Al-Shabab’s brazen attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, which killed at least 62 civilians, reflects poorly on the international community’s efforts to stabilise Somalia. While joining hands to eliminate the Shabab, a terror network that has fed off a failed state, several African nations have invited its wrath home. Shabab has become increasingly desperate, and thus dangerous, in the asymmetric war its diffused cadres have fought since 2008 against the ill-equipped peacekeeping forces of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The al-Qaeda affiliated group’s assault on one of the most affluent and cosmopolitan neighbourhoods in Kenya may seem audacious but is not surprising. The Kenyan Defence Forces have faced regular casualties since launching a bold attack on al-Shabab’s stronghold in southern Somalia a couple years ago. The KDF won a decisive victory in 2012, when it drove the group from its stronghold and financial nerve centre in Kismayo — but in hindsight, the jubilation seems premature. Nairobi should have heeded the lessons Uganda has learnt from its protracted involvement with AMISOM. In 2010, al-Shabab had dispatched suicide bombers to venues in Kampala screening the FIFA World Cup final, killing 74 civilians. Those bombings significantly reduced the Ugandan appetite for keeping the peace in Somalia. Now, the Shabab has turned to Kenya in an effort to intimidate its government and civil society.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, who lost a family member to the attack, has responded sternly and sagaciously, emphasising Kenya will not “retreat into a closed, fearful and fractured” society. Mr. Kenyatta now needs to back his words with action. It is Nairobi’s responsibility to ensure ethnic Somalis in Kenya, who have been subject to attacks in the past, do not suffer reprisals. As a major power that plays host to many international organisations and foreign companies, Kenya must also take steps to ensure the safety of foreign nationals. The Shabab’s latest attack is also a reminder that the gains Kenya has made in Somalia can only be consolidated if it pursues a robust domestic counterterrorism policy. Its border with Somalia, which has also faced its share of Shabab attacks, is extremely porous; Kenya must regulate, but not restrict, trans-border movement through this region. Above all is the imperative to sustain a strong, U.N.-mandated multilateral presence in Somalia till the government in Mogadishu can find its feet. Kenya’s assurance that it will not pull its troops in light of the mall attack is welcome but it must work with the Somali government and respect its sovereign rights. AMISOM’s troop-contributing countries, which do not have the financial wherewithal to sustain an indefinite military presence, must coordinate their domestic and international efforts to neutralise the Shabab’s threat.