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Understanding Kenya’s Westgate Mall Attack

The September 21 attack on Westgate shopping mall by al-Shabab militants was an absolutely gruesome act of terrorism, which deserves the utmost condemnation. Reports of the attackers savagery have been truly shocking. Yet we must not allow the scenes of “senseless violence” to thoughtlessly wash over us. We must resist being held hostage to the emotions the media tell us we must feel. The cheap, bewildered horror we are to maintain demeans not only ourselves, but the victims as well.

For it only disrespects those killed when we allow the vile media and criminal governments they serve to monopolize the narrative of terror attacks like these. News personalities ask ‘how could this have happened?’ with the same grotesque insincerity that they always summon when an event like this happens. The heavy undercurrents of Islamophobia are predictable.

Allowing governments and the mainstream media to determine what terrorist acts like Westgate mean is somewhat akin to allowing ones murderer to give their eulogy.

The proper way to respond to acts of terror is to work to understand why they happened and how they can be prevented in the future. This requires listening to the motives given by those carrying out the terrorism to determine if their grievances are legitimate.

When one examines the history of Somalia it’s clear that there, as in much of the Middle East and Africa, the dark legacy of imperialism still hangs over the land. The U.S. has played a large role in not only the problems of Somalia, but also the rise of radical Islam there. This story, especially, is crucial to understanding Westgate.

After UN forces left Somalia in 1995 the country remained in a state of civil war. Famine, violence, and political chaos were the norm in much of Somalia during this period. Yet radical Islam was not a strong force in Somali society.

Radical Islam didn’t really gain a foothold in Somalia until the War on Terror began.  In fact, Somalia scholar Ken Menkhaus put the number of Somalis with serious links to al Qaeda at around 10 individuals in 2002. Many analysts believed radical Islam could have been limited with relative ease.

Historically, Islam was never a sustained political force in Somali society. Clannism has tended to be much more influential. Islamic politics have only gained more power in Somalia when a foreign, non-Muslim threat entered Somalia.

When 9/11 occurred nearly all political and community leaders in Somalia condemned the terrorist attacks. The very weak Transitional National Government, which formed in 2000, tried to reach out and work with the Bush administration on the War on Terror. However the Bush administration decided to fund warlords rather than strengthen the moderately Islamic government.

The warlords (financed with guns and weapons from the U.S.) killed and captured both Somalis and foreigners who supported any Islamic movement in the country.  The warlord’s death squads roamed the country killing or capturing whomever they desired.

These captured “suspects” were sometimes handed over to the U.S. for reward money where some were tortured. Those deemed innocent may be killed anyway in order to keep word from getting out.

Then in 2001 the Bush administration closed the al Barakaat money transfer company. The Bush administration claimed the organization was used to transfer money for al Qaeda. In actuality the company had no relations to al Qaeda, but thousands in poverty-stricken Somalia depended on money transferred through al Barakaat from family abroad. The UN estimates that 200-500 million US dollars worth a year was transferred to Somalia through remittances at the time. This was significantly more than the 60 million US dollars worth the country received in international aid.

Somalia specialist Michel Del Buono stated the decision to close al-Barakaat was, “equivalent to killing civilians”.

During this time some religious factions united to resist the U.S. backed warlords. They unified under the idea that the U.S. War on Terror was a crusade against Islam.  Some of these Islamist forces, like al-Shabab, joined the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) to fight off the U.S. backed warlords.

The UIC was an indigenous reaction to the brutal U.S. backed warlords. The Courts brought a justice system based on Sharia, as well as stability. The Courts united the governance of clans, and as a whole didn’t impose a harsh Islamic rule over Somalia. They also were mostly concerned with issues internal to Somalia and had no connection to al Qaeda.

The UIC gained political and military power, but the U.S. backed warlords declared war on them. This resulted in the fiercest fighting in Mogadishu since the departure of UN troops. But the Courts continued to gain power and by 2006 they had united most of Somalia. With popular support they drove out the U.S. back warlords in 4 months.

Up to this point al Shabab (the youth) had been a small secretive organization. But al Shabab had begun to get noticed by engaging in high profile assassinations in 2005. Despite this the ICU didn’t see al Shabab as a problem and believed the clans in Somalia could manage them.

As soon as the ICU gained power they wanted to establish friendly relations with the international community, but the U.S. had no intention of working with them The U.S. saw the ICU as too independent and open to radical Islamic influence. A Wikileaks cable shows that the U.S. would not tolerate the ICU gaining control of all of Somalia.

Under the reign of the ICU security improved dramatically. Ports and airports reopened. There was a sharp drop in food prices, aid shipments reached their intended recipients, and crime decreased. For the first time in 15 years Somalia had some semblance of a stable central government. Most Somalis saw the changes brought by the ICU as a significant improvement.

But the U.S. backed Ethiopia’s invasion into Somalia in 2006 to prop up the Somali Transitional National Government, which only controlled a tiny segment of the country at that time. It was a classic proxy war with U.S. troops on the ground, U.S. intelligence informing strategy, and U.S. air power providing support. The invasion turned into a brutal 2-year occupation with hundreds of thousands displaced and 16,000 civilians killed. Somalia was pulled back into hell.

The Ethiopian occupation created a great amount of unrest, political chaos, and radicalized al Shabab. The Council on Foreign Relations states:

“New Islamist-nationalist fighters swelled al-Shabab’s ranks from around four hundred into the thousands between 2006 and 2008. This was also a period when the group’s ties to al-Qaeda began to emerge. Al-Shabab leaders publicly praised the international terrorist network and condemned what they characterized as U.S. crimes against Muslims worldwide”.

Rob Wise at the Center for Strategic and International Studies states the Ethiopian occupation transformed al Shabab into, “the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country”.

Al-Shabab also transformed into a substantial social movement. In many areas al-Shabab became the only organization that could provide basic social services, medicine, food assistance, and a justice system.

Bin Laden had even encouraged the fighters in Somalia to fight the non-Muslim Ethiopian invaders that were backed by the U.S.

The Ethiopian troops pulled out, but African Union (AU) troops stayed in Somalia to support the U.S. backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Foreign fighters continued to pour into al-Shabab, and by 2010 al-Shabab controlled more territory than any al Qaeda affiliated group on Earth. Terror attacks in Somalia wildly increased in 2010 according to the Global Terrorism Index.

U.S. air strikes only increased popular support for al Shabab. Then in 2010 there was a bombing of a restaurant and a rugby club in Uganda during the world cup. Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.

Al Shabab also mounted major attacks on the TFG in Mogadishu, but ultimately was weakened by an increase in AU troops, more aggressive AU operations, and JSOC assassinations.

Despite the proclamation by the TFG that al Shabab was defeated in Somalia they continued to be able to carry out major attacks. In late 2011 they killed 100 people by blowing up a truck outside a government compound.

In 2011 Kenya, which has long been supported by the West, used the kidnappings of foreigners by Somalis to justify a military intervention into Somalia. Kenya immediately determined al Shabab to be behind the kidnappings, though this may well not be true because al Shabab has denied involvement.

Kenya’s invasion resulted in an air strike on a refugee camp, which killed 3 children, 2 adults, and injured 45. The invasion also caused another huge disruption in food aid distribution. After an 8-month occupation the Kenyan troops were reintegrated into the AU troops, which remain in Somalia to this day to prop up the TFG government.

It’s in the context of this history that we should understand the Westgate attacks. Al Shabab’s stated rational for the attack was to punish Kenya for its presence as part of the U.S. supported AU troops occupying Somalia.

Al Shabab’s twitter stated, “The attack at #WestGateMall (is) just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders.”

The U.S. is largely responsible for the rise of al Shabab and radical Islam in Somalia, and U.S. policies in Somalia, like in many places, have only been successful in causing death, destruction, and creating terrorists.

The U.S. is unlikely to end its violence in the Middle East, which is driven by an attempt to dominate the region. Given this, it’s only a matter of time before the bloody scenes of another Westgate appear before us. When the next attack does occur, look through the hollow hysteria and seek out the true origins for the attack.

For it’s only after listening to the stories of not only victims, but also the perpetrators of the attacks, who themselves are often victims, that we may begin to take actions to halt savage U.S. policies, and the predictable consequences that come from them.

Paul Gottinger is a writer from Madison, WI where he edits whiterosereader.org.  He can be reached at paul.gottinger@gmail.com

More articles by:

Paul Gottinger is a journalist based in Madison, WI whose work focuses on the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter @paulgottinger or email: paul.gottinger@gmail.com

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