Dozens of people have been reported killed in the Westgate shopping centre attack in the Kenyan capita Nairobi. The Westgate mall was attacked by Al Qaeda-affiliated Somali Al Shabab militants and the clashes lasted for several days.
The situation is reminiscent of what happened in Mumbai in 2008, when one of the biggest hotels in the Indian city was attacked. More than 160 people were killed and hundreds more injured. Similar types of attacks became known as “Mumbai-style”, which jihadists started to praise and copy as an effective tactic.
The storming of the historic Taj Hotel in Mumbai by Lashkar-e-Taiba members was a turning point in the pattern of tactics used by jihadists: holding hostages, killing dozens of them and then engaging in an open clash with security forces.
Although similar attacks were carried out by jihadists previously (such as the hostage-taking in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre in 2002 by Chechen militants and the storming of oil industry buildings in Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia in 2004 where, as in the Nairobi attack, Muslims and non-Muslims were separated in order to execute some of the latter), the Mumbai attack was significant in terms of being an operation planned in that style.
In October 2010, members of Al Qaeda of Iraq (known as the Islamic State of Iraq, which later became the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) used the Mumbai style attack in Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, killing more than 50 worshippers. The group repeated the attack using the same tactic five months later against the provincial council building in Tikrit (north-west Iraq), where another 56 were killed.
In the same year, Danish authorities arrested five potential jihadists intending to attack the Jutland Post newspaper building, using the same tactic. The Jutland Post had been in the middle of a controversy after it published cartoons in 2005 depicting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, and sparked widespread anger among Muslims who considered the cartoons offensive.
After the arrests in Denmark, many European countries started to warn that attacks could be carried out in their major cities using the Mumbai tactic.
The preferred tactic of jihadists is still suicide bombings, mostly due to the damage they cause, their lower cost, the ability of the perpetrators to bypass security checks and the increased media coverage they attract. But although Mumbai-style attacks are not cheap, they achieve other goals in addition to media coverage. Most importantly, they undermine confidence in the security services in the targeted country, according to the assessment of jihadists themselves.
It is worth noting that the Mumbai-style tactic is also suicidal in nature, as the attackers are aware that their chances of survival are slim once an attack begins. Ajmal Amir Kasab, the only Mumbai attacker who was captured alive, told the court in India that he was not expecting to survive.
In some of their literature, Jihadists have shown their interest in using this strategy. Abu Sa’ad Al Amili, a jihadist ideologue, wrote a booklet titled The Gains of the Foray in Mumbai, in which he stated that the Mumbai attack “revealed to Muslims that even if the enemy intensifies its security procedures and shows that it is scrutinising everything, there are still loopholes that we [jihadists] can get through to the heart of [the enemy’s] own home…this is an important factor in wars in order to keep our morale high”.
Al Amili also refers to another factor that makes Mumbai-style tactics preferable for jihadists: inspiration for others. He believes that the attackers will turn into symbols for jihadists: “also, these youngsters [attackers] would turn into models and ideals for other Muslim youth, especially those who have not yet enrolled in jihad”.
And so, it seems that the aims of the Nairobi shopping mall attack are not limited to punishing Kenya for sending its troops to Somalia, but also to feed into jihadist rhetoric by inspiring more individuals to join jihad by showing them the “strength of jihadi symbols against the security services of the enemy”.
Furthermore, such an attack comes in the context of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups constantly developing various strategies to carry on their eternal fight against a broad array of enemies, whether these are foreign countries or domestic authorities.
The jihadist groups always want their attacks to damage their enemies, attract massive media coverage, weaken the reputation of the security forces in the targeted places and, most importantly, generate jihadist models to inspire others. It seems that the Mumbai-style tactic can secure all these objectives for jihadists everywhere.
Murad Batal Al Shishani is a London-based political analyst specialising in Islamist groups, the Middle East and the North Caucasus
On Twitter: @muradbatal