Lauren Ploch Blanchard
Specialist in African Affairs
On September 21, 2013, masked gunmen attacked the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, taking hostages and killing at least 67 people.1 Almost 200 people, including at least 5 U.S. citizens, were wounded in the siege, which lasted four days. The attack is the most deadly terrorist incident in Kenya since the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi.2 A Somali Islamist insurgent group, Al Shabaab, which has ties to Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack.
Al Qaeda and affiliated groups like Al Shabaab have had a presence in East Africa for almost 20 years, although the extent of their operations there has varied over time. The region’s porous borders, proximity to the Arabian Peninsula, weak law enforcement and judicial institutions, and pervasive corruption, combined with almost 20 years of state collapse in neighboring Somalia, have provided an enabling environment for violent extremist groups.
The Westgate mall attack came almost two years after Kenya launched a military offensive across its northeastern border with Somalia, with the stated aim of defending itself against terrorist threats and incursions by Al Shabaab. Kenya subsequently joined the U.N.-mandated African Union (AU) stabilization mission, AMISOM, which is tasked with countering the threat posed by Al Shabaab in Somalia. Al Shabaab’s attack on the mall occurred three years after an Al Shabaab cell conducted the group’s first successful attack outside Somalia with deadly bombings in Kampala, Uganda, in retaliation for Uganda’s role as a leading AMISOM troop contributor.3 Al Shabaab has repeatedly threatened countries contributing to the regional operation, and spokesmen for the group have cited Kenya’s ongoing military role in Somalia as justification for the Westgate attack.4 While Kenyan officials thus far have maintained commitment to AMISOM in the siege’s aftermath, the attack may deter other countries from contributing troops in response to U.N. and AU calls for more military support to counter Al Shabaab.
In the 15 years since the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Congress has appropriated increasing counterterrorism funding for Africa, and has focused hearings and investigations on reported support provided by U.S. citizens to Al Shabaab. The United States is a major contributor of financial and in-kind support to AMISOM, and has provided its troop contributors and other countries in the region with substantial support to counter terrorist threats. “We are in this fight together,” the U.S. ambassador to Kenya commented as Federal Bureau of Investigation forensic teams deployed after the Westgate attack. President Obama has pledged U.S. support to bring those responsible for the attack to justice.5 Political instability and terrorist activities in and emanating from Somalia are subject to ongoing interest by policy makers, who remain concerned about Al Shabaab’s ties to Al Qaeda and affiliated groups and its use of Somalia as a staging ground for attacks in the region and a training ground for foreign fighters. The following sections address possible questions about the attack and related issues for Congress.
Date of Report: November 14, 2013
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: R43245
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