Tag Archives: al-Shabaab

#247 — Roots of Westgate: No “Cake Walk” for Kenya in Somalia — September 27 2013

The Institute of Policy Studies, a progressive think-tank in Washington, DC where my daughter Joy is the associate director, asked me to submit an article on the Westgate Mall attack and they published it today in their Foreign Policy in Focus (fpif.org/)

Roots of Westgate: No “Cake Walk” for Kenya in Somalia

When Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011, it overturned a 48-year-old policy of not involving itself in the armed conflicts of its neighbors—and now innocent Kenyans are paying the price.

By David Zarembka..

When Kenya invaded Somalia in October 2011, it overturned a wise, 48-year-old policy of not involving itself in the armed conflicts of its neighbors—and Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia have all had times of conflict. In the best cases—as with South Sudan’s secession from Sudan—Kenya, as a neutral country, was able to broker a peace agreement between the warring parties. As a belligerent in Somalia it will have no such possibility. The invasion of Somalia came quite unexpectedly. It was not much discussed in the media, and even the U.S. State Department and military advisers in Kenya seemed to have been surprised by it.

It seems that Kenyan officials, like official Washington when the United States invaded Iraq, thought that the invasion would be a “cake walk,” confidently announcing that the disputed port of Kismayo would be taken within a month. They assumed that since their army was better armed and organized, they would easily defeat the ragtag al-Shabaab.

This was delusional. The invasion of Somalia happened at the height of the rainy season so, as with Napoleon and Hitler’s invasions of Russia, Kenya’s big armaments, tanks, and trucks soon became submerged in mud. It took Kenyan troops almost a year to take Kismayo.

More significantly, Kenya, like the United States, does not seem to understand asymmetrical warfare. War in the eastern part of Africa is not like the U.S. Civil War or World War I, where gigantic armies lined up, attacked, and shot at each other. The Kenyan military, employing what is called in Washington the “Powell doctrine” of overwhelming force, “conquered” Kismayo in this old-fashioned way, leaving overwhelmed al-Shabaab fighters to evaporate into the local population. But this victory was incomplete, as terrified shoppers discovered recently in Nairobi.

Kenya should have realized something like this was coming.

Al-Shabaab had attacked soft targets in the past. In July 2010, in retaliation for Ugandan troops joining the Africa Union mission in Somalia, al-Shabaab bombed two Kampala restaurants where people were watching the World Cup, killing 74 people. Al-Shabaab had similarly threatened to attack soft targets in Kenya after the invasion, even indicating that the target might be one of the upscale malls where wealthy Kenyans and expatriates frequented.

Over the last two years, there have been a number of terrorist attacks by al-Shabaab and its supporters in Kenya. Many were simple attacks, where a person on a motorcycle would throw a grenade at a bus stop or someplace else where people were gathered—a common tactic in this region. In a number of instances, attackers crossing the Somali border in northeastern Kenya targeted government posts and vehicles, or sometimes aid workers. But these attacks landed far from thickly populated southern Kenya, and so remained out of mind for the majority of Kenyans.

Compared to the previous attacks in Kenya, the Westgate Mall attack was well organized, thoroughly planned, and well resourced. The Kenyan newspapers claim that this is the dying gasp of a defeated enemy pleading for relevance, but I would think that this is another delusion. As long as Kenya keeps its military in Somalia, al-Shabaab will remain in the shadows, ready to attack now and then when the opportunity arises.

This dynamic is driven in part by financing from the United States and its allies, since the African Union forces in Somalia are paid for mostly by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and other EU countries. If they didn’t pay, there would be no foreign armies in Somalia. In Burundi and Uganda, soldiers are reportedly paid around $100 per month (if their commanders don’t embezzle their pay), while as part of the AU forces they are paid $1000 per month (and much more likely to get it). So there is great competition among the soldiers back home to be appointed to go to Somalia.

Since the attack, Kenyan authorities have yet to acknowledge that the vast majority of the region’s Muslims condemn the violence as much as anyone else. Likewise, no one is cautioning that the 2 million Kenyan Somalis and the almost 1 million Somali refugees in Kenyon are also totally innocent of this crime. There is a real danger—as experienced by Muslims, Sikhs, and people of Middle Eastern descent in the United States after 9/11—that the Kenyan government will use this attack to curtail civil liberties, commit ethnic and religious profiling, and challenge anyone who opposes state policies as unpatriotic, potentially leading again to a repressive autocracy reminiscent of the Moi years.

What is the solution? Talking. This is what ends every war and conflict. This is already occurring in Somalia and in North Kivu in the eastern Congo. But the antagonists are not going to engage in dialogue until they are pushed by others, particularly the international community. The United States in particular has the leverage to drive negotiations, since it controls the purse strings.

The U.S. government, along with its hawkish allies at the United Nations, seems averse to this approach. But in the absence of a negotiated settlement, innocent Kenyans and their neighbors in the region will continue to reap the deadly harvest of an asymmetric war.

#246 — Terrorist Attack on Westgate Mall — September 22, 2013

             As I expect you have heard, there was a terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi yesterday beginning shortly after noon. Almost 24 hours later the siege is still continuing. About ten al-Shabaab heavily armed fighters (including one woman) stormed the upscale shopping center used by wealthy Kenyans and expatriates. At this time the death toll is 39 (as I was checking the news reports as I was editing this post, I see that the death toll is now 59) with at least 175 more wounded. Over a thousand people escaped even as others are probably still hiding in the building and perhaps 35 are still being held as hostages.

                        The dead include Juan Ortiz from Peru who was formerly the Director of Change Agents for Peace, International (CAPI), a Nairobi based NGO supported by the Norwegian Quakers and AGLI’s sister organization in our peace work in the region. His thirteen year old son was shot in the leg and is in the hospital. A member of Lumakanda Friends Church told Gladys that her nephew was used as a shield by one of the terrorists, who was somehow shot and wounded so her nephew escaped alive. The terrorist was captured and taken to the hospital but later died. The nephew’s friend with whom he had gone to the mall was killed.  Ruth and Donald Thomas, long time Quakers who live nearby, had gone there in the morning to do some shopping, had coffee at the café, and left less than two hours before the assault began. Our son, Douglas Shikuunzi, was planning to go the mall in the afternoon, but when he heard about the assault, when home instead. As in all massacres like this, some perish and others survive – as the Kenyans would say, “According to the will of God.” The space between life and death is so narrow.

             The anchor store for the four-story, 80 outlet mall was Nakumatt, the largest supermarket chain in the country. Gladys and I had sometimes shopped there before Nakumatt opened their new stores in Eldoret and Kakamega. When Kenya invaded Somalia in October 2011, al-Shabaab had indicated that they would initiate revenge attacks in Kenya and have been doing so with small grenade attacks in Nairobi and elsewhere and more sustained attacks in northeastern Kenya near the Dadaab refugee camp, filled with over 500,000 refugees from the two decades of chaos in Somalia. Al-shabaab specifically threatened to attack a mall in Westlands, called a “leafy suburb” by Kenyans because the people are rich enough to have big yards with lots of trees.

             Security was tightened up when Kenya invaded Somalia. The guards — one male for the men and one female for the women — at the supermarkets had wand detectors and they quickly ran these over the bodies of the people entering the supermarket. I felt it was only a formality since I had no idea what they would do if they found a gun or bomb on someone entering – they are unarmed. In some supermarkets, guards at the parting lot gate would use a mirror to look for bombs under the vehicle. Again I had no idea what they would do if they found one and it is clear that anyone who had a bomb in the vehicle would just crash the gate and drive to the entrance and set off the bomb. It seems some of the dead were these security guards. Of course there is no way to defend consumer businesses against a well-armed group of ten or so fighters intent on creating chaos and killing people.

             According to reports, the attackers asked people who were lying on the floor if they were Muslims or not. They told the Muslims to stand up and leave – in some cases they asked the Muslims to say a Muslim prayer to prove that they were in fact Muslims. Some of those who escaped indicated that they thought that at least some of the attackers were Somali. Because of former attacks inside Kenya, the large group of perhaps two million Kenyan Somali have been targeted by the Kenyan security forces and discriminated against by the general public. Somali people are known for their success in business — there are some Somali merchants in the neighboring town of Turbo near where we live.

             Clearly this attack at Westgate Mall was blowback from the Kenyan invasion of Somalia. High government officials quickly claim that this will not deter them from their course of action in Somalia, but while al-Shabaab is “outgunned” in Somalia, they can pick off soft targets like the mall whenever they are organized well enough to do so. So the battle will continue, both in Somalia and Kenya (and also Uganda where al-Shabaab killed over 200 people three years ago as they watched the finals of the World Cup soccer match).

             But since I have see this happen myself in the United States after 9/11, will the Kenyan government use this attack to curtail civil liberties, challenge anyone who opposes them as unpatriotic, and lead again to a repressive regime as occurred during the Moi years?