It will be one year this Sunday since the terror group Al Shabaab launched what is now known as the Westgate Mall attack. It was one of their most successful urban attacks outside Somalia, lasting four days and killing over 60 people while wounding more than 200 others. Its selection was not a mistake; the attackers knew which economic class they were going for when they launched their attack that sunny Saturday morning a year ago.Westgate Mall stands in Nairobi’s affluent Westlands zone
. It was at the top of a link of malls that include Sarit Center and the Nakumatt Ukay, all built within the same zone and to attract the same clientele. Unlike other cases of urban terrorism that had rocked downtown Nairobi due to the lack of security systems, Westgate was propagated to draw the attention of Africa’s upper classes, those who watch the news and influence decision making. The representatives of the lower worker classes such as guards, attendants, and cleaners who died that day did not make it to the national conscience, and are all but unknown but by those who were close to them in life.
For the hundreds who had been injured in attacks before and after Westgate, the mall attacks drew attention to a plague that was already wrecking Kenya’s social and economic fabric. Since the Al Shabaab are a primarily Islamist group, the predominantly Christian Kenyan community began to further segregate the Muslim population. There are other historical basis for this segregation, stretching to the colonial subjugation of the Northern Frontier and the resulting Shifta War and marginalisation of the Kenyan Coast, all considered Muslim regions. But Al Shabaab managed to bring this to the upper echelons where assets and bank balances are normally the social dividing lines.
Westgate hurt because it touched a hirtheto comfortable class. While the masses had been dying across Nairobi and other Kenyan towns, the upper classes had maintained a cut-off, removed attitude that exposed such high class places to security lethargy. If you go to any Kenyan mall today, you are bound to see at least two armed police officers and more private security guards than you can count. But was this what the Al Shabaab wanted?By all accounts, the terror group won the day. It is common knowledge that the end goal of any act of terror is terror. It is meant to instil fear and send cold chills around a wider audience than the immediate victims of such acts. For the terrorist, every person who witnesses the event becomes an advocate of his cause, while every victim becomes an example.
At Westgate, the cameras were right there, enhancing the message for four days. That it lasted for four days further amplified the terror message that no one is safe in the country, including its upper classes. Even worse, the upper classes realised that the lethargic security apparatus would not save them at a time of need. Where those away from Kenya’s power epicentre die everyday because they are not within the assumed locus of security efficiency, those within have always considered themselves safe in the security and emergency services around. The blaring of an ambulance horn behind them in traffic makes them think the country’s systems are working but Westgate told a story of disconnect and discord. Security forces first scuttled, then scampered, as four men wrecked havoc in an entire mall.
From available footage, it appears as if even the attackers were surprised by their own success rate. They seemed to have expected a quick response hence their fast and brutal efficiency at mowing down tens of shoppers within the first few hours of the attack. With nothing of a full scale attack after the first two hours, the attackers seemed to no longer follow an immediate script.
The reason, it seems, was because no one was responding…and when they did they shot at each other instead of shooting at the aggresors.Perhaps the greatest lesson from Westgate is that terror is everyone’s enemy. The upper layers of Kenyan society cannot shield themselves from the realities bedevilling their lowly paid employees. Instead, they must use their clout and influence to ensure that terror is brought to its knees before it ruins East Africa’s biggest economy. One year later, as the dramatic documentaries are watched at vigils and memorials, no one knows anything more than they did about the attack a month after it happened. No one is demanding answers at all, as if the terror attack was a natural calamity and not an act of war.