Kenya – ‘Terror in Nairobi: The Full Story behind al-Shabaab’s Mall Attack’ (The Guardian, 2013)

By Malte Jütting (2016-17)

Analysis of ‘“Terror in Nairobi: The Full Story behind al-Shabaab’s Mall Attack’ (The Guardian, 4th October 2013)


The chosen article “Terror in Nairobi: The Full Story behind al-Shabaab’s Mall Attack”, written by Daniel Howden and published in the Guardian two weeks after the incident, deals with the Westgate Mall attack in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, perpetrated by the organisation al-Shabaab in 2013 (Howden 2013). On 21st September 2013, four heavily armed men charged the famous Westgate shopping mall shooting indiscriminately at the passers-by. After a four-day siege, Kenyan military and police forces managed to terminate the attack and kill the assassins. The Westgate Mall attack left 67 people dead and over 200 people wounded (Hansen 2013, 146; Howden 2013). As the attack can be characterised as an act of violence perpetrated by non-state actors, which targets randomly chosen non-combatant victims in order to create a climate of extreme fear in a wider audience, it fulfils the key criteria of most scientific definitions of terrorism and can therefore be labelled a terrorist act (Combs 2013, 5f; Innes/ Levi 2012, 662ff; Martin 2013, 37). Although the title of Daniel Howden’s newspaper article promises “the full story” (Howden 2013) behind the Westgate Mall attack, it merely focuses on a day by day-description of the plot. “Based on interviews with survivors, their relatives, security forces and officers involved in the operation” (Howden 2013), the author recounts the event. In doing so, he employs a drastic and vivid language, which is exemplified by his frequent use of the term “slaughter” and thus exhibiting a clear value judgement. By focusing on the `how´, Howden unfortunately disregards to provide a broader background and omits information concerning `who´, `why´ and `what next´. Against this background, this essay aims at addressing exactly those omitted questions in order to provide a more comprehensive picture of the attack and the perpetrators. Therefore, the general political and economic situation in Somalia and Kenya, the more concrete motives behind the Westgate Mall attack as well as potential achievements in the eyes of al-Shabaab and the reaction by the Kenyan state should be equally analysed in the course of this essay.

Background Situation & Underlying Causes

One of the most important aspects to consider in the interest of understanding any act of political violence is the context in which it happens. Following this assumption, it appears even more surprising that Daniel Howden’s article does not mention the general political, economic and social background at all. This essay aims on closing this gap and, therefore, starts by analysing the broader context in which the Westgate Mall attack has to be embedded.

Although Nairobi is the capital of Kenya, it is necessary to take a look at the country’s eastern neighbour in order to understand what has happened at the Westgate Mall due to the observation that “Somalia continues to play a direct role in the security deficiencies of Kenya” (Aronson 2013, 28). The main argument behind this statement is the fact that Somalia has not had any central authority or effective government since the fall of Siad Barre’s regime 25 years ago, leaving the country in an ongoing civil war (Muhula 2007, 47; Plaut 2013, 321). Based on Martha Crenshaw’s categorisation of underlying causes of terrorism, a weak government, which is unable to obtain its monopoly on the use of force, can be characterised as a central permissive precondition (Crenshaw 2012, 101). Especially a failed state – a label which can be questioned but is nevertheless often attached to Somalia (Plaut 2013, 323) – can be considered “to provide fertile territory for terrorism to emerge” (Musgrave 2015, 103) as the “ungoverned spaces will become havens for terrorist groups” (Musgrave 2015, 112). After the fall of Siad Barre’s government in 1991, various clans, which are the central entities within Somali society, militias as well as warlords tried to acquire control over parts of the territory (Burke 2015, 121; Plaut 2013, 322). Against this background, al-Shabaab emerged from the youth wing of the “Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a rough coalition of Islamic groups of varying extremism” (Burke 2015, 121) fighting warlords as well as the internationally backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Building on the clan structures and applying strict Sharia law, the organisation successfully managed to gain control over large territories in the centre and south of Somalia and thereby created relative stability in these areas (Burke 2015, 121; Kennedy-Pipe et al. 2015, 251). In doing so, al-Shabaab does not only benefit from the power vacuum which can be seen as a central political precondition (Crenshaw 2012, 101) but also from the devastating economic situation as poverty is an important factor in triggering terrorism (Musgrave 2015, 105ff). For many years, Somalia has been one of the world’s poorest countries, which enables terrorist leaders to recruit fighters easily by offering a livelihood and leads to a nexus between terrorism and piracy (Ibrahim 2011, 42; Murphy 2011, 139ff). Hence, in many cases the individual’s “motivation is not religion, but rather survival” (Ibrahim 2011, 43). Taking both underlying factors into account, it can be concluded that cooperation with local powers, the delivery of justice based on Sharia law as well as social programmes and food handouts “allowed al-Shabaab to consolidate their hold on desperate communities shattered by years of war” (Burke 2015, 121). As the porous border enables a mostly unrestricted movement of people and goods due to a lack of state authority, the situation in Somalia directly affects its neighbouring countries (Aronson 2013, 28).

Nevertheless, it would be particularly careless to try to explain terrorism in Kenya on these grounds only without taking any factors within the country itself into account, especially since a small but growing part of al-Shabaab’s members are of Kenyan origin (Hansen 2013, 126). Since its independence, Kenyan politics is dominated by the Christian, Bantu African majority (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 20; Aronson 2013, 30). However, a substantial Muslim minority of about 12% (CIA World Factbook 2016) lives in the north-east and the coastal region, causing serious ethnic and religious tensions within the country (Hansen 2013, 132). Sociological explanations as well as identity theory can be used in order to explain the underlying causes of political violence in this case (Crenshaw 2012; Martin 2013, 59ff; Schwartz et al. 2009). According to the relative deprivation theory, the “economic deprivation” and “political marginalization” (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 26) of the country’s Muslim communities compared to the rest of the Kenyan population can provide fertile grounds on which radical ideologies can flourish (Martin 2013, 61). The – in their view – unfair distribution of land, the relative impoverishment, and the perceived exclusion from political and social life lead to deeply rooted disaffections and grievances which al-Shabaab and other radical organisations can easily exploit (Aronson 2013, 26; Hansen 2013, 148). Furthermore, “violence, seemingly orchestrated by the state and never investigated by law officers, serves only to worsen that alienation” (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 20). As Aronson states, the Kenyan counterterrorism approach lacks a distinction “between radicalized terrorists and theologically conservative Muslims” as both groups have “consistently been treated as terrorists by the government” (Aronson 2013, 29). These violations of basic rights by the Kenyan security authorities foster the formation of a strong cultural and social identity among the Muslim population (Aronson 2013, 26). The dichotomous us-vs-them thinking, the belief in the ongoing persecution by the outgroup and the alienation from institutions, which can be observed in this case, are central explanations of political violence based on identity theory according to Schwartz and his colleagues (2009).

Motives behind the Westgate Mall Attack

Only against the background of the general political, social and economic context within both countries, the concrete motives behind the Westgate Mall attack can be examined. In this regard, motives are defined as the “forces which impel action to realise desires, wants and goals” and hence are able to “initiate, direct and sustain behaviour” (Whittaker 2004, 50f). Whereas Howden’s article does not mention the perpetrators’ motives at all, this essay should at least explain three substantial motives behind the terrorist attack.

First, the act must be observed in the light of the international intervention in Somalia and the invasion in parts of the country by Kenyan troops. In the aftermath of the fall of Siad Barre’s government, an international force led by the United States landed in Somalia in 1992/93 (Kepel 2006, 317). This intervention was not only perceived as an example of Western aggression and expansionism (Burke 2015, 46; Kepel 2006, 317) but “exposed Kenya to the wrath of fundamentalist Islamic movements” (Muhula 2007, 47) as the country was an important logistic hub of the operation. Especially after 9/11, Kenya became a key partner in the `War on Terror´ and Somalia one of the major target countries (Aronson 2013, 24). This development further “alienated countless, if not most, Somalis” (Ibrahim 2011, 39) and enabled al-Shabaab to become even more popular in the region (Burke 2015, 121; Hansen 2013, 5). The direct Kenyan invasion in Somalia as part of the African Union’s peacekeeping mission AMISOM finally led to a significant shift in al-Shabaab’s strategy (Anderson/ McKnight 2014, 15). Using “militant crusader language to exploit and evoke primitive fears” (Ibrahim 2011, 36), the organisation started to launch attacks against targets in Kenya in order to “highlight the role of the targeted country inside Somalia” (Hansen 2013, 149). With regard to the Westgate Mall attack, “the group’s leader, Godane, and their press spokesperson clearly stated that the attack was retaliation for Kenyan involvement inside Somalia” (Hansen 2013, 147). Hence, the terrorist attack on the popular shopping mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, can be considered a direct response to the capture of the strategically important Somali port town, Kismayo, by Kenyan troops in 2012. With the attack, al-Shabaab aimed to coerce the Kenyan government to withdraw their troops from Somalia (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 1f; Burke 2015, 123).

A second motive behind the Westgate Mall attack can be traced back to internal factors as “ideological, strategic, or personality differences” (Marsden 2015, 212) within a terrorist organisation can heavily influence the group’s behaviour. As the background section of this essay depicts, al-Shabaab developed in the Somali civil war. In this context, the organisation strategically focused on the fight against the Transnational Federal Government and its Western allies and aims at the creation of an Islamic state (Hansen 2013, 103f; Kennedy-Pipe et al. 2015, 250). Although, it is nearly impossible to gain in-depth insights in al-Shabaab’s internal structure and the ideological as well as strategic debates, observers could note a violent purge within the organisation’s leadership in June 2013 (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 14). “Long-running disagreements between those of a nationalist persuasion and those who more firmly advocate a jihadist message” (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 14), debates about the role of foreign fighters within the ranks and other controversial subjects lead to the execution of leading commanders, which could be counted among the more moderate, including two of the organisation’s co-founders and their confidants (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 14f; Burke 2015, 123; Thomas 2013, 416ff; Williams 2014, 909). The movement’s strong and internally feared leader Ahmed `Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr´ Godane, who emerged victorious out of the power struggles, has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012, trying to establish al-Shabaab as a global jihadi group (Kennedy-Pipe et al. 2015, 250; Thomas 2013, 413ff; Williams 2014, 910). Some observers state that hereby the organisation became more extreme and started to use violence in a less discriminating manner by targeting civilians as well as fellow Muslims, who are perceived to be on the wrong track (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 15). Against this background, the Westgate Mall attack aimed to carry a strong internal as well as external message. It should remove any remaining doubts about the organisation’s future as well as “impress al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and live up the new status of official affiliate” (Burke 2015, 123).

Closely linked but not exactly equivalent to the second motive, it is necessary to assess the role of religion itself as a potential third motive behind the Westgate Mall attack. According to Gus Martin, religious terrorism can be defined as “a type of political violence that is motivated by an absolute belief that an otherworldly power has sanctioned – and commanded – the application of terrorist violence for the greater glory of the faith” (Martin 2013, 159f). However, the term `jihadism´ used in Howden’s article (Howden 2013) and in many other media reports, is “a modern neologism”, which is “not native to Islamic history” and “has little religious significance to Muslims” (Whittaker 2012, 48). The term literally describes the internal struggle each person has to face when deciding what is right or wrong as well as the sacred effort to live a life pleasing to God (Ibrahim 2011, 42; Martin 2013, 163; Whittaker 2012, 48). In the case of al-Shabaab, this is particularly interesting as Somalia has a Muslim tradition since over a thousand of years but has experienced a change in the religious assumptions and expressions during the last decades (Hansen 2013, 15). Almost 100 percent of the Somali population are Sunni Muslims (CIA World Factbook 2016). Traditionally, Islam in Somalia can be described as a very moderate one, allowing music and dance or the preservation of pre-Islamic practices such as ancestor veneration (Ibrahim 2011, 37; Murphy 2011, 65). A similar picture can be drawn considering Muslim communities in Kenya. The moderate Swahili Muslims living in the coastal region of Kenya “have a poor reputation throughout the Middle East and are considered second class to the Islamic world” and, conversely, Islamic fundamentalism and “Wahabbiism is being rejected by most Kenyan Muslims” (Aronson 2013, 30). With regard to both countries it could be concluded that religion could have a massive impact on politics given the demographic statistics. Nevertheless, the vast majority of East African Muslims agree to secular principles and the separation of religion from state affairs (Thomson 2016, 70f). Religion and particularly Islamic extremism are used to echo and reflect political, social and economic grievances (Hansen 2013, 3; Kepel 2006, 6), however, “there is little evidence that a mobilizing belief for violent jihad exists” (Aronson 2013, 32). Although there is no question about the fact that al-Shabaab is an Islamist organisation, the role of religion in the fighters’ motivations as well as in the motives behind particular acts of terrorism might only be a secondary one. Somali fighters will probably be more driven by issues within Somalia such as the military interventions, whereas “a non-Somali fighter will probably have more ummah-related motivation” (Hansen 2013, 11) focusing on the defence of the faith community (Thomas 2013, 418).

Just as the chosen article neglects the motives behind the act, it does also not reflect on its legitimacy. This is understandable as it seems to be entirely disconcerting to show understanding for terrorists’ motives or to sympathise with them. Nevertheless, trying to understand the legitimacy of the fighters’ grievances can be an important component of “the full story” (Howden 2013) behind an act. In this essay, especially the legitimacy of the first motive – the Kenyan intervention in Somalia – is analysed applying the framework of just war theory. Although the Kenyan intervention is internationally authorised by the UN and embedded in a mission by the African Union, it represents `a wrong´ in the eyes of al-Shabaab, which has to be `redressed´. Hereby, one criterion of the `Jus ad bellum´ catalogue might be fulfilled (Sussmann 2013, 428). A second criterion, which is admittedly controversially discussed among scholars, but should nevertheless be taken into account, is the declaration of war by a legitimate authority (Lango 2014, 13; Sussmann 2013, 428). However, this criterion does not hold true in the case of the Westgate Mall attack as al-Shabaab is neither internally nor externally legitimated. Considering the `Jus in bello´ criteria, the Westgate Mall attack can neither be looked upon as a proportional act nor did it target discriminate victims (Sussmann 2013, 429f). Conversely, al-Shabaab explicitly targeted civilians, which is “morally prohibited by a noncombatant immunity principle” (Lango 2014, 173). Although some of the underlying political, social and economic causes might be reasonable, the Westgate Mall attack cannot be perceived legitimate under any circumstances on the grounds of just war theory as “it is not sufficient to satisfy only the just cause principle” (Lango 2014, 11).

Achievements in the Eyes of al-Shabaab

After having outlined the relevant background and al-Shabaab’s motives, the next central question is whether the group managed to achieve its goals linked to the Westgate Mall attack. As Sarah Marsden points out trenchantly, “any discussion of outcomes is going to be determined by the metric we use” (Marsden 2015, 215). Owing to the fact that “success and effectiveness can be very subjective considerations” and “there is a tendency for terrorists to use unconventional factors as measures for their criteria” (Martin 2013, 343), this essay covers three different dimensions in the following paragraphs.

First, the direct military strategic aspect addressed by al-Shabaab with the Westgate Mall attack should be evaluated. As shown above, a key motive behind the assault was to coerce the Kenyan state to end its commitment within the AMISOM mission and to withdraw its troops from Somalia (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 1f; Burke 2015, 123; Hansen 2013, 147). In this regard, the Westgate Mall attack and other terrorist acts perpetrated by al-Shabaab in Kenya clearly have failed since Kenya is still an active part of the African Union’s mission in Somalia (AMISOM 2016).

Second, the Westgate Mall attack was the attempt to position al-Shabaab as a global jihadi group and serious affiliate of al-Qaeda in East Africa in the aftermath of the internal struggles and the purge within the organisation (Burke 2015, 123; Kennedy-Pipe et al. 2015, 250f). Hence, “acquiring global media and political attention” (Martin 2013, 343) could serve as a criterion in order to measure the success of al-Shabaab’s campaign. The four days lasting siege of the shopping mall, which was broadcasted live all around the world via Twitter, put al-Shabaab in the global spotlight (BBC 2013a). The act’s tremendously high international media coverage as well as for example US president Barack Obama’s direct reaction (BBC 2013b) can be counted as a great success for the by that time local campaign.

Third, terrorist attacks usually aim at “provoking the state to overreact” (Martin 2013, 343) and try to divide society. The Kenyan government’s latest announcements to close Dadaab, the world largest refugee camp, for fear of terrorism and the hereby overtly shown suspicion against all Somali refugees (Mutiga/Graham-Harrison 2016), can be considered a perfect instance displaying how this strategy has worked out.

In conclusion, the Westgate Mall attack and al-Shabaab’s ongoing terrorist campaign in Kenya have achieved at least some of their aims, judging from the group’s perspective. However, the Somali population and the Muslim communities in Kenya, the two groups for which al-Shabaab declares to fight, suffered from the Westgate Mall attack and other acts of terrorism due to the harsh reaction of the Kenyan state as the next paragraph will show.

Kenya’s Response in the Aftermath

The planned closure of the Dadaab refugee camp mentioned in the previous section is only one example of the Kenyan response to the Westgate Mall attack and other al-Shabaab activities in Kenya. Applying Gus Martin’s typology of response options (Martin 2013, 432ff), this essay names and classifies further reactions to the attack. The prevalent method applied by the Kenyan government in fighting al-Shabaab is the use of force. The AMISOM mission can be characterised as a military suppression campaign as its purpose “is to destroy or severely disrupt terrorist personnel and infrastructure” (Martin 2013, 432). Internationally backed by the UN Security Council Resolution 2124, which was adopted two weeks after the Westgate Mall attack and “authorized” AMISOM “to take all necessary measures” (UN Security Council 2013), Kenya and the African Union expanded their military actions in Somalia in order to vanquish al-Shabaab (Williams 2014, 908). Under the pressure of the ANISOM operations `Operation Eagle´ and `Operation Indian Ocean´ in 2014, which should serve as “a final push to end al-Shabaab’s territorial control” (Hansen 2013, 150), the organisation’s “territorial losses were staggering” (Hansen 2013, 151). Moreover, the group’s leader, Ahmed Godane, who ordered the Westgate Mall attack, was killed by an US drone in the same year (Burke 2015, 123). Besides the military response, the Kenyan government applied “repressive options” (Martin 2013, 432f) against al-Shabaab. In operation ‘Usalama Watch’, security authorities “conducted a massive sweep and relocation of some 4,000 suspected terrorists” as well as “house-to-house searches by police, principally of ethnic Somalis living in […] Nairobi” and temporary “detained” suspects “in Safaricom Kasarani stadium” (Williams 2014, 908). This procedure, which apparently did not lead to the intended outcome, was harshly criticised by international observers and human rights organisations (Amnesty International 2014; Human Rights Watch 2015). Looking at the category of “legal options” (Martin 2013, f), it can be observed that Kenya sharpened its counterterrorism law in the aftermath of the Westgate Mall attack (Republic of Kenya 2014). The new legislation, which included restrictions on freedom of press and extended the possible length of imprisonment without charge to one year, was highly controversial and has to be modified on some points due to a decision by the Kenyan Supreme Court (Honan 2015). The given examples depict that the Kenyan state responded to the Westgate Mall attack and the ongoing terrorist threat in a variety of ways. According to Martin’s typology, “conciliatory options”, including for example “diplomacy”, “social reform” or “concessions” (Martin 2013, 433) are the only options the government did not make use of. This observation is particularly interesting as many scholars argue that only those measures can solve the problem in the long term. After al-Shabaab’s military expulsion from many Somali towns and areas, Kenya “needs to find reconciliation, not confrontation, with its Muslim citizens” (Anderson/McKnight 2014, 27) and “must begin to systematically engage the coastal Muslim communities in governance and equitable distribution of national resources” (Muhula 2007, 57). As outlined in previous sections of this essay, the acts of terrorism perpetrated by al-Shabaab can at least partially be explained by the underlying political, social and economic causes and should, therefore, be properly addressed by the Kenyan counterterrorism strategy.


What can finally be concluded from the critical analysis of the Westgate Mall attack and its various aspects, which have been examined in the course of this essay? An act of terrorism such as the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013 should always be investigated with respect to its full complexity. Although David Howden uses almost as many words as this essay, his article does not go beyond the pure description of the attack and the security forces’ corresponding operations. Whittaker brings up the question, “how much explanation” journalists “can afford to include in an event-loaded depiction” (Whittaker 2004, 97f) and David Howden’s article seems to answer: `not that much´. Not only the chosen report but various further articles published in renowned newspapers (for example: Gettleman 2013; Raghavan 2013) show the “urge within the media to immediately create a mood or a dramatized atmosphere when reporting the news” (Martin 2013, 354). The wordy depiction of violence (Whittaker 2004, 92) and a trend towards “sensationalization” (Matusitz 2013, 64) characterise most of the media reports. The attempts to class the single act within an analysis of the broader context often remain weak. In the case of the Westgate Mall attack such aspiration would require to address both, the civil war in Somalia and the subsequent international intervention as well as the situation of the Muslim population within Kenya. Hereby, examining “the full story behind al-Shabaab’s mall attack” (Howden 2013) or any act of terrorism would not only satisfy the more demanding readership but could also foster public debate about more appropriate counterterrorism measures. “If certain conditions can be established as providing an environment for terrorism to emerge or grow” as it has been shown in the course of this essay, “then changing or improving these conditions will ameliorate terrorism” (Musgrave 2015, 103).


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One thought on “Kenya – ‘Terror in Nairobi: The Full Story behind al-Shabaab’s Mall Attack’ (The Guardian, 2013)

  1. This is an excellent essay which demonstrates very good understanding of the case study and perceptive critical thinking. It builds on a wide range of relevant sources which it deploys well. It is very well structured, very well written, and very well referenced.

    At the same time, as with the first essay, the language is just slightly little awkward at times, which disrupts the flow a little bit. Moreover, some of the paragraphs really could do with being broken down into further paragraphs – and there’s nearly always an obvious place where to do this.

    In terms of content, it would have been interesting to reflect on the potential for religion to provide a broader, more unifying identity across clan lines, and the extent to which that has proved a particularly effective appeal and strategy for al Shabaab. Moreover, the discussion of counter-terrorism could have been a little more critical and reflective throughout, rather than mainly descriptive.

    Still, on the whole, this is an excellent analysis, reflecting originality, insight and mastery of the topic, demonstrating critical reading of a wide range of texts, built on independent research, and putting forth a persuasively articulated argument.


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