Five Things The Kenya Mall Attack Tells Us About Global Terrorism
BY ZACK BEAUCHAMP ON SEPTEMBER 23, 2013 AT 3:15 PM
CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Curtis
A small coterie of hostages still remain in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, the last victims of Somali jihadi group al-Shabaab’s assault on the Kenyan shopping center. What we’ve learned about the attack in the roughly 48 hours since it began reveal some important truths about the nature and future of transnational terrorist organizations. Here are five of them.
1) Transnational terrorism isn’t just a Middle Eastern or Western problem. When Americans picture terrorism, they usually think of mass casualty attacks on Western targets or suicide bombings in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the attack on a Kenyan shopping mall should remind us that global terrorism is a much broader phenomenon. In 2011, the most recent year Global Terrorism Database data are available for, there were 1,144 terrorist incidents outside of North America, Western Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Moreover, regional terrorist organizations can have global ties, as Shabaab does with Al Qaeda. Take Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Indonesian group responsible for the 2005 Bali bombings, as an example. JI began in Malaysia, trained by fighting the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, relocated to Indonesia, and developed loose strategic partnerships with the Filipino Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
2) Jihadist groups disagree with themselves — a lot. The Westgate attack is the first major act Shabaab has conducted under the leadership of Ahmed Abdi Godane, who took power in June after a bruising, not yet fully settled internal battle. The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall reports that Godane was the avatar of a more extreme faction inside Shabaab. That says a lot: Shabaab already had a rep as a particularly brutal jihadi group before the “extremists” started taking over, but it hadn’t recently conducted a civilian attack on this scale.
Disagreement, including violent disagreement, is nothing new for jihadis. In 2005, Al Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly reprimanded Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi forcounterproductively indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Al Qaeda command thinks of Shabaab’s attacks on civilians as similarly counterproductive.
3) Terrorist groups learn from each other. Shabaab’s tactical plan — explosives and gunfire directed at a “soft” civilian commercial and social center — looks a lot like the 2008 Mumbai attack launched by (largely) Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba. “Modeling previous successful attacks is significant,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy and an expert on jihadi groups, told ThinkProgress. “This attack is, in my view, a variant of the previous attack in Mumbai.”
Gartensten-Ross isn’t alone in this conclusion. A well-established academic literature on how terrorist groups learn supports the idea that organizations share information with each other and study the history of other groups in a perverse sort of “best practices” learning method.
That means, according to Gartenstein-Ross, we should start worrying about more attacks on shopping malls. “They’re of economic and symbolic significance, hard to defend, and if you strike them successfully, it presents the enemy with a serious question about how to respond,” he said. “Implementing stringent security procedures tends to defeat the purpose of shopping malls.”