Al-Shabab’s Kenya Attack – Avoiding the Pitfalls of a Military Response

first published by the United States Institute of Peace, 29 Oct 2013

An ill-conceived response by the Somali government and its international backers to the Somali militant group al-Shabab’s attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last month carries immense risk of backfiring on Somalia’s fledgling state-making progress as well as regional peace and stability.

National and international leaders, including the Secretary General of the United Nations and his Special Representative in Somalia, have called for a surge of African troops to stem the threat of terrorism posed from within Somalia. But hastily increasing military and counterterrorism efforts risks generating a political backlash, not least by feeding into al-Shabab’s propaganda. History has shown time and again that military approaches do not solve, but rather exacerbate, the challenges Somalia has faced.

Instead, supporters of the fledgling Somali government should prioritize Somalia’s state-making endeavor.

Although many details of the Sept. 21 assault, in which a group of heavily armed gunmen killed at least 67 people at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, remain to be clarified, speculation abounds on a number of questions. Which faction within al-Shabab was behind this act of violence? What were the underlying motives?

Interpretations of the attack diverge, not least concerning the question of whether the assault indicates al-Shabab’s waning power and desperation. Even though it is too early to answer that question with certainty, that does not seem to be the case. Al-Shabab’s mosaic of violence already included the Kampala bombings of 2010 that resulted in a near-identical number of casualties; a spate of smaller attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia during the years since; and the June 19 assault against the UN humanitarian aid compound in Mogadishu. What the Nairobi attack made forcefully clear is that this extremist movement is neither dormant nor defeated.

To avoid potential pitfalls in any response, the international community needs to come to grips with the assault’s underlying logic and intent, and consider the possibility that the assault was intended, by its timing and framing, primarily to expose and exacerbate the vulnerability of the Somali population.

Rather than being timed to any increase in Kenya’s military engagement in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), or to growing international support during summits in London, Yokohama, and Brussels, the terror attack coincided with a renewed risk to Somalia’s financial lifeline. On Sept. 30, Barclays Bank was to close, amongst others, the accounts of Dahabshiil, the biggest of all Somali remittance companies, which would have had a devastating effect on Somalia’s economy and society. Given allegations that some of these remittances are used to finance al-Shabab, the Nairobi attack increased the risk that accounts used to channel remittances to Somalia would be shut down, as the assault stressed the negative aspect of remittance flows. Cutting this financial lifeline would have played into the hand of al-Shabab, whose propaganda centers on the threat posed by foreign actors to the Somali population.

Similarly, the framing of the attack exacerbated the vulnerability of Somalis in the region. More explicitly than any of their previous assaults, this one was portrayed in clear religious terms that pitched Christians, who make up the majority in Kenya, against Muslims. Victims cited in news reports said, for example, that the perpetrators ‘escorted Muslims out of the mall’ at the onset of the attack.

Portraying the assault as part of a larger ‘clash of civilizations,’ a term Samuel Huntington coined in 1992, serves al-Shabab a number of purposes. It sets al-Shabab’s struggle in Somalia into a framework of global jihad (‘holy war’), probably in an attempt to bridge existing gaps between itself and other extremist Islamic movements abroad. And al-Shabab likely also hopes to provoke retaliatory military measures that could feed its propaganda in order to regain the upper hand in its ideological turf war against the Somali government.

In order to thwart al-Shabab’s likely objective of heightening the sense of vulnerability among Somalis, Kenya in particular and the international community generally should seek to bolster the Somali population with steps such as ensuring the continuation of remittance flows, refraining from undue military retaliation within Somalia, and preventing assaults on Somali communities in Kenya.

Unfortunately, key policymakers quickly bought into a renewed military narrative of fighting al-Shabab. However, this is problematic in two ways. First, such an approach follows from and bolsters the assumption that al-Shabab can be defeated militarily, rather than recognizing to the deep political dimensions of this struggle. Second, as important as the fight against this extremist movement is, al-Shabab is a symptom rather than the cause of Somalia’s fragile statehood.

Consequently, the international community should firmly focus on the Somali government and its state-making endeavor. Apart from supporting processes of reconciliation and aiding in the reconstruction of a productive economy, international partners have to get their heads around the puzzle of how to best support their Somali counterparts in reviving a common political identity.

Fractured and constantly shifting identities have not only provided fertile soil for movements such as al-Shabab, who have recurrently been able to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of many fellow citizens. The Somali government’s inability to invigorate nationalism has also starved past efforts at reconstructing of a viable Somali state. Yet, state-building without nation-building is unlikely to succeed.

A renewed focus on reconstructing a viable Somali state would not only deprive the extremists of breeding grounds – namely state fragility, conflict, and insecurity – but also constitutes the best opportunity to create lasting peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.

Dominik Balthasar is a Trans-Atlantic Post-doctoral Fellow for International Relations and Security (TAPIR) at USIP. He wrote his PhD thesis at the London School of Economics on conflict and state trajectories in Somalia.