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Kenya’s Deadly Westgate Mall Attack In Context

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

At least 72 were confirmed dead in Kenya, with the death toll expected to rise, after the deadly four-day-long attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall. The Somali militant group Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility and said the attack was in retaliation for Kenya deploying troops to Somalia. Kenya has declared three days of mourning for the dead, and the tragedy has grabbed international media attention.

Now joining us to discuss what happened in Kenya and give us some context behind the attack is Samar Al-Bulushi. She’s a doctoral student in anthropology at Yale. Her recent piece is “Kenya’s Westgate Mall Attack and the Politics of Spectacular Violence”.

Thank you so much for joining us, Samar.


NOOR: So, Samar, let’s start off by getting your reaction to these horrific, tragic events that recently unfolded in Kenya.

AL-BULUSHI: Sure. Yeah. I was incredibly shocked when I first heard of the news, most immediately because I was one of those foreigners who would frequent Westgate Mall during the time that I’ve spent in Nairobi. So, you know, the images that I was seeing across the screen were images that were incredibly familiar to me, places that I would frequent. And I immediately–my mind immediately jumped to the friends that I have met and made in Kenya who may have been affected by that violence.

I think the second thought that crossed my mind was to a certain degree a lack of surprise, you might say, because there’s so much talk about security and there’s so much fear that is palpable among Kenyans, especially in a place like Nairobi, especially in places like this, where the presence of security actors is visible. So every time you walk into a space like that, you’re kind of reminded of the possibility that something might happen to you.

NOOR: And so these tragic events have gripped the media’s attention. International press has been all over it. But what hasn’t been discussed in this case and what’s often not discussed in incidents like this is kind of the context and the background and kind of asking some of the tough questions, as in why this might have happened and what are the events that led up to it. Can you give us a little background and context?

AL-BULUSHI: Sure. Sure. I think what the events of this past weekend really demonstrate is what has been a role that Kenya has played in the war on terror in a relatively invisible way. It’s been an unseen front in the war on terror. And in the past–it’s really been in the last ten or so years that the Kenyan government has arisen as a prominent partner of the U.S. government in its war on terror.

We can go as far back as 1998, when the embassy bombings took place in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. And then in 2002 there was an attack on a hotel in Mombasa. Both those sets of attacks, the 1998 and 2002, were attributed to al-Qaeda, and the U.S. immediately placed a huge amount of pressure on the Kenyan government to respond, to identify suspects. And within a year or two, Kenya was placed on the U.S. government’s anti-terrorism assistance program. And that was really the beginning of a huge amount of foreign aid that started to flow into the Kenyan government, primarily to beef up its counterterrorism infrastructure.

And there was also a push to introduce anti-terrorism legislation. That was first done in 2003 under the Kibaki administration. And it was really thanks to the protest, widespread protest on behalf of civil society in Kenya that the legislation did not pass. In fact, it took almost ten years for that legislation to pass.

And I think it is worth reviewing the context in which last year in October the legislation finally went through. It contains language that is almost identical to the U.S. Patriot Act. It of course affords the police an incredible amount of sweeping powers to arrest, detain, question suspects under charges of terrorism that are not very well defined. And, of course, it’s the Muslim population in Kenya that has been the most affected by these developments.

NOOR: And so there’s fear among some advocates that the Muslim population in Kenya will be targeted even more in the aftermath of these attacks.

AL-BULUSHI: Absolutely. And to give just a little bit of context that might help us anticipate what we see going forward, even without the passing of that legislation, the Kenyan government set up an anti-terrorism police unit that began to go about sweeping neighborhoods, identifying suspects, often lacking much evidence at all, detaining people, and in some cases disappearing them. And in most recent years, we’ve seen, actually, a rise of extrajudicial killings.

But there are a couple very important years that I want to highlight here. The first is 2006, 2007, immediately following the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. And at that time you had thousands of people flowing across the border from Somalia into Kenya in seek of refuge. And the Kenyan government, together with United States, the Ethiopian and Somali government and other allies swept up at least 100 people, who were renditioned first to Somalia and then to Ethiopia. Over time, some of them are released after months of questioning and torture by a number of authorities.

And I want to emphasize that this is really a transnational regime of counterterror that really came to the fore at that period, because it wasn’t limited to the actors I’ve just mentioned. Some of the people were interrogated by Pakistanis, by Italians, by Libyans. So this truly is a transnational project. But that was really the first indication of the extent to which people were being affected by counterterrorism, by the discourse and by the practice of counterterrorism.

The next important year, I would say, was 2010 in the wake of the Kampala bombings, the World Cup bombings in Kampala. And after that happened, again you saw cooperation between the Kenyans, the Americans, and other governments to identify and rendition up to 20 suspects to Uganda. Twelve of them were Kenyan citizens, and seven of them remain in jail today in Uganda without charge and without a trial date set.

NOOR: And finally, Al-Shabaab, which is an al-Qaeda-linked militant group based in Somalia, they’ve said the attacks were in retaliation for Kenya’s role in Somalia, which has been a focal point for the war on terror. In Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, book and film, he traveled there and kind of documented the role of special forces and other U.S. involvement in Somalia. What has Kenya’s role been?

AL-BULUSHI: So Kenya really emerged to assume a prominent role in Somalia, in particular two years ago when it invaded. It was in October 2011. And the government stated that its objective at the time was to quell Al-Shabaab and its operations, primarily in southern Somalia. The claim was that a number of foreigners had been abducted by Al-Shabaab in the northern parts of Kenya. And so to a certain degree one wonders whether this was purely in response to threats to foreigners and expatriates in Kenya itself.

But I think it’s debatable what were the motivating interests of the Kenyan government. There are some who argue that they had been planning this attack for over one year. Now, a year ago, almost exactly a year ago today, the Kenyan government claimed victory in pushing Al-Shabaab outside of Kismayo, which was its last stronghold in Somalia. So in theory, if the Kenyan government had achieved what it claimed that it went in to achieve, it should have returned back into Kenya and should no longer have a role to play in Somalia. So that really becomes one of the questions that should be emerging in the wake of the attack this weekend: why is the Kenyan military still in Somalia? What is it going to do to reconsider its role there? What impact has it had on the region for a government that really projects itself as a leader in peace and stability? And we really need to ask ourselves whether that is in fact the case.

NOOR: And groups like Human Rights Watch have documented indiscriminate shelling carried out by forces backed by Kenyan troops.

AL-BULUSHI: Yes. So just to give a little bit of context, the Kenyans were incorporated into the African Union peacekeeping forces after they intervened. Now, that very fact is an interesting one, because technically their invasion was illegal according to international law. It was not declared as such. And, in fact, the UN Security Council effectively sanctioned that intervention by saying, we would now like to incorporate you into our peacekeeping force.

Now, Human Rights Watch is one among a few who have documented abuses by the African Union peacekeeping forces as a whole. Among them you have the Kenyans, you have the Ugandans. And there are, unfortunately, quite a few incidents of abuse against the Somali civilians by the peacekeeping forces.

NOOR: Samar Al-Bulushi, thank you so much for joining us.

AL-BULUSHI: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Samar Al-Bulushi is a doctoral student in socio-cultural anthropology at Yale with research interests in militarism, transnational governance, and secular politics in Kenya. Prior to Yale, Samar worked with a number of human rights organizations, most recently with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in New York.