My contribution about the Westgate attack for my home institution RUSI. Tries to put the incident within the bigger context of trends we are seeing within al Qaeda and terrorism internationally. I did quite a bit of media around the Nairobi attack, a lot of questions about the mythical ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite: the New York Times, ABC, NBC, New Statesman, Guardian, Daily Beast, Sky News, BBC, Times, as well as others I cannot find and a video for RUSI.
The Westgate Nairobi Attack: A Sign of the Diversified Threat from Al-Qa’ida
RUSI Analysis, 4 Oct 2013
By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism
The locus of countering Al-Qa’ida style terrorism has now shifted overseas, with Western governments facing a new and complex set of issues that have been brought into particular focus by recent events at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
Al-Shabaab’s audacious attack in central Nairobi came in the wake of Al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest message entitled ‘General Guidelines for Jihad.’ His communication laid out an attack plan for his global movement which focused on two main themes: the growing geographical diversity of the struggle that he is trying to lead and the need to be more careful in targeting. Neither is a particularly new. But the message seems all the more salient following a year that so far has seen large-scale operations at In Amenas in Algeria, a scare against Western targets in Yemen, a brutal massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, and all alongside a constant patter of death in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan
The threat from international terrorism is one that has become more diverse and complicated, posing Western security officials with a growing array of risks and dangers across a wider geographical space. Complicated terrorist plots no longer solely emanate from Pakistan’s badlands targeting Europe or the United States.
Regional Al-Qa’ida affiliates instead seek Western targets near their home bases, focusing on the subsequent media attention. Places such as In Amenas, Western Embassies in Yemen or the Westgate Mall in Nairobi are the future of terrorism. For Western security officials, the problem is to develop strategies to protect, prepare and prevent terrorist attacks that are targeting nationals and interests abroad. They will have to deal with a complicated basket of issues that will require developing local capacity and ability, as well as improving regional and international coordination, in particular within the European Union. The locus of countering terrorism has now shifted overseas and developing capacity to address this new and complicated threat will be the focus for the medium term future.
Al Qa’ida Diversifying
As is his wont, Zawahiri talked at length about the confrontation with the ‘far enemy’ the United States, but also focused in some detail on the numerous live jihadi battlefields where his group has some connection. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Syria and ‘the environs of Jerusalem’ – an interesting allusion to one of the most active Sinai based groups that has been responsible for the attack on the Egyptian Interior Minister in Cairo on 5 September 2013. He also voiced sympathy for ‘brothers’ in Kashmir, Xinjiang, the Philippines and Burma, where al-Zawahiri sees potential supporters, but no specific allied groups and so restricts himself to simply calling for support for these people in their struggle against their oppressors.
The signal is that Al-Qa’ida is diversifying its branches and regions of influence. Since the Arab Spring, Al-Qa’ida core has found itself preoccupied less on the West and more on the Muslim world, where there seems to be more room for rallying support and potential inflection points for social change. Whether this is a sign of the movement’s weakness in the West, or an inability of the centre to control its branches, the strengthened development of its networks and ideas in an increasingly diverse geographical space presents a clear and present danger to Western interests in the regions.
From being a relatively monolithic beast, Al-Qa’ida has evolved into a complicated beast with branches, affiliates and sympathisers around the globe. From a counter-terrorism perspective, this presents a more dangerous creation in many ways, though one that seems to have less ability to reach directly into Western capitals except through the tool of uncontrolled ‘lone actor’ terrorists. The threat to Western capitals continues to exist in Al-Qa’ida rhetoric and aspiration, but in practice they find it easier to hit targets full of Westerners closer to home.
Al-Zawahiri’s missive also emphasised the need for caution in the Jihadi struggle, reflecting a broader ongoing internal debate within Al-Qa’ida. Ever since the debacle of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brutality in Iraq and the public backlash this led to in the mid-2000s, al-Zawahiri has sought to rein in more savage acts. This particular aspect was seen on display in both the In Amenas and Westgate attacks where the groups made efforts to avoid killing Muslims. These may have been more demonstrative than practical (and Muslims perished in both incidents), but at the same time, some effort was made and this was publicised, with the affiliates responsible for those attacks keen on overtly implying that they seem to have learned some lessons from others experiences.
Drawing on lessons learned during the grim struggle in Algeria during the 1990s, al-Zawahiri realises that in order to be an effective vanguard you need to have a potential pool of support behind you. A message he further hammered home in his emphasis on the importance of educating and creating awareness within the masses, and of conducting ‘dawa’ (preaching) and spreading their message throughout Muslim lands and beyond. He emphasises a basic principle: ‘to avoid entering in any conflict with them [so-called proxies of America], except in countries where confronting them becomes inevitable.’
The New Locus of Threat
It is within this context that Western counter-terrorism officials will see recent events in Nairobi and what this means for the threat from international terrorism. No longer are Al-Qa’ida or its affiliates targeting the West, but rather they are pursuing Western interests in their near neighbourhoods.
The centre of gravity as fragmented away from the West itself. Regional groups like al-Shabaab, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula or Boko Haram now seek to attack Western interests in their immediate surrounding. Hence, the choice of attacking a Western company site in Algeria, the Westgate Mall, Western embassies or kidnapping individuals in the broader Sahel. In all of these instances, Westerners were part of the thinking in target choice, but the action was carried out abroad. It remains attractive to attack Westerners given the international focus and attention that it brings and westerners can increasingly be found in almost every corner of the globe. It is worth highlighting that these target choices are not that new, but increasingly they seem the focus.
The dilemma is two-fold: how far can Western security forces push the boundaries of the security umbrella under which nationals can operate? And on the assumption that it cannot extend universally, what can be done to either strengthen locals to respond to the threat or to work with locals to eradicate the underlying problems that provide a fertile ground for extremist ideas to grow. In other words, how do we develop and successfully implement counter-terrorism strategies across the board far from national borders?
At one level, the response to this can be found by forging stronger local relationships between relevant security officials. This needs to be through training in response, but also in the preventative aspect of counter-terrorism. Fostering a culture of observance to questions of justice and human rights can be just as important as strengthening technical capability to respond to an incident. Furthermore, encouraging greater cooperation at an international level with European or other international partners to coordinate local efforts, while at the same time fostering regional cooperation (for example through AMISOM in Somalia or the African Union effort in Mali) are all going to be key in controlling the threat.
Perhaps Al-Zawahiri’s approach in diversifying Al-Qa’ida’s efforts to vulnerable geographies and proceeding cautiously and with due regard for local issues should be mirrored by the West. The complexity of Islamist extremist networks and their ability to draw on local issues to strengthen their narrative makes them difficult to understand and counter. The circumstances under which they manage to thrive are different. A one-size-fits-all approach to countering them is headed for failure.
At the same time, international cooperation to counter the development of these terrorist networks overseas requires caution as it is linked to issues of sovereignty, human rights and local legitimacy, to name a few. Unintended consequences such as the strengthening of resentment against the West is a constant concern, as many counter-terrorism efforts are still deemed to be a form of imperialism rather than a genuine effort to improving human and community security and justice.
In that sense, a partnership with legitimate local actors is a requirement for success, but identifying the correct ones and finding effective ways to working with them presents difficulties for policymakers. An additional layer of complexity is that assessing ‘illegitimate’ local actors and their intent is also problematic: the number of worldwide groups and individuals affiliated with or potentially influenced by Al-Qa’ida is vast. Some may be more proximate to thresholds of legitimacy than others. New movements and mergers within Syria as well as so-called lone wolves who might emerge present a further challenge.
How an adequate response to the transnational influence of this group can be formulated is an on-going debate. The trend towards transnationalism, ‘globalised’ local partnerships and disaggregation is something that al-Zawahiri has recognised and is eager to harness. It remains uncertain that he has been successful in this. But in countering this strategy, tackling the feeling of local anger that the Al-Qa’ida’s narrative continues to be able to tap into remains a challenge for more nuanced and sophisticated counter-radicalisation and counter-extremism work. Managing this work across broad geographies presents as complex a management challenge as al-Zawahiri faces.
Twelve years after Al-Qa’ida’s keynote attack on the West, the organisation continues to survive and, in some battlefields, thrive. Attacks like the incident in Nairobi highlight that often it is not the core that is the biggest threat, but the regional affiliates that might be discounted as simply local problems. No longer the monolith it once was, it has latched on to local narratives and anger on a global scale, initiating bottom up dynamics that are far beyond Al-Qa’ida core’s ability to control or even influence. Al-Zawahiri’s message is a call for coherence. Coherence coupled with caution may also be what’s needed at the core of policymakers’ and practitioners’ approach to countering the Islamist extremist threat across the globe.