Paul Rogers: Terror group chose Nairobi target with care

THE attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi was not the worst terrorist incident to affect Kenya’s capital city.

That was the bombing by an al-Qaida group of the American Embassy in August 1998 which caused the collapse of a neighbouring office block and killed 224 people as well as injuring over 1,000.

Nor was it the only major attack by the Somalia-based al-Shabab group, which also claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on crowds gathered in Kampala, the capital of neighbouring Uganda, to watch TV screenings of the 2010 football World Cup Final. That attack killed 74 and injured more than 70.

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In the recent Nairobi attack and the earlier Kampala bombings, al-Shabab has claimed that it was retaliating against Kenyan and Uganda Army involvements in the African Union force that has been attempting to bring stability to Somalia, mainly by suppressing al-Shabab, which controls much of the rural south of the country.

Over the past year the AU force has largely evicted al-Shabab paramilitaries from the Somali capital of Mogadishu and the southern port city of Kismayo, the latter currently patrolled mainly by Kenyan troops.

Even so, al-Shabab has shown itself to be resilient within Somalia and also capable of destructive attacks elsewhere in eastern Africa.

There has been much talk in the western media about the role of Europeans and Americans in al-Shabab, with much of the focus in the UK tabloids on Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called “white widow”. Unless there is really firm evidence, this should be viewed purely as speculation, but al-Shabab certainly does connect loosely with other al-Qaida-linked groups.

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What is certainly clear is that the Westgate atrocity was a carefully planned and sophisticated attack designed to have the maximum political impact in Kenya and beyond, and it follows a pattern of urban attacks stretching back over two decades and by no means all involving extreme Islamist groups.

Back in the 1990s, for example, the UK experienced a series of city centre bombings by the provisional IRA, starting with the Baltic Exchange bomb in 1992 and the Bishopsgate bomb the following year.

Both were aimed at the City of London and security was hugely tightened up. As a result, the next major PIRA attacks were away from the City, in Canary Wharf in February 1996, followed by Manchester later that year.

People were killed in three of those four attacks, but the main aim was to force the government in Westminster to make concessions.

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Whether that happened remains a matter of controversy but there is no doubt that, when Tony Blair won the 1997 election, responding to the conflict in Northern Ireland became a major priority, leading to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.

This is also quite different from al-Shabab’s attack, where the chances of negotiating a settlement in Somalia are very limited.

In that respect the Westgate attack is more like the actions of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka back in the mid-1990s. At the height of the war between the Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan government in 1995, the Army took control of the key Tamil city of Jaffna. On January 31, 1996, just a few weeks later, the Tigers staged a devastating attack on the central business district of Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo.

A suicide bomber drove a truck bomb right up to the entrance to the Central Bank and killed over 100 people and injured 1,400. Many of the key financial buildings and several hotels were damaged but the attack did not deter the government and the war continued.

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Modern urban centres are innately vulnerable to determined paramilitary attacks and skilled groups will pick their targets carefully to have the maximum impact, as we saw on 9/11.

In this respect, last weekend’s attack in Nairobi was particularly effective. The Westgate shopping centre is a couple of miles from the city centre but it is in one of the more wealthy parts of a very divided city.

Al-Shabab knew that its attack would probably kill foreign diplomats as well as influential Kenyans, spreading fear across the city and beyond.

For the Kenyan government the aftermath is problematic – because of the long common border with Somalia, it is unlikely that Kenyan troops will be withdrawn, leaving little alternative except to step up security in and around Nairobi and other likely targets.

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The reality is that al-Shabab has proved itself to be formidable in its capacity to operate outside Somalia and the truth of the matter is that the answer therefore has to lie in Somalia itself.

For now, the African Union and its western supporters believe that the main approach has to be the robust military suppression of al-Shabab, but after the Westgate attack that may now have to be reconsidered.

• Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and an expert on international terrorism.

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