People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 46

November 17, 2013



Terror Attack in Nairobi


Yohannan Chemarapally


NAIROBI, the capital of Kenya, was among the first major cities to experience an Al Qaeda terror attack. In fact, the 1998 dual attack on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-as-Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, announced the terror organisation’s arrival on the world stage. This time the terror attack in the Kenyan capital, which started on September 21, was a prolonged and bloody affair which lasted for more than three days. The Al Shabab militia, which is battling the Kenyan troops inside Somalia, claimed responsibility for the bloody occupation of Nairobi’s biggest mall — Westgate — for more than four days.




Though there was a great show of national unity when the terrorists had struck the capital, questions are now being asked in Kenya about the government’s handling of the incident. The Kenyan media has reported that there were clear signals that a terror attack in the country was imminent. An intelligence file leaked to the Kenyan media had warned of a “Mumbai style attack” in Nairobi “where the operatives storm into a building with guns and grenades and probably hold hostages.” Senior Kenyan officials, according to the media, including four cabinet ministers and defence chief, were aware of the intelligence intercepts warning of an impending attack. The intelligence was passed on to the Kenyan authorities as early as in January this year.


The Al Shabab militia, according to the reports coming from the region, had painstakingly planned the logistics of the attack over a long period of time. The location for the attack was carefully chosen. The Westgate Mall is a place frequented by the Kenyan elite and expatriates. An Al Shabab spokesman noted that the mall was frequented by “the one per cent of the one per cent.” Nairobi is a city polarised by class. The tiny rich elite live a comfortable life while a large number of the residents of Nairobi live a miserable existence in slums and crowded localities.


The Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, went on national television on September 24 to announce that the security forces had ended the siege by the terrorists. Kenyatta told his countrymen that 67 people were killed by the gunmen inside the mall. The president’s nephew and his fiancé were among those who died. In the casualty list were people of many nationalities including at least three Indian citizens. Many more Kenyan Indians, belonging mainly to the business community, were killed or injured. Five security personnel died in the operations to flush out the terrorists. More than 150 people were injured in the terror attack. The final casualty figures are bound to rise as the debris from the mall is cleared. Three floors of the mall had collapsed in the course of the three day fire fight. The Kenyan forces, according to reports, had used heavy weaponry, including rocket propelled grenades, in the efforts to secure the mall. In the first week of October, video footage emerged of Kenyan soldiers looting cash and valuables from the mall when they were engaged in the anti-terror operations.




The Kenyan foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, had initially stated that it was the Al Qaeda, not the Al Shabab, which was behind the latest terror attack and that some westerners including a wanted British female terrorist, were involved in the attack. The Al Shabab has vehemently denied that any foreigners or women were involved and has claimed that only Somalis were involved in the terror attack. Western governments have also not subscribed to the Kenyan government’s claim that their citizens were involved in the Nairobi terror attacks. Among the foreigners named by the Kenyan authorities was Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of Germaine Lindsay, who had blown himself up on a London underground train in 2005, killing 27 commuters. The number of terrorists involved in the operation is still unclear although the Kenyan foreign minister had put the number at twenty at the time of the attack. Western intelligence sources are now saying that only between four to six highly motivated fighters were involved in the takeover of the Westgate Mall.


“We have been badly hurt, but we have been brave, united and strong. Kenya has stared own evil and triumphed. We have defeated our enemies and showed the whole world what we can accomplish,” President Kenyatta said in his speech. But as the dust settles, many questions will be asked. There are fears that the Kenyan economy could be adversely impacted by the recent events. The economy has been on a steady growth track but is at the same time quite heavily dependent on tourism revenues and foreign direct investments.  


During the course of the latest terror attack, the Al Shabab spokesman threatened more action of a similar kind if Kenyan troops persisted in prolonging their stay inside Somalia. During the course of the terror attack, the Al Shabab said that Kenyans should be prepared for more terror strikes if their government did not withdraw its forces from Somalia. “Take your troops out or prepare for a long war, blood, destruction and evacuation”, was one of the messages posted by the Al Shabab leader, Ahmed Godane. Godane’s jihadist resume include fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Godane, had won a scholarship to study Islamic theology in Pakistan in the 1990s.




The Al Shabab had staged a terror attack in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in 2010, killing more than 74 people. Uganda had taken the lead in sending troops to fight Somali insurgent groups, including the Al Shabab. Kenyan and Ugandan troops now constitute the bulk of the African Union (AU) troops in Somalia.


In 2011, Kenya had suddenly taken the decision to send thousands of its troops to Somalia, to fight the Al Shabab. Till then, the Kenyan government was reluctant to get directly involved in the internal conflict that has erupted in Somalia since 1991. The AU was initially against the neighbouring states sending troops to Somalia under its flag. Kenyan troops took more than a year to drive the Al Shabab from its stronghold in the port city of Kismayo. Before that, the Al Shabab were driven out of the Somali capital Mogadishu, by an AU force. Mogadishu was, however, handed over to the Somali government. The Kenyan forces however have not permitted the provisional government to take control over the Kismayo port and airport. The Kenyan government has so far been reluctant to let the Somalis administer Kismayo independently and have instead backed a local warlord.


In February, 2012, the Al Shabab militia formally announced that it had started taking orders from Al Qaeda. That decision led to many of its fighters quitting in protest. The group’s goals since its inception were geared to achieve the goal of national unity not global jihad. The attack on the Nairobi mall also fits the pattern. The Al Shabab (Islamic Youth) was initially part of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), funded by the Somali business community that had briefly brought peace and stability to most of Somalia in 2006 by expelling the bunch of CIA supported warlords from the capital Mogadishu.


But the West suspected the ICU of harbouring a few Al Qaeda linked elements and with the help of its allies in the region, notably Ethiopia at the time, ousted the ICU from power in Mogadishu in 2007. Mogadishu, the capital, and much of Somalia once again plunged into anarchy and chaos, after Ethiopia invaded the country. The Al Shabab was further radicalised when many of its leaders had fallen prey to American missile and drone attacks. Their popularity subsequently waned among the Somali public as they refused international aid to famine struck areas under their control in 2011. More than a quarter of a million Somalis had perished, many of them children But the dispatch of Kenyan troops to Somalia and the Al Shabab’s determination to resist, made them acceptable to large segments of the Somali population.




Kenya, along with Uganda and Ethiopia are key allies of the United States in the Horn of Africa region, in the so called war on terror. The US has been bankrolling the Ethiopian, Ugandan and Kenyan military thrusts into Somalia. The Los Angeles Times reported last year that the US was “heavily engaged” in Somalia but this time “African troops are doing the fighting and dying. “Officially the troops are under the auspices of the African Union. But in truth, according to interviews with US and African officials and senior officers and budget documents, the 15,000 force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon, trained and supplied by the US government and guided by dozens of retired foreign military personnel, hired by private contractors,” the newspaper had reported.


The close cooperation between the Kenyan government and western security agencies was on display during the latest terror attack. Kenya has been one of the largest recipients of the US State Department’s anti-terrorism assistance (ATA) in the world. The Kenyan government, according to reports, took the help of US, UK and Israeli anti-terror experts in the operations to flush out the terrorists. The Westgate Mall was promoted by a Nairobi based Israeli entrepreneur. According to media reports, Special Forces of Israel were the first to arrive to help their Kenyan counterparts. Britain, anyway, has Special Forces training the Kenyan army and MI6 officers stationed in the country. The CIA station is Nairobi is among the largest in Africa.


After winning the presidential elections earlier in the year, Kenyatta had reiterated the government’s commitment to continue with its strong military presence inside Somalia. Kenya besides sharing a 700 km border with Somalia has a large Somali speaking population of its own. Anti-Somali riots had occurred in the Kenyan capital on previous occasions leading to the deaths of many ethnic Somalis. Around 20 per cent of Kenya’s population is Muslim. Many Kenyans are fervently hoping that there will not be another backlash against the sizeable Somali-Kenyan population that resides in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh. Mobs had targeted Somali residences and shops lat year after a bomb exploded on a mini bus. A prominent Muslim cleric, Sheikh Ibrahim Ishmail, was killed in early October in Mombasa along with three others while travelling in his car. Kenyan authorities and the media had accused the cleric of supporting Al Shabab. Rioting broke out in the important port city and tourist hub with Muslim mobs targeting Christian places of worship. Four people were killed in the riots that followed.


As it is, the wounds left behind by the inter-ethnic clashes following the disputed December 2007 elections have yet to heal. Both the president and the vice president, William Ruto, are facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged culpability in the killings that had taken place following the elections. Kenyatta had narrowly managed to defeat Raila Odinga in the presidential elections earlier in the year. The results of the elections clearly showed that Kenyans mainly voted on the basis of their ethnic affiliations. Kenyatta is a Kikuyu awhile Rutto is a Kalenjin. The Kikuyu and the Kalenjin have been the two most dominant ethnic groups in the country and have shared the presidency between them since the dawn of Kenyan independence. The West had, for the presidency, indicated its preference for Odinga who belongs to the Luo ethnic group and was not indicted by the ICC. President Barack Obama in a pointed snub to the newly elected president, Kenyatta, visited neighbouring Tanzania earlier in the year.