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.