Kenya Mall Attackers: Who Are They, and What Do They Want?

Saturday was a day of silence and grief in Kenya: At least 62 people who went to the mall that morning never left after militants stormed a popular upscale shopping mall in Nairobi. As information began to trickle in bit by bit, the Somali militant Islamist organization al-Shabaab — The Youth — took credit for the attack through Twitter. Al-Shabaab has long dominated international news for its role in perpetuating political instability in Somalia, but this recent cross-border foray has forced the international community to reexamine the militant organization and what this means for both Somalia and the greater East African region. 


Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, or the Movement of Jihadi Youth, is a Somali militant Islamist organization that is allied with Al-Qaeda. After being formed in the mid-2000s as the militant wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts, the group was able to take control of most of southern Somalia and swaths of the capital, Mogadishu, by 2006. Mirroring the politics of its home country, after early military success, the group began to fracture over the long-term goal of the organization: Should al-Shabaab remain focused on Somalia or go on to fight in the international jihad? Despite the political infighting that has plagued the group, it remains a potent force in Somalia, and through this attack has shown that it remains a player on the regional stage as well. 


While the situation is ongoing and new details emerge minute by minute, social and traditional media outlets provided a fairly clear account of what happened. Saturday afternoon, between 10-15 militants stormed the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi and began to fire on civilians. According to reports, the militants began shouting for Muslims to clear the premises and asking those who claimed to be Muslims for proof by reciting a prayer or giving the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s mother (it's Amina bint Wahb if you are ever in a similar situation), and shooting everyone else in sight. Security forces launched an invasion of their own, going through the mall room-by-room looking for the militants and attempting to rescue those whom the militants had taken hostage.

Why al-Shabaab launched an attack in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and largest city, provides a telling picture not only about the brutality of the organization itself, but about the shifting political situation in Somalia. While al-Shabaab had early success gaining control of territory in southern Somalia, in 2010 multinational forces in Somalia under the auspices of the African Union and with the approval of the United Nations began to engage al-Shabaab forces directly. In 2011, Kenya began sending troops to take part in the AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia), helping to push al-Shabaab out of areas which it had controlled for years, including Mogadishu, while simultaneously bolstering the internationally backed Federal Government of Somalia. The loss of territory coupled with the political infighting within the organization have backed al-Shabaab into a corner. The attack on Westgate mall is only the most recent in a tide of attacks attempting to demonstrate the movement’s continued vitality, while also attempting to coerce Kenya and other East African nations to pull their troops out of Somalia.

This attack may have shown that al-Shabaab may not be down for the count, but it is definitely on the ropes.