Kenya's Westgate: Terrorism, crackdowns & the deadly cycle
A protest outside Nairobi's Jamia Mosque in January 2010 turns violent during clashes with Kenyan forces. MICHELLE SHEPHARD / TORONTO STAR
There is a predictable pattern to how terrorism groups grow and morph and how authorities respond in the wake of an attack. Al Qaeda is skilled at recruiting the disenfranchised, filling power vacuums and taking advantage of civil rights abuses perpetrated by governments. This fits the group's narrative that there is a global war against Muslims.
That sad cycle may be continuing following Nairobi's Westgate Mall, which killed more than 65 children, women and men. Al Shabab, the East African Al Qaeda affiliate, has claimed responsibility.
Washington Post journalist Sudarsan Raghavan writes Wednesday of the indiscriminate arrest of Ubah Abubakar, an interior designer from Fairfax, Va., who lives in Nairobi and is of Somali origin. "They are rounding up anybody just for the sake they are Somali, or who looks Somali," he told Raghavan.
I've heard almost that exact quote before. In January 2010, Nairobi was rocked by a demonstration that started at the Jamia Mosque and quickly spread through the downtown. The protest concerned the arrest of a radical Jamaican-born cleric in Kenya.
Within minutes of arriving, I could see the black flag of Al Qaeda flying and Kenyan forces released wave upon wave of tear gas and fired live rounds into the crowd. At least one protester was killed. Kenyans feared that Somalia's war was finally coming next door - but they also condemned authorities for reacting with such force.
But it was a few days later when Kenyan police really struck back, descending on the Somali Eastleigh neighbourhood. Kenyan Mohammed Ibrahim told me he had been near one of Eastleigh's mosques when police arrived and he stood his ground while others fled. He could tell from one of the constable's accented English that his native tongue was Luo, a dialect from western Kenya.
As he moved into arrest Ibrahim, he replied in Luo: "You are targeting my community. What's your problem?" The officer responded, "No problem," and walked away.
They were only arresting those of Somali origin, or as I was told repeatedly, those who looked Somali. Resentment was building.
In 2012, I was in Majengo, near Eastleigh, to investigate the rise of a group calling itself the Muslim Youth Center, and its charismatic leader Ahmed Imam Ali. The MYC ostensibly started as a social outreach group, appealing to the downtrodden who were weary of police harassment and the poverty.
That group is now called Al-Hijra and Ali has become Kenya's Al Shabab leader. A report issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned last year: "Al-Hijra is likely to become more active: its principal leader, Ahmed Iman Ali, remains at large, gaining experience, confidence and credentials as a jihadist leader. Hundreds of Al-Hijra members have undergone training and experienced combat in Somalia between 2008-2012; following the loss of their bases, as Al Shabab withdraws further and further from the Kenyan border, many members of this jihadist cohort are likely to return to Kenya or travel to other East African countries."
The identities of the Westgate attackers is not yet known - although it will be surprising if there is not some involvement of Al Hijra. A report by journalist Jamal Osman, states that the leader of the attack was a Kenyan national, a Christian convert who was once part of the country's special forces.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that, "American officials said they were close to discovering the identities of the assailants from tests performed on their remains, and that they appeared to come from several different countries."
With still so much uncertain a week after the attack ended, all that is clear is the need for answers. A shoddy post-attack investigation, coupled with random, widespread arrests, would only fuel Al Qaeda's next generation, thus letting the predictable cycle continue.
Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm