By striking the Westgate, the terrorist group hit not just a mall, but also the very heart of the city’s identity – and a prime economic engine. The Israeli-owned mall is a favorite destination not just for well-off Kenyans but also for Nairobi’s large expatriate community, much of which is here because civil wars and political instability in nearby lands made relatively peaceful Nairobi a regional hub for diplomats and aid workers.
Nairobi is the main headquarters for the United Nations in Africa, including the international headquarters for the U.N. Environmental Program. Nairobi also holds the largest U.S. foreign mission in Africa – a replacement for the U.S. Embassy that al Qaida bombed in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
Foreign investors have flocked here in recent years. Google and General Electric have headquartered their African operations in Nairobi.
Westerners who work or travel regularly in the wider region use Nairobi as a sanctuary of fine cuisine, comfort and fellow countrymen.
Kelly Ranck, a 26 year-old American, is based in Nairobi but spends roughly half her time in remote field posts in South Sudan and Chad working for World Concern, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization.
“After being in the bush, this place feels like a slice of heaven,” Ranck said. She can hang out with like-minded peers and relax into a more familiar lifestyle, she said. Without her breaks in Nairobi, “I would totally burn out,” she said.
Kenya is clearly sensitive to the effect the attack might have on its reputation for stability – and on its wallet, which relies heavily on tourism. The nation’s image already took a hit earlier this year with the election as president of Uhuru Kenyatta, whom the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity stemming from post-election violence. Kenyatta’s deputy, William Ruto, faces similar accusations from the court.
Kenyatta organized a news conference Sunday with two main presidential candidates he’d defeated in the elections in March. Each spoke for only a few minutes, but all three made sure to issue a plea to global communities to refrain from warning their citizens not to travel to Kenya. The U.S. State Department said Sunday that it was suspending travel here for government employees.
“This is an incident of terror, an incident that can happen in any city, in any capital, anywhere in the world,” Kenyatta said. “This is not the time to issue travel advisories, for in doing so, the success is only for those who wish to cause harm.”
But as the flames burned at the Westgate, the damage already appeared to have been done.