The recent terrorist attack on Nairobi’s upscale shopping mall by the Somali based group al Shabaab sparked concerns regarding the group’s potential to conduct attacks abroad. Early reports that Americans were involved in the deadly assault, while unconfirmed, heightened awareness of the security of shopping centers and other soft targets in the U.S.
Al Shabaab’s attack at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi must be examined in the context of Kenya’s relationship with Somalia. The two countries share a 423 mile long border, along which assaults and skirmishes with al Shabaab are not uncommon. Kenya invaded Somalia in October 2011 in defense of its territory and national interests following multiple cross border abductions. Over 4,000 Kenyan troops remain in Somalia as part of the U.S. backed African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). According to AMISOM, 13 countries have contributed to the mission, although the largest contributors are Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti. The Kenyan capital is firmly within the sphere of al Shabaab’s reach and the mall attack was not the first time al Shabaab conducted an attack in Nairobi. It is the most deadly, but this could be interpreted as a sign of desperation vice escalation in terms of al Shabaab’s capabilities.
According to the FBI, there have been several cases involving Somali-Americans traveling to Somalia to take up arms with al Shabaab. The Somali community in the U.S. is dispersed throughout the country with notable concentrations in Minneapolis; Columbus, Ohio; and San Diego. The mere proximity of an ethnic diaspora, however, does not necessarily translate into the existence of a threat. As has been the case with other situations involving transnational jihad, there is a lingering concern within the Intelligence Community that battle hardened individuals could return home with new skills empowering them to conduct domestic attacks. Such concerns, while not unfounded, are driven more by fear than fact. Similarly, tactics, techniques, and procedures used in an attack against a particular target in one part of the world do not automatically portend a global threat to targets elsewhere in the same industry. Just as Tip O’Neill famously stated, “All politics is local”, the grievances driving acts of terrorism are often the same. The roots of terrorism, after all, are that it is an act of political violence.