Five Things The Kenya Mall Attack Tells Us About Global Terrorism

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Kenya Mall Attack

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

A small coterie of hostages still remain in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, the last victims of Somali jihadi group al-Shabaab’s assault on the Kenyan shopping center. What we’ve learned about the attack in the roughly 48 hours since it began reveal some important truths about the nature and future of transnational terrorist organizations. Here are five of them.

1) Transnational terrorism isn’t just a Middle Eastern or Western problem. When Americans picture terrorism, they usually think of mass casualty attacks on Western targets or suicide bombings in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the attack on a Kenyan shopping mall should remind us that global terrorism is a much broader phenomenon. In 2011, the most recent year Global Terrorism Database data are available for, there were 1,144 terrorist incidents outside of North America, Western Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Moreover, regional terrorist organizations can have global ties, as Shabaab does with Al Qaeda. Take Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Indonesian group responsible for the 2005 Bali bombings, as an example. JI began in Malaysia, trained by fighting the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, relocated to Indonesia, and developed loose strategic partnerships with the Filipino Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

2) Jihadist groups disagree with themselves — a lot. The Westgate attack is the first major act Shabaab has conducted under the leadership of Ahmed Abdi Godane, who took power in June after a bruising, not yet fully settled internal battle. The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall reports that Godane was the avatar of a more extreme faction inside Shabaab. That says a lot: Shabaab already had a rep as a particularly brutal jihadi group before the “extremists” started taking over, but it hadn’t recently conducted a civilian attack on this scale.

Disagreement, including violent disagreement, is nothing new for jihadis. In 2005, Al Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly reprimanded Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for counterproductively indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Al Qaeda command thinks of Shabaab’s attacks on civilians as similarly counterproductive.

3) Terrorist groups learn from each other. Shabaab’s tactical plan — explosives and gunfire directed at a “soft” civilian commercial and social center — looks a lot like the 2008 Mumbai attack launched by (largely) Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba. “Modeling previous successful attacks is significant,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy and an expert on jihadi groups, told ThinkProgress. “This attack is, in my view, a variant of the previous attack in Mumbai.”

Gartensten-Ross isn’t alone in this conclusion. A well-established academic literature on how terrorist groups learn supports the idea that organizations share information with each other and study the history of other groups in a perverse sort of “best practices” learning method.

That means, according to Gartenstein-Ross, we should start worrying about more attacks on shopping malls. “They’re of economic and symbolic significance, hard to defend, and if you strike them successfully, it presents the enemy with a serious question about how to respond,” he said. “Implementing stringent security procedures tends to defeat the purpose of shopping malls.”

4) Weak states might be as much of a concern as failed states. Everyone knows about the connection between failed states and terrorism: when there’s no government, the argument goes, there’s no one to stop terrorist groups from setting up shop.

But states with a weak government, like Kenya, may be vulnerable in other ways. The theory, first articulated by Davidson College Professor Ken Menkhaus (who wrote about the Westgate attack for ThinkProgress on Sunday), is that operating in failed states bogs down transnational terrorist groups in local violence and leaves them open to international intervention. Indeed, Shabaab had been put on its heels in recent years by a multinational intervention involving troops from Kenya, at least three other African nations, and the United States.

Weak states, by contrast, are arguably easier for terrorist groups to manipulate. Nations in which bribery is routinized or where borders are policed but porous allow terrorist groups to operate outside the law without having to contend with the total chaos that reigns in failed states. We’re not yet sure how the Shabaab operatives got into Kenya without being noticed, but it’s likely that the weakness of the Kenyan government had something to do with it.

Westgate isn’t a textbook example of Menkhaus’ theory: for one thing, Shabaab is based in the failed state, Somalia, and not the weak state, Kenya. But Shabaab’s incursion into Kenya should make us think about the different ways terrorist groups thrive rather than myopically focusing on the threat posed by failed states.

5) “Winning” a war on terrorism might look a lot like losing. A group of experts on East Africa and jihadi groups asked about the Nairobi attack almost universally agreed that Shabaab has been severely degraded in recent years. Westgate, the argument goes, is evidence of the group’s fundamental weakness. They’re attempting to use attacks on civilians to regain power they’ve lost on the more conventional Somali battlefield.

If that pattern holds in other places, it means other terrorist groups pushed to the brink of survival might escalate their attacks on civilians as their political position wanes. Given the scale of horror at Westgate, that should be a sobering thought for policymakers.