Terror in Nairobi
In terms of sheer brutality, the slaughter in Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre which has left more than 60 dead, including young children, ranks alongside the 2008 attacks in Mumbai as among the most horrifying terrorist outrages of recent years. It serves as a reminder of the enduring capacity of Islamist extremists to wreak havoc, despite the apparent success of western military and intelligence services in curbing al-Qaeda’s ability to mount large-scale, spectacular operations. The Somali-based militant group al-Shabab were quick to claim responsibility but the operation displayed a higher level of organisation and sophistication than the group has hitherto shown.
Islamist militants have been threatening to launch attacks in Kenya if Nairobi did not withdraw its soldiers from southern Somalia, who are part of an African Union force deployed in support of the Somali government’s anti-Islamist offensive. In attacking the Westgate shopping centre, a favourite haunt of Kenya’s elites and expatriates, al-Shabab have shown that they are capable of striking at the heart President Uhuru Kenyatta’s seat of power. Indeed, Mr Kenyatta’s nephew, the son of Kenya’s former ambassador to Ireland, was among those who died in the attack.
The Kenyan authorities have promised a swift, thorough investigation into how the militants succeeded in holding the hostages for four days before security forces regained control of the centre. But the horror of Westgate raises questions that go beyond Kenya and the attack must cast doubt on western claims of progress in pushing back militants in Somalia. In recent months, Africa has seen a stepping up of Boko Haram’s campaign of terror in Nigeria, an armed attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria and an armed Islamist campaign in Mali. More co-ordinated and effective action by the African Union is needed, backed up by resources from the western powers, if Westgate is not to be replicated elsewhere in the continent.