Never underestimate Al-Qaeda

Olivier Guitta Managing Director, GlobalStrat
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Eleven years after the terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in Mombassa, and 15 years after the attacks against the American embassy in Nairobi, Kenya is once again suffering at the hands of Al-Qaeda. The attack on the Westgate mall should not have come as a surprise and the fact it did is, in itself, a lot more surprising. Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, clearly had Kenya in its sights and the Westgate mall was always going to be a potential target. It has been reported over the weekend that even the Kenyan intelligence service the NIS issued warnings about this very threat a year ago.

This summer had seen alarming warnings about terror risks in Yemen and hereafter Western embassies were being closed in Sanaa, yet Kenya was never mentioned as a potential danger zone. The lack of perspicacity of Kenyan authorities and Western security services is particularly worrying and Al-Shabaab will certainly see the inability of security forces to dislodge the remaining jihadists still in the mall as another sign of the tremendous success of their plan.

The mall, partially Israeli-owned, is a particularly popular location where many Westerners and wealthy Kenyans were doing their shopping when the attack happened, but security was rather poor. The mall also happens to be an easy target, as it is not open like usual African malls and only has two entrances, which means a lot of damage can be achieved with very few men. This explains how Al-Shabaab was able to kill and injure so many, and keep the mall under siege for three days with only 15 reported terrorists. Al-Shabaab appears to have followed guidelines recently issued by Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, and allowed Muslims to leave the compound unscathed.

Al-Shabaab was thought to have been weakened and close to being irrelevant, but the West’s mistake is in tending to underestimate Al-Qaeda and assume it is close to extinction. While it is true that Al-Shabaab lost a lot of its splendour alongside the vast territories it controlled in Somalia, its capacity and propensity to attack are still very important. Since March, Al-Shabaab has regained some of its strength and has led to spectacular attacks, notably against the United Nations compound for development or the assassination attempt against Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud.

Their desire to regionalise the conflict has two aims: punish Kenya for its military intervention in Somalia in late 2011 and shine through the Al-Qaeda nebula. Indeed, Kenyan forces had dislodged Al-Shabaab from Kismayo, their stronghold in Somalia, in September 2012. This had disastrous consequences for Al-Shabaab as half of their earnings came from taxes collected from businesses based in Kismayo. The United Nations have estimated the revenue loss at 35 to 50 million dollars. Having eliminated Al-Shabaab’s main source of income, Kenya exposed itself to bloody repercussions, which is why Al-Shabaab had threatened Kenya.

Organising an attack in Nairobi seemed fairly easy even though it required long preparations. The ease with which Al-Shabaab has been able to execute its terrorist attack may also be explained by the logistic support they may have received from their ally Al Hijra, a terrorist group based in Kenya.

After the Bombay attacks in 2008, it seemed clear that terrorist groups would be using this new modus operandi more often. But until Al-Shabaab decided to follow Lashkar-e-Taiba’s footsteps and attack a popular location, it hadn’t happened yet. Attacking poorly protected places with a high media value is clearly advantageous for Al-Shabaab. Having the world’s eyes turned to their actions for three full days was preferable to a classic terrorist attack such as a car bomb. This attack will also have a psychological effect on the Kenyan population, as the thought that terrorists can attack anywhere, anytime will destroy their sense of security. By targeting foreigners, the terrorists also wanted to instill fear in Kenya’s Western community and portray a negative image of the country. By shaking confidence and trust in Kenya, Al-Shabaab also wants to destabilize the Kenyan economy and dry out foreign investments.

This operation follows the hostage crisis in in Amenas, Algeria last January and demonstrates the new ability of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates to carry out spectacular attacks across Africa. The presence of Westerners, notably Americans and a British woman also highlights Al-Shabaab’s worrying ability to recruit in the Western world. A legitimate question now arises: when will Europe or the United States be next? Indeed, Peter Clarke, former head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch in London had warned in 2008 that the risk of a massacre such as Bombay’s could happen in Great Britain or the U.S.

Olivier Guitta is the Research Director at The Henry Jackson Society, a London based think tank specialised in foreign policy. Kristel Nathanail contributed to the research for this article.