Kenyan shopping centre reopens after Al Shabaab rampage

As Westgate Shopping Centre reopens in Kenya’s capital, 22 months after terrorists from Al Shabaab went on a shooting rampage killing at least 67 people, Africa correspondent Martin Cuddihy writes the extremist group shows no signs of changing its ways.

On a sunny Saturday in September 2013 shoppers in Nairobi were doing just as they do all over the world. Taking their time, browsing through shops.

I had done the same thing at the same shopping centre a week earlier.

I sat at a café eating lunch engrossed in a novel. I did notice guards with their wooden batons and neat uniforms.

Seven days later they were no match for men with shrapnel grenades and automatic rifles.

Westgate marked the beginning of a new era for Al Shabaab. They deliberately targeted an upmarket mall frequented by wealthy Kenyans and the expatriate community.

It was the first time they would target westerners and for three days the attackers were the only news story in the world.

Promises of a thorough investigation by Kenyan authorities have never been fulfilled.

The closest anyone knows to exactly what happened inside came thanks to a documentary by the BBC and HBO that compiled a reconstruction with CCTV footage and personal accounts from survivors.

The Kenyan government is one of the major contributors to AMISON, the United Nations-backed mission to rid Somalia of Al Shabaab.

At its peak the Al Qaeda-aligned group controlled vast swathes of territory, including the Somali capital Mogadishu.

With that territory came an income from the sale of charcoal into Kenya. Various other reports suggest the organisation still earns an income through smuggling sugar into east Africa.

AMISOM has had a fair amount of success. It has seriously eroded the territory controlled by Al Shabaab to the point that the Somali group has been forced to change the way it operates.

No longer does it control ground the way the Islamic State (IS) group does in Syria and Iraq or Boko Haram does in Nigeria.

It is no longer a military-style terrorist organisation. It now operates in the shadows, a clandestine group fighting for relevance in the prism of global jihad.

The high-profile attacks are now almost certainly going to be suicide missions. Al Shabaab lacks the appealing veneer of IS that purports to be establishing a caliphate.

During the week Kenyan forces say they managed to kill 51 militants, including some mid-level commanders who were responsible for attacks near the border.

Kenya’s interior ministry says the mastermind of the group’s most deadly attack yet had been killed.

And therein lies the difficulty of dealing with terrorists that hide in plain sight. Despite its marginalisation, Al Shabaab — which translates as “the youth” — continues to be brutal and effective.

In April it carried out its most horrific raid yet, on defenceless students at a university in Garissa. At least 147 people were killed as students were preparing to go home for the Easter break.

Earlier this year, the ABC spoke to a former Al Shabaab terrorist. The man was barely 30 and had spent six years in Somalia in training camps and sleeping in the scrub, hiding from authorities, before he was eventually asked to cross the border and start killing innocent people.

The request proved too much for this would-be jihadist and he ran away to his island home of Lamu near the Kenya-Somalia border and a notorious thoroughfare for terrorists.

Al Shabaab has promised to keep carrying out regular attacks inside Kenyan territory as long as the AMISOM force remains in Somalia.

And the African Union forces have no military aircraft, although the US has several times used drones to strike Al Shabaab positions, so a military victory in the traditional sense is only marginally more possible than a pipe dream.

This brings East Africa to the stalemate it finds itself in now. Al Shabaab hides in the community and occasionally strikes at the heart of society.

Even though it is not the most deadly attack Al Shabaab has carried out, Westgate remains the pinnacle of its achievements.

The deaths of dozens of westerners and the sustained media coverage meant that in September 2013, Al Shabaab was never more globally relevant.

Shoppers have returned to that centre. Imagine the reaction if Al Shabaab decided to do it all again.

Source: ABC News

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