A radical military response to the dramatic terror attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi this weekend will play into the hands of the assailants. Using local police and intelligence services to track down those responsible and bring them to court in Kenya will be the best route to follow, says Institute for Security Studies expert Anneli Botha.
Botha, a senior researcher in the Transnational Threats and International Crimes Division, says people expect a strong reaction from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta following the attack by al-Shabaab Islamic militants on Saturday 21 September. The attack has left at least 62 people dead and more than 175 injured. By late Monday, security forces were still trying to free hostages held by gunmen in the mall.
On Saturday Kenyatta was quoted in the media as saying Kenya 'will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully'. Botha says it is normal that the public would want to be reassured. 'He (Kenyatta) needs to re-establish trust and a sense of security, but hopefully there will be a rational response from the Kenyan authorities rather than an emotional one'. Treating the perpetrators as mere criminals, rather than 'fighters' pursuing a particular cause is the best strategy against terrorists and bringing them to justice will bring closure to those who have lost their loved ones, she says.
The worst possible scenario would be if ordinary Kenyans turn on Somalis, blaming them for the spate of attacks that has hit Kenya in the last two years. 'Al-Shabaab wants to represent this as a religious conflict. If there are reprisals against Somalis in Kenya this will only serve to radicalise some of them and play into the hands of al-Shabaab', Botha believes.
The Westgate attack is the gravest act of terror on Kenyan soil since Kenyan forces invaded Somalia in October 2011 to join the other troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in combating al-Shabaab. In the last few months, al-Shabaab has been driven out of key Somali towns like Mogadishu and Kismayo and has now resorted to guerrilla warfare. At the time of the Kenyan military offensive in Southern Somalia, al-Shabaab warned of bloody reprisals against Kenya. Apart from isolated grenade attacks in Nairobi and churches in the north of the country, mostly blamed on individual Somali radicals, this is the biggest attack by al-Shabaab so far.
In July 2010 al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the killing of 74 people who were watching the final match of the soccer World Cup at a bar in Uganda. The group said it was punishing Uganda for its role in AMISOM. Why did it take the terror group so long to carry out its threat against Kenya? Botha believes there might have been other, similar attacks planned but never carried out. 'One tends to forget the many plots that might have been uncovered by Kenyan security forces'.
It would be erroneous to link the Westgate Mall attack to conflict between radicals and moderates within al-Shabaab says Botha. Analysts have contended that a radical faction of al-Shabaab has now taken over the organisation amidst waning support and military losses in Somalia. 'There has been infighting but this was between Somalis and foreigners within al-Shabaab that Moktar Ali Zubeyr, the leader of al-Shabaab, in particular did not trust'. On Sunday, a list of those allegedly responsible for the attack was circulating on social media, containing many foreign names. Botha says that if it is accurate, the list is indicative of a new trend in al-Shabaab. Somali expatriates were the main targets when recruiting foreign fighters, but the list of countries the attackers originate from suggests that al-Shabaab is successful in presenting the conflict in Somalia as a legitimate jihad. 'Al-Shabaab's recruitment and organisation is not limited to Somalia, it has a much wider strategy'.
Botha believes it will be crucial in the next few days and weeks to ensure that Kenyan security forces take the lead in the fight against terror in their country. 'A lot of assistance will be provided by especially the United States, Israel, Britain and France (to name a few), but these states should be encouraged to let Kenya take the lead. What we often see in these cases is that Western forces take over. They have the equipment and the training. Kenyan police officials also get a lot of training but rarely get the opportunity to implement what they've learnt. We should accept and recognise that Kenya has primary jurisdiction in this case'.
The fight against al-Shabaab can never be won militarily says Botha. The solution to extremism and terrorism in East Africa and elsewhere lies in a long-term strategy. 'Many people want to see a quick fix, but we have to tackle the underlying factors that these groups can use to their advantage. That calls not only for a police response, but an entire government response'.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is a consultant to the ISS.