Inter Press Service
In the aftermath of the worst terror attack in East Africa in three years, foreign policy scholars here are urging the U.S. government to rethink its counter-terror policy in the region.
As the number of victims rises to 62 in an armed siege that has held dozens of people hostage in a major mall in uptown Nairobi, many are suggesting that the Somali Al Shabaab militant organisation, reportedly linked to Al-Qaeda, may be stronger and better organised than previously thought.
Just over a year ago, joint U.S.-Kenyan forces managed to expel Al Shabaab from their last stronghold in southern Somalia, leading the U.S. government to call it a success story for U.S. counter-terror policy. But what has taken place over the weekend in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall could suggest otherwise.
“This attack should be seen as a call to action,” Katherine Zimmermann, of the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think tank, told IPS. “What the attack shows is that the fight against terrorism in Africa has stagnated and that groups like Al Shabaab are much stronger than the U.S. administration thought.”
In coming days, U.S. policymakers may look anew at their counter-terror approach, particularly in Kenya, where the government has been a key U.S. ally.
“What this attack does is strengthen the notion that the region ought not to be seen solely through the lenses of counter-terrorism, sacrificing other equally important issues the international community should address,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on non-traditional security threats at the Brookings Institution, told IPS.
“Current U.S. counter-terror strategy in the region has focused primarily on targeted attacks against Al Shabaab, while it should have addressed the structural causes of their radicalisation.”
Felbab-Brown cites high unemployment, a weak Somali economy and widespread corruption as the main reasons behind the radicalisation of youths that have joined Al Shabaab. U.S. counter-terror efforts, she says, have devoted little or no attention to these issues.
The U.S. government delivered a total of 445 million dollars in security aid to Somalia between 2008 and 2011, almost 50 percent of total U.S. aid to the country during that period. What seems to be missing from the U.S. strategy, Felbab-Brown says, is “a real effort to improve the Somali economy and urge the government to foster a broader political inclusion of these youth”.
Few analysts would suggest that the issue of counter-terrorism should be left off the agenda in East Africa entirely. But experts in Washington are increasingly urging that U.S. strategy include concrete efforts aimed at strengthening civil society and rebuilding the Somali judiciary system, which remains dysfunctional following decades of civil war.
Following the attack, the U.S. government immediately promised to aid the Kenyan government in the aftermath of the attack.
“We have offered our assistance to the government of Kenya and stand ready to help in any way we can,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday.
U.S. counter-terrorism involvement in Somalia began in the early 2000s, during the administration of President George W. Bush. At the time, the U.S. government sought to help both Somalia and neighbouring Ethiopia to topple the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which at the time was seeking to replace the power vacuum in Somalia with an Islamic regime run in accordance with Sharia law.
Al Shabaab formed during those years as the military wing of the ICU, and it has since sought to expel “hostile forces” in the region. Yet international forces, facilitated particularly by the United States, eventually made significant inroads in the fight against Shabaab militants.
Between 2011 and 2012, the U.S.-backed Kenyan military led a series of counter-terror strikes inside Somalia that resulted in the ouster of the group from Kismayo, a key coastal town known for its access to the oil routes of the Red Sea and Al Shabaab’s last stronghold in Somalia.
The U.S. Department of State welcomed Kismayo’s liberation as the end of the battle and greeted the “African Union Mission’s (AMISOM) success in driving the al-Shabaab terrorist organization out of strategically important population centers” as important achievements for U.S. counter-terror strategy in the region.
But the group, with a membership estimated at around 5,000 militants, was never really defeated, its continued strength now underlined by this weekend’s siege of the Nairobi mall. The Westgate attack is just the latest in a series of retaliatory measures taken by Al Shabaab against its enemies in East Africa, including a raid against a U.N. compound in June.
“The terrorist attack at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre was evidently a retaliation by Al Shabaab for the Kenyan military presence in Somalia since October 2011, and a deliberate signal that they are still a force to be reckoned with,” James Jennings, president of Conscience International, a humanitarian aid organisation that worked in Somalia during the 2010-11 famine, said.
“It represents a continuation of the violence that has swirled throughout East Africa in the wake of the disintegration of Somalia, a war now increasingly being exported across the region’s borders.”
Other analysts are suggesting that the mall was an attractive target because Westerners, including those from the U.S., frequented it.
Ramy Srour is a contributor to Inter Press Service.