NAIROBI – Kenya heaved a collective sigh of relief when the four-day siege at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall finally ended. Yet the aftermath of the massacre is in many ways turning out to be as dramatic – and grisly – as the event itself.
The sophistication of the plot has stunned investigators. The attackers – members of the Somali Islamist extremist group al-Shabaab – spent weeks reconnoitering the site. They knew every exit and safe haven, and they appear to have leased a shop where they pre-positioned ammunition, explosives, and heavy weaponry. Their use of social media was a case study in digital virtuosity.
The attackers issued a clear demand: Kenya must withdraw the forces that it deployed two years ago as part of an international effort to drive al-Shabaab out of Somalia and return the country to government rule and a semblance of normal life. Their strike, they said, was intended chiefly as a warning to Kenya’s government: change your policy, or else. The attackers also made a great show of telling the world that they had taken special care to safeguard the lives of fellow Muslims during the assault.
Tell that to a colleague here in Nairobi who was trapped in the mall for five hours as gunfire echoed all around. She emerged unharmed to find that two members of her family were dead and a third wounded. The survivor was a nine-year-old boy, shot in the hip. As he lay bleeding, terrorists trained their guns on his mother and 15-year-old sister.
Recite a passage from the Koran, they ordered. Being Muslim, they did so. The terrorists shot them anyway. “Why did you do that? Why did you shoot them?” the little boy wailed. “Because,” replied one of the gunmen, “they were not wearing the hijab.” Amid the chaos, a French woman grabbed the child and carried him to safety.
We have heard many such stories in recent days. Brutal as they sound, worse is likely to come.
A police doctor working with forensic teams left the scene in shock, telling reporters of seeing bodies beheaded, and others bearing clear evidence of unspeakable torture. He recounted entering the still-smoldering ruins of the mall last week and seeing bodies hanging from hooks. Many of those taken hostage suffered terrible deaths. There were bodies with their noses and ears wrenched off with pliers. Others had their eyes gouged out. The terrorists seem to have used knives to shave some victims’ fingers like pencils, he said, forcing them to write their names in their own blood.
At least 72 people were killed in the attack. How much that toll increases, and how graphic investigators will be in describing the scenes they encounter, remains to be seen.
It is important to understand what is at stake in this gruesome episode, not only for Kenya but for the region and beyond. President Uhuru Kenyatta made clear almost immediately that last week’s events will not weaken Kenya’s determination to maintain its policy on Somalia, even as he confirmed that he, too, lost loved ones in the Nairobi massacre.
The warlords of al-Shabaab are not the only threat to the region’s security. Today, an arc of crisis stretches from Somalia on the Indian Ocean across the African Sahel to the Atlantic coast.
Sudan, another country in Kenya’s neighborhood, is fractured by rebellion. In the south, secessionist groups are fighting in Kordofan and Blue Nile. To the west, in Darfur, protesters burned government buildings in the provincial capital of Nyala while the siege in Nairobi played out. Days later, riots erupted in cities across Sudan, including the capital, Khartoum. According to news reports, security forces have shot over 100 people, adding to a toll of casualties that has made this year one of the deadliest in Sudan’s recent history.
Diplomats view these developments with alarm. Over the past year, Darfur has spun out of government control. As Darfur goes, many analysts say, so goes Sudan.
Conditions across the wider Sahel are similarly worrisome. Mali may be stable for now, but, with the separatist Tuareg rebels in country’s north having just suspended their participation in peace talks, many experts believe that it is only a matter of time before the conflict there reignites and spreads. Drug barons and local warlords control increasingly large swaths of territory from Guinea on the Atlantic coast through Senegal to Mali, Niger, and beyond. Libya is already partitioned among rival warlords, with a “national” government that operates only at the indulgence of the armed groups that support it.
Against this background, the stakes in Kenya’s fight against terrorism in and emanating from Somalia are high. It is not a struggle that Kenya should wage alone.
Michael Meyer, former Communications Director for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN mission in Darfur, is Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.