In a world of sin and sadness as saturated in blood and violence as this one is, it’s difficult for any event, no matter how tragic or how big the body count to linger in the consciousness before a fresh new atrocity blasts onto the news cycle to hold our attention for about as long as a moth flitting around a light.
I’m not so much numb as to the shooting sprees perpetrated by killers such as Aaron Alexis as I am overwhelmed. Before I can fully process the 12 victims of Alexis’ rampage at the Washington Navy Yards, I’m whipsawed into an even more senseless slaughter of innocents as terrorists lay siege to a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya and gun down terrified men, women and children.
Everyone agrees how terrible a terrorist attack is, but there is no consensus about what needs be done about them. All that ever happens is security experts try to harden the defenses of the now exposed soft target, bury the dead and wait inevitably for the next city to join New York, London, Madrid, Bali, Mumbai, Moscow and now Nairobi as targets.
Prior to the attack, most Americans had never heard of al-Shabaab. As it is typical for a country that pays more attention to entertainers than foreign policy, the matters of failed nations like Somalia don’t register on our radar until events force celebrities off the TV screen and dead bodies sprawled on a mall’s floor onto it.
Kenya can’t say it wasn’t warned. Ever since October 2011, when 4,000-odd Kenyan troops were summarily dispatched across to the border into Somalia with a mandate to hunt down and destroy al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group has been promising a massive, bloody revenge. Although it was always tempting to dismiss al-Shabaab’s hyperbole as empty, Comical Ali-style bluster, the group has form when it comes to revenge.
Remember it is only three years since the last major terrorist attack in Africa, when 76 died in twin bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala as they watched the World Cup final. This was in direct response to Uganda’s military intervention in Somalia, involving thousands of Ugandan soldiers operating under the aegis of the African Union Mission in Somalia.
Of course, being warned is not the same as being able to prevent these kinds of attacks. Nairobi’s gunmen were clearly inspired by the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, which analysts said at the time could be the template for terrorism of the future. Easier and cheaper than bombs, requiring just a handful of machine guns, plenty of ammo and a few men (and, in Nairobi, at least one woman) willing to die for their cause. And without going on full, permanent lockdown, what can cities do to prevent such an attack?
Still, in the light of this weekend’s tragic scenes, it is worth revisiting Kenya’s sudden decision to get itself involved in Somalia. Unlike Uganda’s internationally approved military support for Somalia’s fragile central government (along with troops from Burundi, and more recently Djibouti and Sierra Leone), Kenya’s was a unilateral intervention that took everyone by surprise. And their goal was less about restoring stability in Somalia and more about wiping out al-Shabaab and establishing a de facto buffer state between the two countries, a buffer state it hoped would keep Somalia’s instability from spilling over its borders and threatening Kenya’s vital tourism and shipping industries.
There were many stories of survival from those who lived through the carnage at Westgate Mal, but none like the courage shown by where a brave little boy who shamed a gun-wielding terrorist.
Elliott Prior, a four-year-old from Windsor, Berkshire, told a gunman who was approaching his injured mother during the attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, “You’re a bad man, let us leave,” a comment that led to the gunman sparing the boy and his family and asking for forgiveness.
Prior, his mother, Amber, a film producer who had been shot in the thigh, and his six-year-old sister had been hiding beneath a meat counter for an hour and a half before the gunmen found them. The four-year-old stood up to gunman, who abruptly took pity on the family, giving both children Mars candy bars and saying, “Please forgive me, we are not monsters.”
The gunman allowed the family to leave; Prior’s mother also rescued two other children, including a twelve-year-old whose mother had been killed, on the way out.
There has never been and there will never be a cause worth building it upon the bodies of dead children. Nothing justifies the mass murder of civilians.
The Somali group, al-Shabaab, says it carried out the attack in retaliation for Kenyan military intervention in Somalia. There has been no definitive number of dead and wounded yet, but the most recent number from CNN is 61 civilians, six security forces, and five terrorists dead with 175 wounded and 11 al-Shabaab members in custody.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced at the end of the four-day siege, “Kenya has stared down great evil and triumphed.”
If this is a triumph who needs defeat? These ruthless men and women claim they aren’t monsters but they use monstrous means to achieve evil goals.
- Nairobi terror attack: why Kenya and why now? (theguardian.com)
- How the US’s Somalia Policy Sparked the Kenyan Massacres (rinf.com)
- Why The Deadly Attack On The Mall In Kenya Was A Sign Of Desperation (thinkprogress.org)