NAIROBI – A dozen or more attackers stormed the shopping center, throwing grenades and shooting adults and children alike. They came to kill on a massive scale and with spectacular cruelty, setting up an agonizingly drawn-out hostage situation. What took place in the Nairobi shopping center was not only an attack on Kenya, but also on the international community whose representatives — UN employees, diplomats and development workers — regarded the Westgate center as an escapist oasis amid the turbulent region of East Africa.
The Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which was responsible for the attacks, is now showing itself to be a truly international organization. A commander justifying the massacre via a telephone interview did so in perfect English, and early indications suggest that some of the attackers held U.S. and British passports.
And so we must once again acknowledge what we have long since known: Somalia is an international problem.
This is not news to Kenya. During the civil war that has stretched out over the last two decades, many Somalis have fled their country and come to Kenya, where they live in sprawling refugee camps in the desert or in Eastleigh, an area of Nairobi that has come to be called Little Mogadishu. It is a kind of second capital for Somalia. Politicians and journalists who were at risk in their homeland have found refuge here. Somali businessmen build glittering hotels, and al-Shabab recruits new militants from among the thousands of young, hopeless refugees.
For two years, Kenyan troops have been fighting the Islamists in Somalia, and it seems incredible that before Westgate no attack was attempted in the heart of Kenya.
The Kenyan, Ugandan and Burundian troops fighting the Somali militants are doing so in the interests of Europe and the United States. The West offers financial support and training to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) but has not sent its own soldiers into the country since militants shot down two U.S. (Blackhawk) helicopters over Mogadishu in October 1993 and slaughtered the survivors on the ground. The 17,000 or so AMISOM soldiers do not have a single military helicopter between them and they come from countries rife with their own internal problems.
The fact that the Kenyan authorities were unable to prevent the Westgate attack raises further questions, especially about the police force, which is rife with corruption. After the international airport in Nairobi burned down in August, many police officers were arrested on suspicion of looting shops amid the chaos rather than helping the public.
These are the sort of details that cast doubt on economists’ claims that Kenya and other countries in the region are ready to follow in the footsteps of the Asian Tigers and enjoy their own economic boom.
Few places display the region’s economic progress more clearly than a glittering modern shopping centre like the Westgate. This attack shows that without good government, political stability and safety for all citizens, the positive economic developments in East Africa are still no cause for celebration.