One thing is clear about Al-Shabab's recent terror attack in Kenya: The choice of a popular mall in Kenya's capital city for the heinous act that killed and injured scores of innocent and international people was no accident.
In fact, Al-Shabab was making a terrifying statement and asking the world to turn its attention to an otherwise largely unnoticed cause deemed vital to the group itself — extricating Kenyan troops from Al-Shabab’s training grounds near the Somalia/Kenya border where they have been challenging the extremist group for the past two years.
An important, and less publicly talked about (for some obvious reasons), reaction to these acts key to countering violent extremism is the development by local, regional, and international security officials of a coherent counter-narrative. A counter-narrative aimed at raising awareness among communities directly in the line of sight of potential political violence. A narrative that outlines the roots and current status of political or ethnic conflicts driving groups like Somalia’s Al-Shabab to target innocent civilians.
In developing the narrative surrounding the recent attack in Kenya, it is important to note that members of Al-Shabab were not close to being original in their use of terror to reach a tragically surprised target audience — the international community — and that Al-Shabab did so in full understanding that the world has a short attention span.
In line with practices made infamous by its Al-Qaeda parent organization, Al-Shabab took advantage of Kenya’s vulnerable security infrastructure, growing international population, and a general lack of knowledge of African geopolitics among global citizens in other parts of the world to flash its message across television and computer screens around the globe.
Acts like Al Shabab’s seizure of the mall in Nairobi serve as a reminder to the international community that extremism has many faces, acts for many different reasons, and is unfortunately resilient. Many of these acts also often have unintended side effects that could be useful for officials leading efforts to counter violent extremism to keep in mind when crafting counter narratives, like the unfortunate alienation of Kenya’s Somali Diaspora and potential alienation of Somali-Americans. We have seen this phenomenon happen at home in the U.S. before with New York City’s profiling of Muslims following 9/11, and around the world with tighter visa regulations and travel security measures aimed at specific ethnic or political groups.
The conversation on how to most effectively combat terrorism, extremism, and violent political actions is inherently ongoing because groups like Al-Shabab take many forms and use several different tactics to recruit, train, and carry out their missions. The conversation on how to avoid the alienation of tangential groups of people, like Somalis in Kenya and the U.S., is also a very important one that needs revisiting after more than a decade since stringent policies in the U.S. and other parts of the world were implemented after 9/11.
The simple fact that these important conversations are happening and evolving more among members of the general public, a space where many of these attacks occur, is crucial and complements counter extremism efforts underway — some that many of us will never know about.