A savage scene unfolded this weekend in Nairobi, Kenya, as a terrorist attack on an upscale retail center, Westgate Mall, gripped not only the nation but the farther reaching international community as well. The attack, which has claimed the lives of approximately 68 (that number is expected to rise in the coming days) and injured upwards of 150, was carried out by members of the Somali based terrorist organization known as Al-Shabaab (“The Youth” in Arabic). Originating in 2006, Al-Shabaab now maintains a following of seven to nine-thousand fighters and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda as recently as 2011. Although their stronghold in Somalia has diminished as of late with the loss in control of urban regions, they continue to impose strict Sharia law in rural areas.
Early Saturday afternoon, 10 to 15 gunmen heavily armed with assault rifles and hand grenades entered the mall unleashing bursts of gunfire into crowds. As reported by a man in the mall at the time of the attack, the assailants specifically targeted non-muslims. He described a scene in which gunmen cornered civilians, questioning their faith. Those who claimed they were Muslim were free to go, others, not so much. Later on in the day, Al-Shabaab confirmed the report tweeting that “all Muslims” had been escorted from the mall (their Twitter account has since then been shut down). Twelve hours after the attack, six assailants remained holed up inside the mall with an unknown number of hostages. Kenyan Special Forces entered the facility later on the same day and after four days of negotiations, all hostages have been released and a number of attackers in custody.
As for the motivation for attack, the group claimed it is in response to Kenya’s decision to devote troops to Somalia as part of the African Union’s (AU) effort for peacekeeping and the establishment of a competent government. A double suicide bombing was carried out in Uganda in 2010 for the same reasons, killing 76. While Somalia’s recent history cannot be fully explained in this post (although I would encourage you to read more about it), it is essential to understanding the origins of Al-Shabaab and reasons for violence. Somalia has lacked an effective form of central government since civil war ravaged the country in the early 1990s. This power vacuum has created a region of extreme economic hardship and violence.
But what makes this attack significant, even more so than the obvious loss of life, is the psychological damage inflicted on the Kenyan people. According to a report from NPR, this mall, among others, represented much more than a retail center. It was considered a safe haven, a place for relaxation and social interaction without fear of violence. Here tourists and affluent members of the community do their shopping on Saturdays, while friends would sit outside and enjoy a latte. With a questionably effective police force, mall security in Kenya has long been privatized. Bags are scanned before entering the facility, metal detectors are used, guards stand outside with weapons. This scene seems to have brought about a false sense of protection. Approximately 10,000 people visited Westgate on any given Saturday. But this time, a number of them never left.
It’s quite important to understand the nature of this attack, to put it into perspective and understand the heavy implications. This was not a rural, run down mall in the middle of the Kenyan countryside. This was an attack on a modern facility with private security care, a location you or I would have felt comfortable shopping at any day of the week. The mall contained Nike, Adidas, and Bose stores, stores I’m sure we have all visited at one point in our lives. As people living in the United States, I believe, and know first hand, it’s quite easy for us to shrug off these events, considering them a product of a lawless, underdeveloped region. While there certainly are regions that are underdeveloped, there are deeper, underlying reasons for this violence. The fallacies that may shroud the attacks and the majority of the Africa in general are quite simply incorrect and bar any future development in the continent (A continent which, by the way, happens to maintain the second fastest growing economy in the world). We understand this attack is “bad” but do we really understand or care enough to ask what we can do to help?
Ninety-nine percent of us have never experienced a terrorist attack or extreme violence of this sort but quickly imagine your friend, brother, or mother shot down by gunmen in your local mall. Imagine the terror at the sight and sound of gunshots, the explosions of grenades, and the gruesome images of the dead. Imagine the smell of the smoke and the sound of the screams. Imagine the ensuing madness of a hostage situation and the insecurity you would feel in going out into public again. No one deserves to experience this or feel this pain. Challenge yourself. Ask what you can do to help. You don’t have to save everyone, just start somewhere and do something.
by Jordan Byrne