So what was Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen -- the Al-Qaeda-linked Somali outfit -- really up to in Kenya?
A mall in the capital of East Africa's biggest economy, part owned by Israelis, offering the "supreme experience of shopping" for the local elite and upper middle class, diplomats and expats. It seems to be the perfect target for an attack with minimal logistics (assault rifles and grenades) and bent on inflicting maximum casualties.
But was it just "senseless terror"? Blowback? Or a game of shadows?
I've been trying to travel across Somalia for years, but contacts have always stressed; for a lone Westerner with no "protection" -- not to mention a lot of ammo -- that's certified suicide. The best one can do is to try to piece together the jigsaw puzzle.
Originally, al-Shabaab (Mujahideen Youth Movement) derives from the Islamic Courts movement that was in power in Somalia until they were repelled by invading Ethiopian troops in 2007.
It's crucial to keep in mind that a great number of Somalis -- including businessmen -- praised the Islamic Courts for bringing back some measure of security and disarming countless militias, something the country had not experienced since the early 1990s.
That feeling even superseded the fact the courts wanted to establish Sharia law and forbid everyone from listening to music and chewing khat. So the courts had strong social support. And yet, predictably, the Bush administration at the time branded them as "terrorists."
Al-Shabaab remained one of the factions active in Mogadishu until the summer of 2011. But then they were kicked out of the capital and also kicked out of the port of Kismayu, their main base, later in 2012. AMISOM -- the not-exactly-peacekeeping, somewhat fighting forces of Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, among others, under the umbrella of the African Union -- was gradually ramping up the pressure.
Police officers and members of the media take cover at a distance from the Westgate Shopping Centre after continuous gunfire was heard coming from the mall in Nairobi September 23, 2013.(Reuters/Siegfried Modola)
Al-Shabaab's power base remains unbelievably poor rural Somalia. Until recently the group was led mostly by Somali clan elders. A smatter of foreign jihadis with ground experience from Afghanistan to the Maghreb is to be found. But the bulk of the fighting force is essentially composed of bored teenagers bought by roughly $300 and the vision of meeting 72 virgins in paradise.
The crucial al-Shabaab/Al-Qaeda link also dates from 2012. Some al-Shabaab leaders not only disagreed, but decided to vote with their feet. After all, al-Shabaab had always been essentially about Somali nationalism.
Al-Shabaab's internal split is crucial to understand the full picture. After important defections and certainly gruesome executions, for the past three months Emir Abu Zubayr seems to be fully in charge. He is not a Somali nationalist, like the defectors; he wants to pursue the aiming-for-a-globalized-emirate Al-Qaeda way.
Al-Shabaab duly claimed the attack on Westgate mall via their Twitter account. A fog of witnesses claim the attackers did not speak Swahili, but Arabic or Somali; some were disguised as women; and they might have even included a notorious female British jihadi, the so-called "white widow" Samantha Lewthwaite. In sum: a mini-Jihad Inc.
Al-Shabaab stressed only "infidels" were killed in the raid, and made sure this was revenge against invading Kenyan troops active in Somalia since 2011. Previous attacks in Mogadishu this year featured a car bomb and a suicide bomber, but no attempt to take hostages. Here is an excellent summary of why Kenya, and why now, written by the son of my late friend and former Asia Times editor Tony Allison.
Nairobi's long game is to protect its two key industries -- the safari trail and shipping (centered on the port of Mombasa). This has evolved into the strategy of creating a buffer state in southern Somalia. Not by accident, in this region, Jubaland, a lot of unexplored oil wealth is the key part of the story.
That's the background for the Kenyan invasion of southern Somalia in 2011 -- when al-Shabaab was kicked out of Kismayu. Very important; the US and France were key in the military support department. Kenya's army, frankly, is a joke, and would never pull it off by itself. The invasion was effusively hailed in the West and -- where else? - the UN Security Council.
It's because Kenya expelled al-Shabaab from Kismayu that AMISOM managed to further secure Mogadishu -- with Kenyan troops included in the mix. And yet, also predictably, Kenya's adventure in southern Somalia was seen by most Somalis as an occupation, not a liberation.