As Shabaab gunmen continue to besiege the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, taking dozens of hostages and killing at least 39 people and injuring 293 others, the incident marks the culmination of over two years of threats to the Kenyan government regarding the war in Somalia.
Since February 2011, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement repeatedly warned Kenya that its military involvement in Somalia will have "cataclysmic consequences," and in one message, in March 2013, told Kenyans they will not "sleep safely" in Nairobi and Mombasa as long as their soldiers remain stationed in the country. Over the past two years, the Shabaab has launched small incursions into Kenya near the Somalia border, taken and executed several Kenyan hostages, and hosted Kenyan fighters, including one who addressed messages to his fellow countrymen to take action against the government, claiming it is hostile to Islam. Therefore, the siege that began on September 21, 2013, did not come as a surprise.
Warnings and Propaganda
On February 27, 2011, the Shabaab had issued a communiqué reporting on a press conference held by its spokesman, Ali Mahmoud Ragi (AKA Ali Dheere), regarding Kenya allegedly interfering in Somali affairs by training Somali militias and providing political support to the Somali government to "destabilize" Shabaab-controlled regions. Here, Dheere threatened that the Shabaab's response will be "harsh". As Kenya moved toward directly military involvement in Somalia, warnings from the Shabaab became harsher and more ominous. For example, on November 4, 2011, the group issued a press release about Kenya planning a "full-scale invasion," and declared that such actions will bring deadly consequences. It stated:
"And as the much-hyped ‘Operation Linda Nchi’ gains momentum, it becomes apparent that the operation is not simply an attempt to defend Kenya’s territorial boundary as they claimed but rather a clever camouflage for the full-scale invasion of Somalia. This is a war not against Al-Shabaab, but against the people of Somalia .
"Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen has already warned both the Kenyan government as well as its public against the aggressive incursion into Somali territory and hereby emphasizes, once more, that the continued Kenyan invasion and the callous disregard for civilian lives will have some cataclysmic
In the months that followed, he Shabaab launched strikes on two fronts against the country: militarily, with strikes in the border region, and propaganda-wise, citing Kenya's alleged colonial ambitions in Somalia, and claiming that Kenyan soldiers are indiscriminately killing Muslim civilians in airstrikes. Within this time, the Shabaab claimed a raid on a police station in Kenya's Wajir district on January 12, 2012, and taking two hostages, Mule Edward Yesse and Fredrick Irungu Wainaina. The men were later released, but not before the Shabaab put Yesse in a video in which he urged the Kenyan government to withdraw from Somalia and build relations with the country.
Later, in March 2012, responding to a grenade attack in Nairobi attributed to its fighters, the Shabaab issued a denial of responsibility, but said the violence is a result of Kenya's role in Somalia. It stated, referring to its November 2011 message:
"Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen had previously cautioned the Kenyan government and warned of ‘cataclysmic consequences’ should Kenya continue to pursue the belligerent path of invasion. The rampant insecurity that now prevails in the streets of Kenya, and the wave of public anxiety therein, conspicuously foreshadows the perilous turn of events ahead, if not portend the complete demise of the very notion of peace and stability that the Kenyan public had for many years enjoyed."
One month afterwards, on April 1, 2012, the Shabaab gave an English message regarding Kenya, declaring that its national security is dependent on Somalia's. Portending major attacks on Kenyan soil due to the war, the group wrote:
"With Kenya now perilously sailing along a tremulous sea, lacking both the political purpose and the will of its soldiers, the Kenyan public is also gradually being sucked into the maelstrom of an endless war. The deteriorating insecurity in Kenyan cities is an embodiment of Kenya’s misguided policies that place foreign interests above its national interests and the security of Western nations above the security of its citizens, thereby wasting the lives of its men and its resources for no real gain.
"The Kenyan public must be aware that the more Kenyan troops continue to persecute innocent Muslims of Somalia, the less secure Kenyan cities will be; and the more oppression the Muslims of Somalia feel, the more constricted Kenyan life will be. Such is the law of Retributution. Your security depends on our security. It is a long, protracted war and Kenyans must neither harbour a reason for optimism nor hope for triumph."
Messages continues from the Shabaab from 2012 through 2013, as well as instances of hostage taking and execution, and allegations of Kenyan military attacks on Somali civilians. Prior to the Kenyan general elections in March 2013, the group called on Kenyans to boycott, explaining to them that their country's military expenditures have weakened their economy and made the public lose their security, and moreover, that continued war will bring consequences to them at home. It said:
"Remember, we are Mujahideen who celebrate the Martyrdom of our loved ones; you are a public that laments the loss of your loved ones. We are men who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by fighting against you; you are a public that has everything to lose and nothing to gain by fighting against us. So If you put a government in place, then be willing to endure the consequences of your actions for you will bear the full brunt of its follies. Forewarned is forearmed!"
Shabaab leader Mukhtar Abu al-Zubeir gave a similar threat in a message issued on March 3, telling Kenyans, "If you want peace, remove your military from the Muslim lands that they have invaded and bear in mind that you will not sleep safely in Nairobi and Mombasa as long as your military remains in the Islamic Administrations of Somalia."
The last threat to Kenya came in Twitter messages on June 16, 2013. The Shabaab's Press Office posted pictures of two Kenyans taken hostage on May 25 in Dhamajale, and justified the raid on the hostage's police base, writing:
"The Kenyan government has willfully chosen to invade our Muslim nation and must therefore bear the consequences of its actions
"The Mujahideen have the inalienable right to defend their lands and will do whatever necessary it takes to repel the invading forces of Kufr [disbelief]"
During the siege on the Westgate shopping wall in Nairobi, the Press Office live Tweeted about it, posting updates it received about the gunmen and giving justifications for the attack. It repeatedly said that the losses in the siege are small relative to the losses incurred by Somalis during the Kenyan military "invasion" of Somalia, and claimed that the gunmen were able to escort Muslims out of the mall, thus concentrating their attack on the "disbelievers" inside. The Shabaab said in the Tweets about the causes for the incident:
"HSM has on numerous occasions warned the #Kenyan government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences
"The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia #Westgate
"By Land, air and sea, #Kenyan forces invaded our Muslim country, killing hundreds of Muslims in the process and displacing thousands more
"The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders. #Wetsgate
"For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land #Westgate"
"What Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military, albeit largely miniscule in nature
"The attacks are just retribution for the lives of innocent Muslims shelled by Kenyan jets in Lower Jubba and in refugee camps #Westgate
"The message we are sending to the Kenyan govt & Public is and has always been just one: remove all your forces from our country #Westgate"
The Westgate attack and the warnings that preceded it recall the July 2010 bombings in Kampala, Uganda, which also followed years of the Shabaab demanding the country withdraw its forces from the AMISOM mission in Somalia. The attack hit World Cup viewing parties and killed an estimated 64 people and injured more than 70 others. Indeed, even the justification given for both attacks is identical, that it is a matter for an eye for an eye, and the Shabaab is reciprocating for each country's military involvement in Somalia and the deaths of Somali civilians. However, more important to the group, it is responding to challenges to its control and influence.
The years of threats, the sporadic incursions into Kenya, and the taking of Kenyan hostages marked the beginning of what has resulted in a bloodbath in a shopping mall, far from the police outposts the Shabaab initially hit.