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Terrorism

Islamists demonstrate their power in Kenya

The siege in Nairobi has claimed more than 60 lives. Terror organization al-Shabab is calling for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia. Kenya is unlikely to bow to such demands.

"This is a trying moment for our country. It is something that has hit at the very heart of our country's unity." This statement by former Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga expresses the feelings of many people in the country. The weekend attack on a Nairobi shopping mall by Islamist terror organization al-Shabab is again putting Kenya to the test. With a death toll of more than 60 by Tuesday (24.09.2013) the attack is the worst in Kenya in the last 15 years. In 1998 more than 200 people were killed when bombs exploded in the US embassy in Nairobi.

A new dimension

In recent months Islamists in Somalia suffered several defeats. Since September 2012 the country has been ruled by an elected president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. This represents a glimmer of hope for the population after two decades of political decay.

A man who lost his father in the attack is comforted by Pastor Elizabeth Akinyand family members (Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

A man mourns the death of his father in the Westgate attack

The African Union's military mission AMISOM has succeeded in expelling al-Shabab from the strategically important cities of Mogadishu and Kismayo. As of October 2011 some 4,600 Kenyan soldiers have been part of this mission. Since then there have been dozens of minor attacks in Kenya but now the threat has acquired a new dimension.

Although the AMISOM mission can claim several successes, the fight against terrorism has not yet been won, analysts say. "The Islamists have only lost ground in the cities," said Emmanuel Kisiangani from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Nairobi. "In southern Somalia they still occupy a large chunk of territory and they have the ability to cause havoc." Al-Shabab's claim of responsibility for the Nairobi attack is a sign of this, Kisiangani told DW.

Too late for withdrawal

Kisiangani says it is clear that al-Shabab's motive for the attack was to show that it is still a force to be reckoned with. That is underlined by the target selected, the Westgate shopping center in the wealthy west of Nairobi, a popular destination for tourists and staff of international organizations. It is a venue that guarantees international interest. It has been known for months that the Westgate center could be a target for terror attacks, said a member of a German foundation in Nairobi who did not wish to be named. However, the terrorists still succeeded in mounting a surprise attack, since attention was largely focused on the ongoing trial in The Hague against Kenya's deputy president William Ruto, who is facing charges of crimes against humanity.

AMISOM combat engineers repair a stretch of road in Somalia's Lower Shabelle area (Photo: Stuart Price)

Kenyan soldiers joined the AMISOM mission in Somalia two years ago

Kisiangani does not believe the Kenyan government will bow to the demands of al-Shabab and withdraw its troops from Somalia. After all, the troops were sent in as a response to Islamist attacks. But the threat to Kenya remains real. Guido Steinberg of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin names another reason why Kenbya is likely to stand firm. He says it is simply too late. "Even if Kenya were to pull its troops out, al-Shabab has now identified Kenya as a major enemy." Also, said Steinberg, the Kenyans are needed to help with the process of stabilization in Somalia.

In Nairobi, these questions are not seen as immediately relevant. The main concern is ensure the siege is brought to an end and to treat the many casualties.

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