Editor's Note: Ken Menkhaus is a professor at Davidson College and a fellow at the Enough Project. This blogpost originally appeared on ThinkProgress.
The bloody Shabaab attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall on September 21 was an act of desperation by a jihadi group beset by internal power struggles and plummeting support. It is intended to provoke a violent backlash against ethnic Somalis by the Kenyan government and Kenyan citizens. Angry and frustrated Kenyans must resist the urge to play into Shabaab’s hands.
Ever since Shabaab’s ascent to power in 2007, security and country experts have worried about the possibility that Shabaab – which has long had a network in Kenya – would attack one of Kenya’s many soft targets. Nairobi’s busy shopping malls have always been a top concern. In addition to the loss of life, such a terrorist attack would have enormous ripple effects, costing Kenya hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tourist and business dollars.
Yet for six years, the jihadi group opted only for a series of relatively small-scale attacks in Kenya, most of which appear to have been free-lance actions inspired by, rather than directly launched by, Shabaab. What was constraining Shabaab, even at the height of its power and popularity in Somalia in 2007-08, from taking the war to Kenya?
The answer, we surmised, was that Shabaab did not want to disrupt the interests of hundreds of thousands of Somalis living and investing in Kenya. Since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, over a million Somalis have fled to and through Kenya, and many now have extensive business and real estate investments there. For all of the deep tensions between Somalis and Kenyans, Somalis are major stakeholders in Kenya today. Were Shabaab to launch a large-scale terrorist attack in Kenya, the argument went, it would risk provoking a heavy Kenyan crackdown on all of those Somali businesses. That in turn would provoke a backlash by Somalis against Shabaab. At that point, Shabaab would not have to worry about what the Kenyan or US governments would do to them — they’d have to worry about what fellow Somalis would do to them. Messing with Somali business interests has never advanced the interests of any political actor in Somalia, foreign or local.
But the argument went further than this. Many of us also warned that Shabaab’s reluctance to attack soft targets in Kenya (or elsewhere, including in the US) was contingent on the group’s continued success in Somalia. Were the group to weaken and fragment, it would be more likely to consider high-risk terrorism abroad. Paradoxically, a weakened Shabaab is a greater threat outside Somalia than a stronger Shabaab.
Photo: A rescue worker helps a child outside the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya (AP).