For many of Kenya’s well-off, Saturdays are for shopping, drinking lattes, nibbling on international fare like sushi and Greek frozen yogurt and window-shopping in Nairobi’s upscale malls. There’s the Sarit Center, the Village Market and, perhaps the glitziest of them all, the Westgate Mall, where the car park is often filled with vendor booths and children racing and darting about. It is also the multicultural epicenter of bucolic wealth and influence. Diplomats, government officials, academics, doctors, businessmen and other professionals gather there, particularly on weekends. In the gated cocoon of Westgate, race, nationality, religion and ethnicity co-mingle with affable ease.
On a recent Saturday, gunmen shattered this privileged, melting-pot idyll. Some dozen men and at least one woman burst in wielding AK-47 and G-3 assault rifles, spraying bullets and tossing hand grenades into the crowd. It was a coordinated two-prong offensive, with two squads of gunmen entering the mall on separate levels simultaneously. Observers described the armed attackers as well-trained and conscious of trying to separate Muslims from the crowd to spare them from the attack. It was scarcely surprising when al-Shabab, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, immediately claimed responsibility, and via Twitter vowed further violence. Its account was shut down.
Still, images of the carnage show men, women and children, clearly of different faiths, bloodied and wounded. People in burqas, saris, designer clothes, hip jeans and Saturday track suits — the status symbol of Kenya’s elites — are all captured fleeing the scene, helping the injured, taking cover and bodily covering children from the blitzkrieg of gunfire.
Kenya is near and dear to my heart, as I have worked and lived there on and off for more than 20 years. For almost all of that time, al-Qaida and its terrorism have been part of Kenya’s landscape. Its dramatic start was marked in 1998, when a lorry of explosives detonated outside the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, killing some 200 people. I arrived in Kenya a few weeks later for a Fulbright year, and my graduate-student romanticism evaporated — never to return — when I stood in front of the leveled embassy, the warren of tangled metal and piles of blood-stained, concrete shards symbolic of Kenya’s uncertain future as one of al-Qaida’s battlegrounds.
More recently, al-Shabab has been responsible for a series of smaller bombings, with attacks on soft targets in Nairobi and Mombasa. Since 2011, in particular, experts have warned of a major attack on one of Nairobi’s easiest targets — its upscale shopping malls — in response to Kenyan troops rolling into al-Shabab’s back yard in Somalia. There, the Kenya Defense Force joined African Union (AU) troops to push al-Shabab out of its strongholds, including the port of Kismayo. As with places like Afghanistan, Mali and elsewhere, Somalia has witnessed the imposition of a draconian form of Islam at the hands of extremists. Al-Shabab has vowed repeatedly to seek vengeance on Kenyans for interfering with their al-Qaida-inspired mission, and for eliminating some of its members, including a Muslim cleric.
At the Westgate Mall, al-Shabab scored a major victory. Viewed by some as having been successfully beaten back by Kenyan and AU forces, al-Shabab has grabbed global headlines and proven that it is fully capable of inflicting its long-promised assault on civilians in Kenya. All the while, it has demonstrated its abilities to launch a coordinated offensive, to strike terror in the everyday lives of Kenyans and their multicultural community and to offer would-be followers a reason to join its local, and global, crusade.
It is also a reminder — yet again — to the United States, Britain and other Western allies that Kenya, like other parts of Africa and the developing world, are on the front line of global terrorism. For certain, neither Kenyans, nor their Western allies, can police the seas, nor can they protect against every soft target. However, as I am reminded today of the tangled remains of the U.S. Embassy and the smell of the dried blood and soot that lingered in Kenya’s streets for months, I am transported back to the tough talk of the United States and its allies, talk that has proven scarcely effective (and some might say has been counterproductive) in global efforts to protect ordinary men and women — particularly in places like Kenya, Mali, Tanzania, India and elsewhere — from terror.
Nor, today, can I forget the sentiment of the Kenyans with whom I lived and worked in the aftermath of the U.S. Embassy bombing. There was a stoic determination to forge ahead, and to remind themselves, and the world, that many ordinary Kenyans were not only tolerant of others, but had also co-existed with different races, religions, ethnicities and nationalities for decades, if not longer. For certain, Kenya has had violent eruptions in its own domestic past, but al-Qaida and al-Shabab attacks are on a wholly different order as a daily capriciousness was ushered in with the embassy bombing — a capriciousness that now infuses the urban existence of millions of Kenyans.
Al-Shabab may well be emboldened by this cowardly attack. Still, if one is to hold onto any sign of hope, it is in the images of terror captured from the Westgate Mall. Amid the overturned cafe seats, bodies strewn across marble staircases and half-eaten plates of quiche lorraine are glimmers of some of the Kenya that I know. There are still shots of men and women of multiple nationalities, races, religions, ethnicities — and yes, even classes — carrying wounded, comforting, administering first aid and protecting children. This is the same multicultural, multidimensional and bewilderingly resilient Kenya that I encountered some 15 years ago, and that is as alive and vibrant today despite — or perhaps in part because of — the very real threat of al-Shabab terror that inscribes their everyday lives.
Caroline Elkins is professor of history and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and Pulitzer-prize winning author of “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.”