The Westgate Terrorist Attack: Any Lessons for Kenya’s Approach to Regional Security?
The Westgate terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya, on September 21, 2013, came a few days after the world marked the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent “global war on terror” (GWOT) have greatly influenced both the practice and the reimagining of international security and peace.
Even before the 9/11 attacks, the East African region had borne the brunt of al-Qaeda terror on the continent. On August 7, 1998, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were simultaneously bombed by al–Qaeda, killing hundreds of people. During the World Cup Finals in July 2010, the Somali Islamist terrorist network Al-Shabaab, which is known to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, was responsible for the bombing of a populated target in Kampala, Uganda. Kenya became a prime target of contemporary Islamist terrorist attacks when it sent troops to Somalia in 2011 to combat and neutralize Al-Shabaab, after the group had kidnapped and killed several foreign tourists and aid workers in Kenya. Operation Linda Nchi (Swahili for “protect the country”) was then launched by Kenyan troops crossing into Somalia in October 2011. A series of grenade attacks in various Kenyan towns during the past two years, for which Al-Shabaab has repeatedly claimed responsibility, were said to have been carried out as revenge for the military intervention.
Before the four-day terrorist siege of Westgate Mall, in which an estimated seventy-two lives were lost, the Kenyan government often trivialized and under-estimated Al-Shabaab’s capacity to inflict harm on the country, despite the aforementioned attacks and dozens of other terrorist incidents carried out by the group in recent years. In a telephone conversation with Al Jazeera television following the attack, the Al-Shabaab military spokesman defended the group’s actions that day as “a victory against the enemy.” Additionally, through the use of modern social media platforms such as Twitter, Al-Shabaab released a barrage of insults and damning rhetorics against Kenya and all the enemies of Somalia.
Strong accusations of negligence were lodged by some members of the public against Kenyan intelligence and security services following the Westgate attack. Reports emerged indicating that the Kenyan services had failed to act upon information provided by a tipped-off local member of parliament, who had informed police of an impending Al-Shabaab attack on some Nairobi-based shopping malls most frequented by expatriates. Other unconfirmed reports indicated the attackers had rented a shop inside Westgate Mall, which they used to plan and execute the attack.
The Kenyan security forces have also been criticized for their conduct of the rescue operations. Some among the public and local media accused them of looting valuables from the cordoned-off and heavily guarded mall during the four-day siege, when only the security forces, hostages, and attackers were inside the mall.
With the embers of the Westgate attack slowly cooling off, the Kenyan government’s policies–with respect to regional security–are now under heavy scrutiny. Many critics believe the government’s initial decision to send troops into Somalia was rushed, and their deployment ill-planned and of high risk. Drawing from Graham Allison’s rational actor model of decision making, a government’s foreign policy is based on rational choice, calculated only after weighing the merits and demerits of a number of alternatives. According to this model, then, governments essentially opt for lines of action that will maximize their strategic goals and objectives. Based on this model, one can see how the decision to send troops into Somalia rested on a rational choice by the Kenyan government to stop Al-Shabaab from threatening its national security. However, it appears that such a decision, though seemingly practical, was by all accounts rushed. The government did not carefully appraise the decision from a strategic point of view, particularly against the background of increased terrorist attacks within its borders.
On a wider level, the greater East African region and Horn of Africa region has been beset by instability of different kinds for the better part of Africa’s postcolonial history. In addition to the terrorism in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania already mentioned, most countries, including Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, and Burundi have been embroiled by armed conflicts of varying intensities. The global security environment has changed considerably in the past decade as well, with the seemingly waning risks of major armed conflicts and interstate wars being replaced by the increasing threat to regional and international security from organized militant groups in the form of terrorism. Africa and the Middle East have been most vulnerable in this regard, and while counterterrorism legislation has been passed in a number of East African countries, some of these laws have been termed discriminatory in their targeting of certain minority groups, notably the Muslim populations. Feelings of alienation and exclusion have combined with rising youth unemployment and widespread poverty to provide a fertile breeding ground for extremist ideologies and violence.
Given the increasing number of acts of terrorism that have taken place throughout the region, of those most recent being the Westgate Mall attack, countries within the East African region should progressively invest more resources into enhancing their individual and collective capacities to secure and also improve on both domestic and regional securities. Joint regional approaches (e.g., through the East African Community) should therefore be encouraged in dealing with the war against terrorism and security issues as a whole. International security cooperation and partnerships also need to be expanded with a view to strengthen the capacity of security forces in the region to wage the anti-terrorism campaign.