This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
Kenya is reeling from its deadliest terrorist attack in more than a decade. Operations are still ongoing to end the standoff at a luxury mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where there are already nearly 70 confirmed deaths. Kojo explores what questions the attack has prompted about the militant group claiming responsiblity — and what it means for the security of the region and the rest of the world.
- Nicholas Kulish Reporter, The New York Times
- Daniel Benjamin Norman E. McCulloch Jr. Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth College; Former Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. State Department
- Jennifer Cooke Director, Africa Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, American tech companies, the developing world, and how they're targeting untapped markets of new digital customers. But first, terrorism and the Horn of Africa. Kenyan forces today are conducting operations at a shopping mall in Nairobi where militant attackers are believed to have been holed up since storming the building three days ago.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere are nearly 70 confirmed deaths so far, which makes it the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya in more than a decade. The standoff has also thrown the group taking credit for the attack, the Somalian based organization Al-Shabaab, back into the international spotlight, and reopened questions about the global reach of the terrorist groups with which it is linked. Joining us in studio to discuss, this is Jennifer Cooke, director of The Africa Program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies. Jennifer Cooke, thank you joining us.
MS. JENNIFER COOKEThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Dartmouth College is Daniel Benjamin, Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth. He previously served as Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the US Department of State. Daniel Benjamin, thank you for joining us.
MR. DANIEL BENJAMINMy pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Nairobi, Kenya is Nicholas Kulish. He's a reporter for the New York Times. Nicholas, thank you for joining us.
MR. NICHOLAS KULISHThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDINicholas, I'll start with you. Kenyan authorities said their goal was to end the standoff last night. You have been reporting today about volleys of gunfire and explosions coming from the Westgate Shopping Center. From what you can tell, what's the status of the Kenyan operation to remove the militants from the building?
KULISHWell, we can't get inside ourselves, but when I left, it seemed like it was still going on. There was a military perimeter, shots were being fired, you could hear explosions, and there was some kind of fire, either coming from the roof or coming from one of the stores inside the mall.
NNAMDIAny idea of how many hostages are there? How many members or associates of Al-Shabaab are still there? What's the latest information you've been getting about what's going on in there?
KULISHThe government has said that there were 10 to 15 initially, and most recently they've said that there are no more than 10 assailants remaining. And then, the number of hostages, we've never really known for sure. I think they've been trying to keep the number of people in the building, maybe, a secret, so that people aren't discovered who are currently out of harm's way. But, it's still a very uncertain, very, very volatile situation, and the Kenyans have not been completely clear about what's going on inside.
NNAMDIWhat effect has this had in Nairobi as a whole, to the extent that you've had a chance to gauge that?
KULISHWell, I think it's had two effects. I mean, one has been a negative, which is to say there's a great deal of fear. Fear about this attack and fear of other, of other similar attacks that could follow. On the positive side, there's been a real coming together, the twitter hash tag we are one Kenya is trending all the time. And you see the political opposition coming together with the government to declare solidarity, which is not something that you see all the time here in Kenya.
NNAMDIJennifer Cooke, Al-Shabaab says this attack is meant to be retribution for presence of Kenyan soldiers in Somalia itself. Tell us how that unfolded.
COOKEWell, Kenya, last year, deployed a number of troops, thousands of troops into Somalia to really create a buffer zone between the violence that was happening in Somalia and Kenya. There had been a number of (word?) by Shabaab operatives into Somalia, into Kenya. Kenya saw this as a threat. It eventually joined a much broader coalition of African forces, including the Ethiopians, the Ugandans, Burundians, who were really putting Al-Shabaab on the back foot, pushing it out of territories it had controlled. Pushing it out of Mogadishu. And Al-Shabaab had promised retaliation against Kenya.
COOKEI don't think anyone expected it quite in this form.
NNAMDIIndeed. Daniel Benjamin, since Al-Shabaab had promised retaliation against Kenya, obviously this particular attack was not foreseeable, but were there any warning signs that Al-Shabaab might have been giving that it was intent on making those threatened attacks?
BENJAMINWell, yes. And, in fact, I would disagree slightly with my old friend Jennifer Cooke. Al-Shabaab has made clear, for a long time, that it would attack countries that participated in operations in Somalia against it. I believe in 2011, it carried out -- maybe it was 2010, it carried out this large bombing in Kampala that was explicitly an act of revenge against Uganda for its involvement in the UNOSOM force, the U.N.'s force in Somalia. And they've been quite clear that they would take revenge against all countries that participated in this effort.
BENJAMINAnd I think there's actually been a strong sense that as Al-Shabaab was losing ground in Somalia, it would inevitably try more, as we would say, out of area attacks to maintain some standing in the public eye. And there are at least about three dozen attacks that were carried out last year in Kenya, that the Kenyan authorities have attributed to Al-Shabaab, whether accurately or not. But I'm sure that some of them were indeed Al-Shabaab attacks.
NNAMDINicholas Kulish, has there, in fact, been evidence of a growing Al-Shabaab presence or a growing Al-Shabaab militancy, if you will, in Kenya during the course of the past year?
KULISHSure. I mean, as Daniel noted, I mean, there have been grenade attacks on churches, there have been killing of police officers and other security officials, and even before the Kenyans invaded, there had been kidnappings from the island of Lamu and from the Dadaab refugee camps. I mean, so this has really been a growing problem here. And there were some warnings, and people feared that a mall could be a soft target, but that it would be something as spectacular and deadly and prolonged as this assault, I think, is something that nobody had imagined.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're having a conversation about the assault by terrorists associated with the Somalian group based Al-Shabaab in Nairobi, Kenya over the past three days. Nicholas Kulish is a reporter for the New York Times. He's on the ground in Nairobi, Kenya. Daniel Benjamin is director of the John Sloan Dickey for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. He joins us, by phone, from Dartmouth. And Jennifer Cooke is the Director of the Africa Program at The Center For Strategic and International Studies. She joins us in our Washington studio.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850 or by sending email to email@example.com. Jennifer, what concerns should people in that region or around the world, for that matter, have about whether this attack is simply an indication of a much broader campaign that Al-Shabaab would like to wage in Kenya, and also in its home base Somalia?
COOKEWell, I think that there's two debates. One, is this a sign of resurgence of Al-Shabaab and a growing strength and expanding ambition? Or, is it actually an indication of its fundamental weakness? It was unable to hold territory within Somalia. It was never able to win legitimacy in the eyes of most Somalis. There have been splits within the leadership of Al-Shabaab, and so going after an extremely vulnerable mall with few protections, spectacular as it is, it's not a sign of growing strength and organization and command and control.
COOKEIn fact, I think Shabaab has declined over the last year when it was able to hold considerable territory, make considerable money within Somalia itself.
NNAMDIDaniel Benjamin, same question to you.
BENJAMINI agree in large measure with Jennifer. This is a group that has really seen its fortunes turn in the last couple of years. It went from holding an enormous part of Somalia and including all but a few blocks of Mogadishu, and it's been humiliated. And it's major source of revenue, the Port of Kismayo has been taken from it. The question now really becomes whether the group can redefine itself and essentially satisfy its public and its own goals by carrying out attacks against soft targets primarily outside of Somalia.
BENJAMINAnd I think that remains to be seen. It is not a technically very sophisticated group. This kind of shooting up of a mall -- it has been prolonged, it has been ghastly and bloody, but it is not, it is not something like the kind of bomb design that we've seen out of Yemen. So, it's an interesting question whether they will feel that this is a way to go. It's also important to remember that Kenya has an enormous Somali Diaspora with 250,000 or more Somalis living in one neighborhood in Nairobi.
BENJAMINAnd so, the question is, could they do this anywhere else, really? And, you know, we'll have to wait and see what the investigation turns up.
NNAMDINicholas Kulish, there on the ground in Nairobi, Kenya. How sophisticated an attack this was? Both of our guests seem to feel that, for Al-Shabaab, this was fairly easy, it was, it was a shopping mall. The attacks are all against civilians at this point. What's the assessment being made on the ground there about how much planning and how sophisticated this attack was?
KULISHWell, I mean, it's not that simple to move large numbers of people with assault rifles around and get them into position. But, I mean, I don't think that it is the most sophisticated attack at all, but I would possibly take issue with the question of defining the ability to hold, control and govern territory as a gauge of a group's strength as a terrorist organization. Shabaab wasn't really very successful at ruling territory, but it really sort of melted away and avoided combat, for the most part, often surrendering major cities within a day. And keeping a core of fighters, a core of fighters that as the softer members sort of melted away as well, have sort of made it a more radical organization than perhaps it was two years ago.
NNAMDIJennifer Cooke, what evidence is there that Al-Shabaab might be drawing strength financially or organizationally from other terrorist franchises, if you will, in Africa or nearby in the Middle East that they have common cause with?
COOKEWell, in the past year, I mean, there have been reports of influx of foreign fighters bringing more sophisticated tactics and techniques and presumably money as well. There's a strong, you know, there are allegations within the U.N. monitoring report of a strong base within Kenya, supporting them and financially successful within Kenya. On the last point, I think there have been divided within Al-Shabaab, in terms of, you know, what does success, what is success?
COOKEAnd I think, you know, there have been factions. One, which was perhaps more nationalist focused, intent on holding territory and intent on holding authority within Somalia. And then, perhaps, a more ideological, global jihadist oriented faction as well. And as the more nationalist faction has been sidelined, it appears that the more kind of ideological has gained upper ground.
NNAMDIDaniel Benjamin, how does the security of Kenya fit into the US's broader interest in this region? Nick's reporting today makes note that Kenya has been an important partner in combating terrorism and piracy in the region.
BENJAMINWell, Kenya is a pivotal country in East Africa, possibly the pivotal country. And the United States has had a close relationship with the Kenyan Security Services over many years. Although US/Kenyan relations have gone up and down, due to political issues, such as, you know, how the US feels about the current leader Kenyatta, and issues like that. In general, the cooperation has been good, but I think that what this does demonstrate, very clearly, is that an urban center like Nairobi, in the middle of a less developed country like Kenya, is a very tempting target for terrorists.
BENJAMINAnd that perhaps the most important takeaway from all this is the need to increase security consciousness and increase security training, particularly for police and other civilian institutions that operate in Kenya, and to come up with a much more systematic approach to security for these kinds of facilities. That's got to be vital and that's something that we were certainly pushing the State Department for a long time. It's just sometimes hard to get a partner country's attention when they always want military goods.
BENJAMINSo this is really an important moment and we hope it becomes an important learning moment for everyone.
NNAMDINick Kulish, the Kenyan government has been either asserting or implying that now they kind of have the situation under control. It's not going to last for very much longer, but we nevertheless got this email from Joe who asks, "Will the UN or any international military coalition like NATO help Kenya or is Kenya on its own? The authorities there seem to feel that they can handle it.
KULISHWell, I mean, they're not entirely on their own. We have very reliable information that there are Israeli advisors who are helping them, not in a combat role but who are helping them with the situation. And then they also appear to be coordinating at least with other governments including the United States. And so they're not entirely alone but, I mean, they have enough manpower, they have enough material -- I was watching armored personnel carriers roll by, squads of well-armed troops, you know, running past and helicopters in the sky.
KULISHIt's just that, you know, they're trying in a difficult environment in this shopping mall to pull this off without killing hostages. If you look at the gas attack in Algeria at In Amenas, the Algerian army showed that you can go in and end anything if you use enough firepower. But they're trying to do it another way.
NNAMDIApparently they're trying to wait the terrorists out in the shopping mall.
KULISHThey're trying to get the innocent out as much as possible. You know, there are people trapped in stores or who are hiding in places that haven't necessarily been discovered by Shabaab as well as hostages. So, I mean, they're hoping to do it with a minimum of violence.
NNAMDIDaniel Benjamin, Jennifer Cooke, where does Shabaab draw most of its core fighting force from? So much has been made here in the United States about young men leaving here and then resurfacing in East Africa.
COOKEI would say in fact it's a fairly small number that have been recruited from the U.S. and from U.S. communities or from European communities for that matter. And the vast majority come from Somalia itself or possibly from Somali Diaspora communities within Kenya. As I said, there was also kind of a handful of foreign fighters that came from Pakistan, Yemen and so forth that was reported over the past few years. But the vast majority are young Somalis who are recruited, impressed or paid to take up arms and join Shabaab.
BENJAMINNo, I agree with that. It was always a big concern for the U.S. government that some Somalis who -- young Somalis who made it from the U.S. to Somalia and became radicalized, fought with al-Shabaab might then be a danger if they were to come back to the United States. And this now is a concern shared really across the west in many, many countries because there are Somali diasporas everywhere.
BENJAMINBut that has not really been a significant issue. There have been a couple of incidents of note, but the overwhelming majority of people fighting with al-Shabaab are Somalis from Somalia, some from the Kenyan Diaspora, small number of foreign fighters. And by the way, the foreign fighters, at least in the last couple of years, have been very I think disgruntled with al-Shabaab leadership and by its lack of interest in more aggressive operations. We'll see if this heralds a change but I'm skeptical.
NNAMDIAnd finally, Jennifer, what do we now know about the strength of al-Shabaab in Somalia?
COOKEWell, as Dan said at the outset, they have a tendency -- or Nicholas -- to melt away from the territories that they hold. I mean, if -- my understanding - and Ben may know better -- is a few thousand fighters but people that they are able to recruit that they can hold and that can melt away and melt back into communities, you know, at will when they're pressed.
NNAMDISince being pushed out of Mogadishu, Daniel Benjamin, they haven't been holding much territory in Somalia?
BENJAMINThat's correct. And the other thing to note is that a lot of the people who have fought with al-Shabaab as is true with groups like al-Qaida and Yemen and elsewhere, a lot of them wind up being, you know, soldiers for hire, soldiers for a day or two, soldiers brought in by clan affiliations but without any real ideological affiliation. And most of those al-Shabaab members are not committed members of the -- you know, of an international or global Jihad. Most of them are focused on Somalia.
BENJAMINSo this has been just a terrible event but the danger to overreact and get involved in Somalia is one that needs to be really carefully avoided. The history has shown that those who get involved in Somalia then have a kind of rallying effect on the Somali populace who -- you know, which dislikes intruders tremendously.
NNAMDIAnd our only hope at this point is that this assault on the shopping mall in Nairobi can end without much greater loss of human life. Nicholas Kulish, thank you for joining us. Keep your head down, be careful.
KULISHThanks a lot.
NNAMDINicholas, thank you for joining us. Jennifer Cooke, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDINicholas Kulish is a reporter for the New York Times, is on the ground in Nairobi, Kenya. Jennifer Cooke is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Daniel Benjamin, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIDaniel Benjamin is director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, previously served as Ambassador-at-Large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, American tech companies in the developing world and how they're targeting untapped markets of new digital customers. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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