In expressing U.S. support for Kenyan security forces in their four-day battle at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi against a terror organization originally based in Somalia, was President Barack Obama admitting that international Islamic terrorism is still a force to be reckoned with, and was he admitting that this is far more important than democratic shortcomings in the economically vibrant east African nation? Our aims in the war declared upon us by Islamic radicals have become somewhat murky; but we had no difficulty expressing disapproval of the way the Kenyans managed their two most recent presidential elections. Tragically, the attack of the Somali-based al-Shabaab on a symbol and showcase of what the president referred to as Kenyan “stability,” may remind us of where our priorities should be.
The al-Shabaab organization that, as we go to press, is still holding out in an upscale shopping center in Nairobi against Kenyan security forces, assisted on the ground, reportedly, by Israeli commandos. As many as 100 civilians and several Kenyan soldiers have been killed and hostages are still being held by the terror group. It is by no means an unknown organization. As its name indicates, the shabaab began as the youth wing of Somalia’s Islamic Courts, a political party that seized control of Mogadishu and large swathes of the Somali countryside when Somalia fell apart in the 1990s. Shabaab, “youth” (in the vernaculars of many Arabic-speaking countries, “cheb” translates as “kid”), was originally somewhat comparable to the Taliban: boys and young men, earnest students, fanaticized by dogmatic teachers far more interested in making warriors of their charges than scholars. They succeeded.
With U.S. backing, the Ethiopian army invaded Somalia in 2006 and drove the Islamic Courts party out of Mogadishu; its youth wing, Shabaab, harassed the Ethiopians in a conventional guerrilla campaign and attacked the multinational African force that took over the policing of Mogadishu from Ethiopian forces when the latter pulled out in 2010. The African contingent included Kenyans and Ugandans. Shabaab took this as a pretext to internationalize its guerrilla war. The terror attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall is their most spectacular blow to date outside Somalia (parts of which they still control.)
The American concern in Somalia has evolved since the early 1990s; but there has been consistency at least in our effort to limit the export of Somalia’s endemic violence. Much of this violence is best described as pure banditry, with the bandits and pirates organized, if that is the term, along clan lines. Somalia is not so much a country as a territory of clans, whose members see no reason to accept authority that is not derived from their family hierarchies.
In the context of the global jihadist movement, numbers of Somalis who otherwise would be content with careers as ordinary bandits and pirates determined that joining the revolution was to their advantage. In this too they bear comparison with the Taliban and certain other groups in the Islamic world, such as the Algerian extremists who, after being defeated by their country’s security forces, internationalized themselves as “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.” Some Tuareg secessionists in Mali joined up with them to split the west African country in two in 2012, only to be defeated by a militarily brilliant counter-attack by French and African (largely Chadian) forces earlier this year. In northern Nigeria, local gangsters mixed up with political opportunists have, likewise, challenged the authority of the Nigerian state in the name of Islamic purity, and morphed into a continuing terrorist threat.
Local interests, grievances, family interests may trump the appeal of global jihad. In Mali, for example, Tuareg autonomists — how many it is impossible to know — would have rejected the circumstantial alliance with the AQIM-affiliated fighters, which very nearly brought down the country, had their concerns been addressed by the Malian political class in Bamako and its international backers, including the U.S. and France.
However, it is very difficult for foreigners to understand these contradictory and overlapping motivations. What can the West offer these aggrieved peoples? We offer them deals: imitate us, and we will help you. But help them in what way? Do we know what they want? And then when they imitate us, for example by copying our democracy-based forms of governance, we scold them for falling short of our model. We seldom specify what model we had in mind. Should Somalians govern themselves according to the precepts of the Washington, D.C. city council ?
We applaud the Kenyans for agreeing to join with other Africans in trying to contain the bandits in Somalia, while implying that their leaders are international criminals. Our government just barely recognized the legitimacy of the most recent Kenyan exercise in democracy, and tacitly approved the indictment of the winners by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for alleged crimes committed during the previous one, that is to say the 2007 presidential election. Americans may see the logic in this M.O., but most other peoples do not.
The winner in Kenya, this year, was, as it happens, a man named Uhuru Kenyatta. He is the son of the founding father of modern Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, who emerged as the leader of the national movement against British rule in the 1950s. This movement included a terror wing, the Mau-Mau, of which Kenyatta was never conclusively shown to belong, but it was based in his own Kikuyu tribe, which broadly monopolized political power after independence. President Obama’s Kenyan relatives are from the Luo tribal group, one of whose leaders, Oginda Odinga, was for years one of Kenyatta’s principal opponents. Perhaps due to the Kikuyus’ talent for finding the most lucrative contracts, acquiring the best land when it was redistributed, and other forms of economic improvement, the Luo leaders developed a distinctly left-wing slant in their politics. The long-standing competition between Kikuyu and Luo was at the source of the troubled and violence-marred election in 2007 and the disputed election this year.
Oginda Odinga’s son, Raila Odinga, who was standing against Uhuru Kenyatta in the presidential contest, restrained his own followers, and in the current crisis has rallied to his rival’s side against the terrorists. It may be that the threat of subversion from jihadist globalists will do what the elder Kenyatta failed to do, by no means through his fault alone, namely forge a multi-tribal nation. It is certainly true that the upwardly mobile Kenyan middle classes, at least in the urban, sophisticated centers like Nairobi and Mombasa, claim to feel more Kenyan than tribal than their parents did. That, too, is why the terrorists hit in a symbol of success like the Westgate Mall.
American policy makers surely are taking note of the Kenyans’ eager acceptance of Israeli assistance in the current crisis. The enemies of our enemies, they are saying, are our friends. We have, to be sure, been friendly too, after our own manner, with the security assistance and training programs of the Africa Command and the (occasional) sensible view of the limits of our advice on how to improve your country politically and otherwise. Kenyans are probably more aware than Americans that there has been in the last couple decades one remarkable success story in Somalia: that is the breakaway non-nation — because no other nations have formally recognized it — of Somaliland, a zone of peace in one of the Continent’s hellholes. Unlike the regions around Mogadishu, it never asked, never got, any political and social engineering help from our government, but it is doing fine.