23 Sep 2013

Why did al-Shabaab strike at the heart of Kenya’s capital?

Africa Correspondent

The attack in Nairobi is a psychological blow to Kenyans. Striking at the heart of the capital city is designed to have the maximum effect on the locals.

Al-Shabaab‘s latest attack on Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi is its most spectacular yet in the country and the largest terrorist attack in Kenya since 1998.

The Somali Islamist group have been warning in the past couple of years that it would hit Kenya.

It appears to have achieved some success. So far, at least 60 deaths have been confirmed, many more injured and casualties are likely to rise.

As the attack unfolds, al-Shabaab are on Twitter giving regular updates.

“For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land,” one message read.

The account was later suspended but shortly another one was opened.

Al-Qaeda link

In response, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed his nation.

President Kenyatta said: “We have overcome terrorist attacks before. In fact, we have fought courageously and defeated them within and outside our borders. We will defeat them again. Terrorism in and of itself is the philosophy of cowards.”

He added: “They would like us to retreat into a closed, fearful and fractured society where trust, unity and enterprise are difficult to muster”.

It is a psychological blow to Kenyans. Striking at the heart of the capital city and a symbolic place, it is designed to have the maximum effect on the locals.

Kenyans who have generally enjoyed peace will find it hard to go about their daily lives, for some time to come.

It is also going to have an impact on the nation’s economy, a country that prides itself of being a regional hub.

Foreign companies invest in every sector. Tourism makes huge contribution to the local economy.

Read more: Nairobi shopping centre attack as it happens

Many aid organisations including the UN are based there. This attack is likely to scare off foreign tourists, investors and international aid workers.

The al-Qaeda-linked group, which still controls large parts of southern and central Somalia, has been under pressure in the last three years.

A coalition of forces from several African nations, supporting a weak Somali government, is fighting to defeat the militants.

Kenya is part of the alliance that pushed the Islamist from the main cities and its forces captured Kismayo from the group in 2011.

For the Islamists, losing Kismayo was very difficult to swallow.

The port city, third largest in the country, was a strategic place and it generated an enormous source of income.

Therefore, they chose their target and planned the assault carefully. Westgate shopping mall was the perfect place for them.

The centre is popular with westerners, wealthy Kenyans and Somali politicians.

All of them targets for al-Shabaab. More so, it is reportedly owned by Israelis.

Leadership battle

Targeting Israeli interests will win al-Shabaab supporters amongst the jihadi community and some in the Arab world.

In recent weeks, an internal battle within the group has been emerging.

Hassan Dahir Aways, who was seen as a father figure by many jihadists, handed himself to al-Shabaab’s main enemy: the Somali government.

Other well-known members of the group are on the run and hiding in the bush.

The most famous foreign fighter, Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, was murdered early this month by fighters loyal to the leader.

Read more: Al-Shabaab claims responsibility for 'brutal' Nairobi attack

In response, some international jihadis have questioned the leadership.

Carrying out such attacks will discredit those within the jihadi community critical of the al-Shabaab leadership.

It will also prove to the al-Qaeda leader who is “genuine” about global jihad.

Experts have predicted the downfall of a united and secretive organisation.

However, the onslaught on Westgate mall will give al-Shabaab fighters and their sympathisers a much needed morale boost.

Through Twitter, al-Shabaab promised to continue attacks on Kenya. It may be the beginning of a long battle between al-Shabaab and Kenya.