21 people were killed and dozens more injured this week when al-Shabaab militants stormed an upmarket hotel complex in Nairobi. The attack began when security personnel at the DusitD2 Hotel were ambushed by gunmen, who detonated explosives inside the complex before opening fire on guests and workers as they were trying to flee the scene. It was some 19 hours before security forces confirmed that all assailants were dead. Notably, the terrorist attack occurred on the third anniversary of a raid by al-Shabaab militants on a Kenyan military base in Somalia, which left 180 dead.
Al-Shabaab quickly claimed responsibility, which they called a response to U.S. President Trump’s recent “witless” acknowledgment and recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While Israel has long held Jerusalem as its spiritual capital, the city has been a divisive subject between Israel and Palestine. Experts also believe that the attacks may be a symbolic “flexing of muscles” in response to broader issues, including joint airstrikes by the U.S. and Kenya. Former Somalian national security adviser, Hussein Sheikh-Ali, said that the terrorist incident was likely aimed “to attack a high profile target, especially where westerners are going to be so the west is interested.” Sheikh-Ali also suggested that the assault was likely to show that the U.S. airstrikes “have not degraded them [al-Shabaab] as the U.S. military and some media have claimed.”
Al-Shabaab’s continued insurgency in Kenya and Somalia has proved difficult for the Kenyan government and its allies to solve. Dozens of airstrikes by the U.S. and Kenya have seemingly done little to weaken the organization and to quell the murderous attacks happening on Kenyan soil. The Kenyan government attempted to open negotiations in 2015; however, that endeavor was unsuccessful. Terrorist attacks against civilians are as unjust as they are abhorrent. Yet, the current use of military force to battle this violence puts innocent Somalian lives at risk and gives al-Shabaab reasons to justify and incite further cross-border violence in Kenya.
Al-Shabaab, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, is a militant Islamic movement that formed to resist Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006. However, the organization has since diversified and expanded, exploiting weak governance in the East African region. It has carried out insurgent attacks for almost a decade. Al-Shabaab has been behind a number of violent incidents within Somalia and Kenya, including the 2013 siege at a Nairobi mall which left 67 dead, the 2015 attack at a Kenyan university with 148 casualties, and the 2017 truck bomb which killed more than 500 people in Mogadishu. Many of al-Shabaab’s attacks are aimed at restaurants and hotels frequented by affluent citizens and expats in order to cause maximum disruption and fear, as well as to ensure worldwide media coverage. Somalian and Kenyan forces, backed by the U.S. government have successfully forced al-Shabaab out of the main Somalian cities. However, according to Karl Wiest, spokesperson for the U.S. Africa Command, the terrorist organization still controls approximately 20% of Somalia, particularly rural areas in the South.
This week’s bloodshed in Nairobi has proven that violence begets violence when dealing with terrorist organizations such as al-Shabaab. While Kenya cannot be blamed for wanting to protect its citizens and borders from violent extremism, a change in its approach toward al-Shabaab is warranted. Concerted and collaborative attempts at negotiation must be undertaken because blunt force solutions such as airstrikes will not replace open and honest dialogue. Until meaningful dialogue takes place, and concessions are made, the bloodshed and deaths will continue on both sides.