The logic of terrorism is violent political theatre ― the aim is not just to inflict harm but to be widely noticed inflicting harm.
From this perspective, the Somali militia al Shabaab’s September 21 seizure of the upmarket Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and massacre of at least 61 hostages, was a successful act of terrorism.
But while al Shabaab successfully dominated world headlines with their brutal attack, the media has almost entirely ignored the context: the Western-backed occupation of Somalia by Kenya, Uganda and Burundi.
The BBC said on September 27 that al Shabaab members were able to lease a shop inside the mall using fake ID, which they used to stockpile weapons and ammunition.
Survivors reported 10-to-15 attackers, wearing black commando-style outfits and balaclavas, stormed the mall on September 21 and held off Kenyan security forces (assisted by Israeli “advisers”) until September 24. They were armed with assault rifles, high calibre machineguns and grenades.
Hostages were killed indiscriminately, although survivors’ accounts suggest some attempts were made to separate and release Muslims.
Kenyan broadcaster Capital FM reported on September 27 that Cabinet Secretary Joseph ole Lenku put the death toll at 61 civilians, six security force members and five terrorists. Lenku denied Red Cross reports that a further 61 civilians were unaccounted for.
There has been speculation, including from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, that there may be other civilians and terrorists buried in a section of mall where three stories collapsed during the fighting.
The September 27 Irish Times reported that the Kenyan interior ministry had announced that eight people had been arrested for the attacks. There were conflicting and unconfirmed reports from survivors that some of the attackers had melted into crowds of fleeing survivors when the security forces retook the mall.
Westgate Shopping Mall is an international standard retail mall full of franchises of the same chains found in similar shopping malls worldwide, in a city full of slums.
Its customers were largely expatriates or affluent Kenyans. The list of victims from al Shabaab’s attack include several well known Kenyans and foreigners.
Victims include Kenyatta’s nephew and his fiance, Ghanaian poet and former political prisoner and diplomat Kofi Awoonor, and a Canadian diplomat. At least 20 foreigners were killed, mostly from rich countries.
The choice of target has meant al Shabaab certainly succeeded in getting noticed. The attack has dominated media headlines, in part due to the nature of the victims. In Australia, the public has been told of all the achievements of the sole Australian victim, a Tasmanian architect.
By contrast, in Iraq, where terrorist attacks have become routine since the 2003 US-led invasion, the terrorist killings that took place during the Nairobi drama was unfolding were hardly reported.
Also, on September 22, the second day of the Nairobi siege, 80 people were killed when a church was bombed in Peshawar in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Islamist violence against Christians has an obvious use for “war on terror” propagandists and the Peshawar bombing has received some Western media coverage. However, Christians in Pakistan are predominantly from economically and socially marginalised layers.
The scenes from Nairobi of Hollywood-style slaughter of affluent consumers in a familiar-looking shopping mall are far more effective at conveying the central message of Western “war on terror” propaganda: that the terrorists are coming for “us”.
The saturation media coverage has already declared the Westgate Shopping Mall siege a seminal event in the ongoing war between the West (or “the international community” as the powerful Western countries collectively call themselves) and global Islamist terrorism.
Al Shabaab’s links with al Qaeda have been emphasised to the extent of portraying the Somali group as being the local arm of an international project. Claims by Kenyan officials that some of the attackers were British and US citizens has fuelled media reporting of the attack as an “international terrorist” act.
However, the civil war, foreign aggression and social collapse that has afflicted Somalia since 1991 has created a Somali diaspora of millions. al Shabaab is known to have recruited small numbers from overseas Somali communities and returned exiles.
In the Western tabloid media, particularly in Britain, speculation on the global terror networks behind the Nairobi attacks has become obsessively focussed on British fugitive Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of one of the suicide bombers responsible for the July 2005 attacks in London.
Despite initially condemning her husband’s act, she was dubbed “the White Widow” by the press and went into hiding after her house was firebombed.
In 2011, Kenyan authorities said Lewthwaite was wanted for using a forged passport and alleged she was associated with local and foreign Islamist terror suspects. She is believed to have fled to South Africa.
However, after reports circulated that some survivors of the Westgate Shopping Mall massacre had seen a white woman with the attackers, the media began focussing on Lewthwaite.
On September 28, Xinhua reported that survivor Heena Arani had to appear on Kenyan television to deny that she was the “White Widow” after an image of her helping a fellow survivor went viral on social media.
On September 26, Kenyan authorities asked Interpol to issue an arrest warrant for Lewthwaite for charges of possessing explosives in 2011. The charges do not connect her to the Westgate attack.
This was reported by the British tabloid, the Daily Star, on September 27 in an article that began: “An international arrest warrant was issued for Britain’s White Widow after it emerged she loves wearing racy lingerie under her black burka.”
More serious media outlets have been less obsessed with the “White Widow”, but equally unanimous in identifying the attack as the work of international terrorist groups.
Even those “terrorism experts” willing to acknowledge that al Shabaab emerged as result of specific conditions in Somalia have cited the attack in Nairobi as evidence that al Shabaab is changing from being Somali-focussed to pursuing global agendas.
In Somalia, however, al Shabaab is fighting against occupation forces from African countries rying to impose a government on Somalia on behalf of the United States. Since October 2011, Kenya has had soldiers in Somalia.
al Shabaab made its motivations quite clear in the stream of tweets sent since launching the assault. One read: “For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land.”
Another said: “The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders.”
al Shabaab are an extremely violent group. In the areas of Somalia they rule they ban popular entertainment such as cinema, commit acts of violence against women and girls in the guise of dispensing law, suppress local Islamic practices which conflict with al Shabaab’s narrow Salafi interpretation of Islam and ruthlessly eliminate any opposition.
However, the group that emerged less than a decade ago cannot be held responsible for the decades of violence that have destroyed Somalia.
Impoverished by a century of colonial exploitation by Britain and Italy, during the Cold War Somalia was ruled by military dictator Siad Barre. Under Barre's rule, the state was little more than a mercenary army for hire to superpowers. Barre served first the Soviet Union, then the US.
When Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991, civil war broke out. Between 1992 and 1995, a US-led international force (including Australian soldiers) occupied Somalia under the guise of “humanitarian intervention”. Thousands of Somalis were killed by this “humanitarian intervention”.
On October 3, 1993, more than 1000 Somalis were killed by US helicopter assaults in one afternoon. But the resistance Somali militias forced the occupiers to withdraw before they were able to install a client regime.
The intervention ended up fuelling the very process it was supposed to stop. The country became divided between competing clan militias, warlords and gangs.
In the north, de facto independent states were set up in Somaliland and Puntland. These remain unrecognised internationally, despite providing more in the way of functioning administration than exists in the rest of the country.
In coastal villages, foreign ships took advantage of the collapse of Somalia’s state to overfish Somali waters and dump toxic waste. Fishing villagers turned to piracy in response.
None of the West’s attempts to impose transitional coalition governments on Somalia have been successful. In such conditions, divisions on clan lines became more entrenched as the clan militias could provide security for clan members.
In 2005, a movement emerged led by Islamic clerics from different clans who played a judicial role within their various clans. This movement, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), succeeded in uniting most of the clans and creating the basis of an administrative structure with nationwide legitimacy.
The West was alarmed by the prospect of a new state evolving organically in Somalia that was not under its control. In December 2006, the US supported an Ethiopian invasion.
During the extremely unpopular two-year Ethiopian occupation, al Shabaab emerged as the strongest Islamist militia that had previously recognised the UIC’s authority.
However, unlike the UIC, al Shabaab, whose young fighters grew up in communities affected by war or in refugee communities, follow the puritanical and harsh Salafi doctrine (followed by only 4% of Muslims worldwide).
The Salafi belief that the religious practices of other Muslims are idolatrous has created tensions whenever al Shabaab have tried to forcefully impose their version of Islamic law.
After Ethiopia withdrew, a section of the exiled UIC leadership joined the latest Western-created coalition government. But despite the support of Burundian and Ugandan troops ― and US drone attacks ― this has not been able to establish control over Somalia.
Instead, the country remains divided between warlords, clan militias, pirates, al Shabaab and other Islamist groups. In July 2010, al Shabaab killed 74 people in a bomb attack against a bar where the World Cup Final was being shown in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Kenya’s October 2011 invasion dislodged al Shabaab from many of the areas they controlled in the south of Somali, including the important port of Kismayu. Al Shabaab has responded with several smaller attacks on Kenyan territory before the September 21 attack.
Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the unpopularity of al Shabaab due to its violence against the population is partially offset by its role in resisting foreign occupiers.