Massacre in Nairobi: Kenya Under Siege as al-Shabab Consolidates

In previous postings in 2010 and 2011, I warned that the capacity of the militant group al-Shabab to export terror beyond Somalia is grossly underestimated by the international community.  The massacre of over 60 people and the wounding of many others at a Nairobi mall this past weekend is evidence of the serious threat that al-Shabab  continues to pose to peace and stability in Kenya, the region and indeed the entire world.  The cowardly and unprovoked attack on innocent people demonstrates the fact that al-Shabab is determined on revenge for the leading role that Kenya played in stabilizing Somalia.   

In 2011, Kenyan military forces entered a Somalia that was severely fragmented and unstable due to the terrorist activities of militia groups—primarily al-Shabab.   Together with other African troops, Kenyan forces were able to stabilize Somalia, which included reducing incidents of piracy that had reached unprecedented levels.  In addition, al-Shabab was increasingly involved in acts of terror within Kenya’s borders.  The large scale intervention by the Kenyan military was, therefore, an absolute necessity for Kenya as al-Shabab was increasingly affecting the security in Kenya and the region.

Kenya’s intervention in Somalia was an act of courage, sacrifice and patriotism. The country managed to do what even developed countries had failed to do.  Many developed countries had largely retreated from any direct intervention in Somalia.  Kenya’s intervention in Somalia was a major contribution by the country in fighting global terror.  At that time, I called for international support for Kenya in waging war on al-Shabab.  Specifically, I noted that it was “imperative that the international community mobilizes resources to assist in Somalia’s stabilization.” I also appealed for “the international community to support Kenya in destroying al-Shabab.”

Unfortunately, Kenya has been left largely alone to deal with al-Shabab and continues to face the greater part of its terrorist activities.  Although many countries have, over the last few years, pledged to support Kenya in its war against terrorists, support has only been marginal and largely inconsequential.  In many cases, governments of these countries are quick to recycle the same statements pledging to support the country after each attack.  The most immediate action by those governments has been to issue security warnings to their citizens to avoid travel to Kenya.  Unlike in the Middle East, where European Union and United States take terror threats seriously and are quick to mobilize their own forces and resources, this is not so for the East African region—especially as pertains to al-Shabab attacks.  For unexplained reasons, there is clear reluctance for these powers to confront al-Shabab with the force that is called for.

Probably the limited focus by the international community in directly confronting al-Shabab appears to be based on a simplistic and misguided view of what constitutes national interests and security for major powers.  It appears that al-Shabab is considered a localized group within the East African region and therefore of limited impact to the interests of other countries.  The negative U.S. experience in Somalia has also probably been a factor in explaining their resistance to a more consistent and engaged approach.  But al-Shabab is in fact increasingly linked to international terror networks, and it is an oversimplification to not consider the group a global security threat.  If indeed developed countries do consider this to be the case, their actions do not reflect so.  The involvement of the United States and the European Union would be much more focused were al-Shabab operating in other regions considered higher national security interests.

Kenyan leadership faces a major challenge in dealing with the threat posed by al-Shabab.  The group appears to have consolidated and is determined to wage war on Kenya.  With limited international support to deal with the threats posed by al-Shabab, the country is left with few options but to reallocate resources from other priorities in order to focus on extinguishing the group.  With constant threats from al-Shabab, it is unlikely that the country will be able to implement its ambitious development programs.  Dealing with the terror group must be a national priority.

But the rest of Africa must also be involved.  It is time that all African countries focus on dealing with al-Shabab collectively.  Africa’s new partners such as China must also play a more active role in supporting security operations.  If China wants to be an important player in Africa, it must also be involved in the war against terror in Africa.  Real partnership must go beyond just trade and investment to fighting terror.

The war against al-Shabab should not be a Kenyan war.  It should be a war by all nations that seek peace and that value the life of all people. But the war is not to be won by reactive approaches such as a one-time bombing of the terror group. Only a proactive and consistent strategy will neutralize al-Shabab.