If Al-Shabaab was behind the terrorist attack in Nairobi, then the group has come a long way since its foundation in a derelict shampoo factory called Ifka Halane — ‘Clean and Shiny’ — in Mogadishu in 2006. I know a little about the group because I am the only westerner to have met its founder, Aden Hashi Ayro, before he was killed in a US air strike. In those days Al-Shabaab was a small militia providing muscle for the Islamic courts in Mogadishu. For a brief spell the courts did a good job of bringing a degree of law and order. Then Washington foolishly backed an Ethiopian invasion of the country.
For Al-Shabaab, this was a godsend. Afghan-trained Salafists don’t enjoy fixing drains or street lights. Insurgency is much more worthwhile. Extremist Somalis who had been laughed out of jihadi conferences because they lacked the courage to embrace martyrdom set out to prove themselves with IEDs, suicide-jacket detonations, truck bombs, and spectacular multiple attacks. And when Al-Shabaab did control territory, they were an African Khmer Rouge, banning vaccinations and precipitating a polio outbreak, starving children to death or desertifying Somalia by running a massive export trade in charcoal. Most Somalis are good people who loathe the extremists.
Amisom, an African Union peacekeeping force, has pushed Al-Shabaab back with 18,000 troops — though it needs at least 40,000 plus air power, more drones and intelligence resources. Overall, however, this must be a Somali-led process in which we sign the cheques. Last year Somalia appointed its first legitimate government for 22 years under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. But despite shows of support from Britain and other donors, the government urgently needs help to fulfil its functions — even to pay its troops regularly and finance the process of bringing the world’s most spectacularly failed state back from the abyss.
For two years Al-Shabaab has been losing territory and engaging in bloody infighting — but under its emir, Ahmed Godane, it has reconfigured itself into an al-Qa’eda franchise that aims to migrate beyond the camel-speckled acacia scrublands of Somalia and take on the world. And so it may be that the terrorists fighting inside Kenya’s Westgate mall are Somali Al-Shabaab — although there is no evidence for this whatsoever, apart from claims made on a series of Twitter accounts.
The Westgate siege, for sure, is the first terrorist attack defined by Twitter. Victims’ families who look to me like worried passengers at an airport waiting for news of a plane crash poured their grief out on Twitter. Hacks standing about with no information on what was unfolding inside the mall tweeted unfounded rumours. Twitter accounts claiming to represent Al-Shabaab tweeted all manner of nonsense. Kenya’s government offices regularly tweeted that ‘the situation is under control’, only to be followed by bursts of gunfire and explosions.
But as security forces pursued terrorists up and down shop aisles and stairwells, what became clear was that the attackers must have positioned huge quantities of ammunition and firepower in advance. Their level of organisation suggested a level of training way beyond the capabilities of the bumpkins from Al-Shabaab. This is al-Qa’eda, the real thing. It’s my hunch that this gang included ethnic Somalis, ethnic Yemenis and a woman who was not the ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite that the British tabloids are so desperate to plant in this story. Beyond the fact that the attackers justified their murdering in terms of perceived crimes committed against them in Somalia — Kenyan troops invaded Somalia in October 2011, but only in response to kidnappings and to create a buffer zone — who knows who these people really are?
The hacks on the Westgate perimeter also want to suggest that in some way the attack was Kenya’s fault. One journo suggested that it might be a conspiracy by President Uhuru Kenyatta to deflect attention from his upcoming trial for crimes against humanity. And then there are the armchair experts who blame crime and corruption in Kenya, such as Giles Foden, who wrote in the Guardian: ‘These attacks are part of a spectrum of banditry, with corruption at one end, terrorism at the other, and regular robbery in the middle.’ This is as absurd as suggesting that 9/11 had to do with gun crime in the USA, or that 7/7 could be blamed on corruption under Ken Livingstone.
What I believe is that al-Qa’eda hit Nairobi precisely because Kenya is a successful country — with the economy expected to grow by nearly 6 per cent this year. During the last few days hundreds have died in terrorist attacks in Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraq — but none of these stories was as big in news terms as Kenya. In some strange way, Kenya was attacked not because it is an ill-managed African banana republic but because it is an important, modern country, with a booming economy and a bright future.