Ayear ago, Kenyan soldiers cleared Al Shabab fighters out of Kismayo, a Somali port city almost 100km north of the border between the two countries. Al Shabab struck back on Saturday, not at soldiers but at civilians, and especially non-Muslims, in an upscale Nairobi mall.
As the raid’s death toll kept rising yesterday, Al Shabab’s Al Qaeda allies rejoiced. But in fact this terrorist slaughter is a sign of weakness, not of strength. The correct response, from the government of Kenya and the international community, will be to continue to bolster the capacity of Somalia’s new government, while treating those behind this attack as criminals, rather than as political leaders.
It was October 2011 when Kenya first sent thousands of soldiers into Somalia, in an act of self-defence. Somalia had sunk deep into failed-state status, and Al Shabab were exporting their violence to northern Kenya.
The Kenyan incursion was coordinated with military efforts by Ethiopia, France and the Somali government in Mogadishu, which was bolstered by US support. The joint effort slowly succeeded: Al Shabab fighters were pushed away from the whole coastline. The loss of Kismayo was a hard blow, because Al Shabab had profited from “taxes” on port traffic, including cargoes of charcoal bound for the Arabian Peninsula.
As Al Shabab retreated, legitimate government advanced. After wide consultations, a new federal government was formed last year; President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has just marked a year in office; Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon reaches that landmark next month.
They have a lot of work to do. Their principal tasks at present include improving cooperation with the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland, and consolidation of the Juba Interim Administration in Kismayo. But foreign aid is flowing again and order is slowly improving in more of the country. Somali-based piracy has dwindled. Now the government must seek international help against illegal fishing and offshore pollutant dumping, vital steps towards building a peaceful, sustainable maritime economy.
The outside world can also help by maintaining the banking ties the Somali diaspora needs to send money to relatives. Wary of money-laundering and support for terrorism, Barclays and other banks are refusing to deal with Somali money-transfer services, even those that have volunteered to accept strict auditing and other controls. This is no time for the world to make life harder for Somalia’s 10 million people.
Even with some “foreign fighters” in its ranks, Al Shabab cannot compete with the government’s soldiers and money and the benefits of well-intentioned governance. So it is reduced to throwing grenades at shoppers in Nairobi – just as you might expect from a group that systematically kept humanitarian supplies out of areas it controlled during the 2011 drought.
Kenyan authorities will have to tighten their internal security, but attacks like this one, by small groups of individuals willing to die, cannot always be stopped. But Al Shabab has this week again incurred the disgust and revulsion of people everywhere. Acts like this cannot win them support, and reveal how out of touch they are with the mainstream of Islam, and indeed of all humanity.