Kenya – ‘Gunmen Kill Dozens in Terror Attack at Kenyan Mall’ (NY Times, 2013)

By Ahmed Gerashi (2014)

Introduction and Article Summary

The article analysed in this essay is from the New York Times, reporting on the following incident. On 21 September, 2013, armed men conducted an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya where they killed dozens of people – Kenyans and foreigners (Gettleman and Kulish, 2013).

The article is cited as (Gettleman and Kulish, 2013) and attached as Appendix 1. The article’s tone is distinctly emotive. It describes the attack as “chilling” and “terrorist” (Gettleman and Kulish, 2013) and states that the mall’s “floors were smeared with blood” (Gettleman and Kulish, 2013). Hence the language used to describe the scene is graphic and explicit. The article remarks that Al-Shabab are Islamist militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda, who “beheaded civilians” and killed girls via stoning (Gettleman and Kulish, 2013). The anticipation of Western officials that the gunmen would “fight to the death” was also uttered (Gettleman and Kulish, 2013). The article focuses more on descriptive language than reasons behind the attack.

However, the article does mention the main reason for the attack, which is Kenyan military involvement in Somalia to combat Al-Shabab (Gettleman and Kulish, 2013). However, the article does not mention the capture of Kismayo or the inner power struggle of Al-Shabab as being important reasons behind the attack. The article also fails to indicate the unsteadiness of the grounds on which Kenya based the validity of its invasion of Somalia. These factors will be explained and discussed in the main essay, thereby critically analysing the incident, and a final analysis of the adequacy of the article will then be provided.

Who perpetrated this political violence?

The Westgate attack was committed by the militant Islamist group based in Somalia, Al-Shabab. Gunmen belonging to the group murdered 67 people in the Westgate mall (Reuters, 2014).


Initially, it is beneficial to have some background information. Most countries consider Somalia to be the embodiment of a failed state (Plaut, 2013: 322). Since the fall of Mohammed Siyaad Barre’s regime in 1991, Somalia has not been under the authority of a single, unified central government (Hesse, 2010: 247). In other words, Somalia did not move under a ‘legitimate’ government’ as there is no effective government.

However, the situation is not completely anarchic and chaotic in Somalia. After Barre’s fall from power, approximately 3 million Somalis declared their independence from official ‘Somalia,’ and began working on their own Republic of Somaliland in northwestern Somalia (Hesse, 2010: 247). A further 1.5 million Somalis created another self-governing state known as Puntland in 1998 in the northeast (Hesse, 2010: 247). These are two examples of several declared autonomous regions in what is officially considered ‘Somalia.’

In an attempt to recreate a central regime, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was established in Somalia (BBC, 2014b), and was internationally supported (Hoehne, 2014: 359). It was not successful in unifying the country, as different militias continued fighting for control of areas (BBC, 2014b). In 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia emerged as a rival in administration to the TFG when it fought and gained control of Mogadishu from warlords (Verhoeven, 2009: 411). This was the birth of Al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab emerged as the radical wing of the UIC (Verhoeven, 2009: 415), and gained control of Somali areas by hiring local militias (National Counterterrorism Center, n.d.). Since then it has been engaged in ongoing battles with the TFG and other militias for territory.

To combat what are deemed to be terrorist clans including Al-Shabab, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was created. AMISOM was established by the African Union in 2007 (Kasaija, 2010: 267) and accredited to enter Somalia by the United Nations in the same year (Kasaija, 2010: 268). In essence, AMISOM was established to promote peace in Somalia and aid in developing a national parliament to encourage rapprochement between opposing groups (AMISOM, 2014a).


It appears that the main reason Al-Shabab attacked the Nairobi-based mall is revenge for Kenyan military involvement in Somalia. The group clarified that the attack was carried out to inform Kenya that they must retrieve their forces from Somalia (Jaji, 2013: 359). Ahmed Godane, who was the group’s leader at the time, took the credit for the attack and stated that the militants would retaliate against Kenya and the West for their interference with Somali affairs (Reuters, 2014). He also addressed the Kenyan state by saying, “Take your troops out or prepare for a long-lasting war, blood, destruction and evacuation” (Blair and Jorgic, 2014). The primary aim of the attack, then, is to force Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia.

Kenyan military involvement in Somalia occurred in 2011, when the Kenyan army invaded Somalia. In October of that year, thousands of Kenyan soldiers crossed over to neighboring Somalia (The Economist, 2011). Seemingly, the primary reason for the invasion was to combat and reduce the influence of Al-Shabab. Following a number of raids supposedly conducted by Al-Shabab on Kenyan soil, the Kenyan internal security minister, George Saitoti, stated that Kenya’s government “shall not allow criminals from Somalia…to destabilise our [Kenya’s] peace” (Branch, 2011). Saitoti, as well as others, stated that a series of tourist and aid worker kidnappings in Kenya by Somali criminals was the deciding factor (Branch, 2011). For example, on September 11, 2011 Somali attackers murdered a British tourist and kidnapped his spouse from a resort in Kenya (Perry, 2011). On October 13, 2011, another crowd of abductors kidnapped two Spanish aid workers from Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya intended to host Somalis escaping starvation and violence in their country (Perry, 2011). They were detained for almost two years (Burkhi, 2013). The Kenyan government blames these crimes on Al-Shabab, yet the militants rejected this accusation (Jaji, 2013: 359).

Regardless, the invasion took place and Kenyan troops carried out offensives against Al-Shabab. For example, in early 2012 Kenyan soldiers attacked Al-Shabab in southern Somalia, leading the extremists to flee the area (Hoehne, 2014: 359). Al-Shabab took revenge for the incursion by attacking Kenya. A series of reprisal attacks on Kenya began almost immediately after the invasion, around two years before the climax of the Westgate attack. For example, less than a month after Kenya’s incursion into Somalia, fighters belonging to Al-Shabab attacked a border patrol unit of Kenya’s Administration Police (Boniface, 2012). On January 11th 2012, Al-Shabab fighters murdered six Kenyans, including three police officers, at a police camp in northeastern Kenya (Boniface, 2012). Thus, a series of attacks by Al-Shabab continued until they reached a peak at the Westgate Shopping Mall attack. In fact, the Westgate attack is the 28th terrorist attack in Kenya since it carried out its foray into Somalia (The Joint Committee on Administration and National Security and Defence and Foreign Relations, 2013: 14).

A significant reason behind the Westgate attack, other than the mere existence of Kenyan troops in Somalia, is likely the seizure of the Somali port city of Kismayo by the Kenyan army and AMISOM forces. Around a month after entering Somalia, the Kenyan government consented to placing its troops under the umbrella of AMISOM (AMISOM, 2014b). In early 2012, the Security Council of the UN authorised Kenyan forces to join AMISOM following a request by the African Union (Africa Research Bulletin: Political, Social, and Cultural Series, 2012: 19114).

As part of its mission to establish peace in Somalia, AMISOM troops combated what are deemed to be terrorist organisations such as Al-Shabab. In late September 2012, the Kenyan army, alongside AMISOM forces, accomplished their objective of taking over the Somali city of Kismayo (Loubser and Solomon, 2014: 8), which is considered the economic centre of south Somalia (The Economist, 2012). Somali charcoal from Kismayo was an economic bulwark of Al-Shabab (Huang, 2012). Hence when AMISOM troops gained control of Kismayo, Al-Shabab lost that significant source of revenue, which, according to the UN, earned them up to $50 million a year from the taxes they placed on the trade (The Economist, 2012).

However, why did Al-Shabab choose the Westgate mall in particular? One of the reasons is that the mall is a business hub in Kenya, regularly visited by affluent Kenyans and internationals and lies in a high-class area of Nairobi (Mureithi, 2013). In a way, what Kismayo represented to Al-Shabab is similar to what the Westgate mall represented to Kenya. Hence, one motive could have been pure retaliation for Kismayo.

Furthermore, the mall is host to global brands including Converse, Adidas, and Nike (Mureithi, 2013). Note that these brands originate from the West, with Adidas being German and the other two being American. Thus the attack on the mall was an attack on Western consumerism and culture (McConnell, 2013). Addtitonally as the mall was frequently attended by foreigners, carrying out an offensive on it was likely to boost Al-Shabab’s reputation.

The purpose of gaining more recognition becomes more probable when one considers the previous measure taken by the militants, which was joining forces with Al-Qaeda. The Somali fundamentalists created and spread a video in collaboration with Al-Qaeda in 2012, declaring the merger of the two factions (BBC, 2012). Al-Qaeda preserved their existence in Kenya since the early 1990’s, mostly through local affiliated militant groups (Aronson, 2013: 29). These local extremists regularly had their own aims and used Al-Qaeda’s name and reputation to enhance recognition (Aronson, 2013: 29), and Al-Shabab followed suit.

Another aim of the attack was for the militant group to showcase its strength. Although the Westgate attack was horrific, Al-Shabab began becoming weaker a few years ago. The group’s vulnerability emerged from factors such as internal conflicts and AMISOM’s armed pressures, and a demonstration of this weakness can be found in the group’s 2011 withdrawal from Mogadishu (Loubser and Solomon, 2014: 7). The group is militarily and financially feebler, disunited and unpopular (Elmi and Aynte, 2012: 4). Subsequently, the TFG and some Western officials announced that Al-Shabab is beaten, thus the Westgate raid demonstrated the falseness in that announcement (McConnell, 2013).

The Westgate attack is also likely to be a planned statement of Ahmed Godane. He became the leader of Al-Shabab mere months before the attack via an internal coup, but the group’s internal conflicts did not disappear (Tisdall, 2013). Godane arranged the execution of several high-ranked members, including one who said that Godane acted in a dictatorial manner (Tisdall, 2013). Additionally, it was Godane’s decision to partner with Al-Qaeda, and it is said that he was the mastermind behind bombings that occurred in Uganda in 2010 (Tisdall, 2013). It is not surprising, then, to learn that these bombings were arranged to object to Uganda’s contribution to AMISOM (Tisdall, 2013). Henceforth, the Westgate attack is a way for Godane to inform countries that Al-Shabab will not cease until Somalia is left to its own devices, and demonstrate his dominance of the militant group in the fact of competitors.

To what extent did the perpetrators achieve their intended outcomes?

As the aforementioned quotation of Ahmed Godane clarified, Al-Shabab intended to conduct a long-term sequence of attacks to achieve the Kenyan withdrawal from Somalia. The Westgate attack was a part of that series of attacks, thus one primary aim of the raid was to enforce the retreat of Kenyan troops from Somalia.

A channel which could have greatly assisted Al-Shabab in realising this goal is Kenya’s flourishing tourism sector, which constituted over 11% of GDP in 2007 (EconomyWatch, 2010). Indeed, attacking a high-end mall frequented by wealthy locals and foreigners was likely to spread the fear of visiting Kenya amongst internationals, possibly invoking Kenyan withdrawal from Somalia. The militant group succeeded in affecting tourism, as tourist arrivals fell from over 1.7 million in 2012 to just over 1.5 million in 2013 (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2014: 51). The Kenyan Tourist Board’s statement that the number of arrivals in the first four months of 2014 decreased by only 4% was mocked by a hotel-operating company in Kenya (Paris, 2014). The company, called TPS Eastern Africa, said that its business on the coasts of Kenya fell by 30-50% in the first half of 2014 compared to 2013, while its inland trips saw a decrease of 20% (Paris, 2014).

Nonetheless, Kenya’s government kept troops inside Somalia and continued to orchestrate attacks against the militants. For instance, in June 2014 a number of Al-Shabab’s bases in Somalia were bombarded by Kenyan fighter jets (BBC, 2014a). Additionally, the militants’ plan backfired, as in early 2014, Ethiopia contributed 4,000 soldiers to AMISOM, raising the number of its forces to 22,000 strong (Africa Research Bulletin: Political, Social, and Cultural Series, 2014: 20010). Accordingly, Al-Shabab may have succeeded in affecting Kenya’s tourism sector, but it failed in driving Kenyan troops out of Somalia.

Regarding the group’s quest for more recognition, it can safely be said that it succeeded. Al-Qaeda was relatively well-known during the 1990’s, but it garnered a widespread international reputation following the September 11 attacks. Their Somali affiliate, Al-Shabab, achieved a similar status following the Westgate attack. The attack resulted in the death of citizens of Western countries (Aronson, 2013: 27), thereby gaining international headlines. Due to that reason, and the fact that the raid was one of the deadliest in Kenyan history, the incident cemented Al-Shabab’s feet on the world stage as a contributor to the international extremist Islam terror campaign (Freeman, 2014). Accordingly, Al-Shabab succeeded in gaining international attention via the Westagate raid. As Kabukuru (2013: 100) puts it, the raid “hogged all the press coverage it could all over the world.”

Therefore, Al-Shabab succeeded in spreading the message that, although they have become weaker, they are still capable of carrying out destructive attacks and are not defeated yet. As for his desire to display leadership and power, Godane succeeded in maintaining his position as Al-Shabab’s chief, until he was killed by US air strikes in September 2014 (Chothia, 2014).

Was that violence legitimate?

Just War Theory (JWT) will be used to assess the legitimacy of the Westgate attack. JWT has several conditions and all must be met to define a war as ‘just.’ One condition is that a war should be waged to redress an injustice (Zupan, 2004:2), not simply to attack. Looking at the Westgate incident in the light of this condition can lead to a murky area.

As it was stated before, Al-Shabab carried out a series of attacks against Kenya to convince its government to withdraw its soldiers from Somalia. Was the Kenyan invasion of Somalia a ‘wrong’? As previously mentioned, Kenyan officials stated that the purpose of their invasion was avenging the attacks on their country’s soil that were committed by Somalis. One can see the logic in that claim, especially when one considers the fact that the TFG does not have significant control over Somalia. The TFG initially admitted to granting Kenya permission to enter Somalia, yet later retracted its statement and alleged that it did not permit the cross-border operation (Samatar, 2011).

As aforesaid, Kenya joined AMISOM under the UN’s umbrella of authority after its incursion into Somalia. Its presence in Somalia was ‘legitimised’ by the UN’s approval after it had already occurred. In this sense – assuming that the TFG did not grant Kenya permission to enter Somalia – Kenya’s action to defend itself may be considered an attack on Somalia’s sovereignty, and therefore a ‘wrong.’ Following that, Al-Shabab’s attacks on Kenya could be considered a campaign to avenge a wrongdoing.

However, one must not forget the condition of legitimate authority in JWT. Coady (2008: 98) states that the concept of ‘legitimate’ authority is a product of the notion that the right to wage war lies only with political agents who are seen to have more accountability than private citizens. Under normal circumstances, one can see that these agents would be states. However, legitimate authority can occasionally be held by non-state actors such as groups fighting against colonial repression (Coady, 2008: 98). It is worth stating again that the TFG did not succeed in unifying Somalia, and thus is not a capable state. Assuming that Kenya entered Somali ground without proper authorisation, the Kenyan state’s action can be considered an attack on Somali sovereignty, an act of oppression. Subsequently, could it be that Al-Shabab is a legitimate authority?

Al-Shabab is not an authority that was elected by the people. It emerged as the radical section of the Somali UIC, and gained control of areas in Somalia by hiring local militias (National Counterterrorism Center, n.d.). Therefore, from a democratic point of view, Al-Shabab cannot be considered a legitimate authority. Additionally, its not recognised by the UN – which is the most prominent contemporary global authority – or other states as a legitimate authority. A fact that displays this lack of recognition is the UN-backed AMISOM that combats militant groups including Al-Shabab. Henceforward, owing to the group lacking a legitimate standing amongst the world’s states, it cannot be considered a legitimate authority, making the attack on Westgate part of an ‘unjust’ war.

Moreover, another condition of JWT is violated more clearly by Al-Shabab’s Westgate attack: the discrimination condition. According to the JWT scaffold, non-combatants must not be harmed during war (Zupan, 2004: 1-2). Al-Shabab clearly failed in that respect since, as aforementioned, several foreigners (non-combatants) perished as a result of the attack; an example would be the six British nationals killed (Harper, Osley and Withnall, 2013). As JWT needs only one condition violated to deem a war unjust, Al-Shabab’s attack on Westgate cannot be considered a part of a just war, and the violence committed cannot be considered legitimate.

Article Analysis

Gettleman and Kulish (2013) graphically describe the scene of the attack, and mention the main overarching reason behind the Westgate attack. However, they fail to mention important ‘sub-reasons’ of the raid, such as Al-Shabab’s inner power struggle. Additonally, the article does not explicitly list the aims of the attack. Gettleman and Kulish (2013) do not state the shaky grounds on which Kenya based its invasion of Somalia, and do not critically analyse the legitimacy of the Westgate attack. However the tone of the article clearly implies that the authors do not believe the attack is legitimate (Gettleman and Kulish, 2013). The article is descriptive, not analytical, and is thus an inadequate report because it does not provide the full picture of the Westgate attack.


The Westgate attack was carried out for several reasons. The primary one was Kenyan military involvement in Somalia, and a sub-reason is the capture of Kismayo by Kenyan forces under AMISOM. Al-Shabab and its leader desired to achieve aims such as Kenyan retreat from Somalia, and global recognition. It succeeded in achieving some aims and failed in accomplishing others. Using the framework of JWT, it might at first be awkward to assess the legitimacy of the attack. However, the killing of innocent civilians/non-combatants delivers a final blow to any hope of the attack being considered legitimate. The article written by Gettleman and Kulish (2013) vividly describes the scene of the attack, but fails in critically analysing the incident. Consequently, it cannot be considered an adequate report.


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One thought on “Kenya – ‘Gunmen Kill Dozens in Terror Attack at Kenyan Mall’ (NY Times, 2013)

  1. The structure is very clear and coherent, with very good signposting, a very good introduction and a very good conclusion. However, there could have been a brief outline of the argument to follow at the end of your introduction.

    The analysis is excellent overall. Many relevant aspects are covered, and covered well. At the same time, here or there the argument could be articulated a little bit further. Perhaps the role of religion could have been discussed a little further. Perhaps counter-terrorism options could also have been discussed further with a view to recommend the most effective mix of responses. Overall, though, this is a remarkably good analysis, in good depth and at a good pace.

    The essay is also very well researched, in remarkable depth and breadth, and demonstrating excellent knowledge and understanding of your case study.

    The language is mostly very good, though at times the odd turn of sentence can be a little awkward.

    In short, the analysis could be a little more developed and a little more probing at times, but overall this is an excellent analysis already.


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