensive."

Amid questions over Kenya's response, President Uhuru Kenyatta said he will not withdraw Kenyan forces from Somalia. East Africa's biggest economy will "hunt down the perpetrators" of Westgate and "not relent on the war on terror", he said.

Barnes said although Kenyatta will not retreat from Somalia, he may choose to leave "sooner rather than later" because Nairobi has already achieved its goal of creating a safety buffer-zone beyond its northeastern border.

‘Got what it wanted'

Kenyan forces sided with Sheikh Ahmed Madobe's Ras Kamboni militia when kicking al-Shabab out of Kismayu in September last year. This paved the way for Madobe to strike a two-year deal with the federal government in Mogadishu to run Somalia's southern Juba region last month.

Al-Shabab's end is no longer the talk of the town. They deflected the lens from internal strife, are energising their base, and putting fear in the heart of Kenyans.

-Abdirashid Hashi, Heritage Institute for Policy Studies

"Kenya has got what it wanted, a deal that secures its influence in Jubaland," said Barnes. "If the deal sticks between Madobe and Somalia's federal government then ... Kenya will be keen to limit its exposure inside Somalia. Better to concentrate on the threats in Kenya."

While regional shifts take time to play out, immediate effects of Westgate are already being felt five kilometres from the mall in Eastleigh, a Somali-dominated suburb of Nairobi, where a large population of refugees from Kenya's chaotic neighbour fear reprisals.

"Some people have closed their businesses and aren't taking their children to school through fear of something happening - although nothing is happening," said Jayhan Mohamad, who assists Somali refugees in Eastleigh.

"The raid has nothing to do with our culture or religion. The attackers are giving us a bad name for no reason and we are not part of it."

Kenyan officials have repeatedly called for calm and warned against ethnic violence. President Kenyatta said the "evil act of terrorism will not divide ... a multi-cultural and multi-religious society". But East Africa's biggest economy has a patchy record in handling Somalis.

Kenyans have rioted in Eastleigh - also known as "Little Mogadishu" - after smaller al-Shabab hits.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Kenyan police tortured, raped and abused Somali refugees during crackdowns against a community that is perceived to be sympathetic to Islamists.

"There is a risk of continued harassment of Somalis and other minorities in Eastleigh, Mombasa and the coast," said Barnes. "I can't imagine they will change the way they deal with people seen as internal risks."

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

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Al Jazeera
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