The prolonged siege of the Westgate mall in Nairobi has, not surprisingly, triggered a sense of déjà vu. In a replay of the 2008 Mumbai nightmare in distant Kenya, the city hub has been silently infiltrated and then held up as a spectacle for the world to see while terrorists went on a shooting spree, killing visitors without discriminating between nationalities and age groups. Unlike in the case of Mumbai, where the masterminds of the crime remain determinedly shrouded in mystery, those of the carnage in Nairobi — al-Shabaab of Somalia — have claimed responsibility because they have a message to deliver. This is the group’s idea of retributive justice for Kenya, which it wants to punish for sending troops to join the African Union Mission in Somalia, where the regional force is battling terrorism. The Amisom operation has evicted the group from its comfort zones in central and southern Somalia. Hitting back is a survival tactic for al-Shabaab while it also serves as a dire warning for other countries that have joined the mission.
But while sending out this uncomplicated message, this affiliate of al Qaida also knows that the subtext of its message will be read with as much fear and apprehension across the world — it is a fact that despite the death of al Qaida’s supreme leader, the reverses it has faced in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the dismantling of its core leadership, al Qaida still remains a potent force. Through its regional franchisees such as al-Shabaab, al Qaida retains the currency to strike mayhem in any part of the world and keep its dream of global jihad as palpable as it was when Osama bin Laden was alive. The choice of the urban centre of attack, the targeting of different nationalities and the alleged preferential treatment for certain groups during the Westgate operation were to hold aloft the larger pro-Islamic, anti-West ideals of al Qaida that are no different from al-Shabaab’s own. The latter wants to set up an Islamic government in Somalia, which, deadened by decades of clan-fuelled wars, endemic corruption and misgovernance, has often believed in the dream that al Qaida has held out for its youth. Somali youths, from within Somalia and even Western countries, continue to swell the ranks of the terror groups of the region. Soon these militant Islamists may find another lot amidst them — from the Arab Spring countries that have seen the dream of political Islam crumble before their eyes.