In some ways, we know too much about what happened in Nairobi’s Westgate mall over the course of four horrifying days last week. We know that the terrorists gunned down children gathering for the filming of a kids’ cookery programme. We know that the blood-soaked bodies of shoppers were stacked up behind a deli counter. And we know that the 10-to-15 members of this de facto death squad showed no compunction when slaughtering, whether it was a shot to the back of a little girl’s head, or a slit to the throat of a confused shopkeeper. As it stands, 67 people were killed and 175 injured. Given the Kenyan army caused a roof to collapse on top of the attackers – and no doubt their hostages, too – the death toll is expected to rise.
And yet despite the news media being awash with gruesome detail, there is so much we don’t know about the Westgate attack. Instead, too many have been too willing to grasp what happened in terms of an older political framework, one in which a militant political organisation, from the IRA to the PLO, seeks to challenge an oppressor. So, in the case of Westgate, the putative attackers, members of the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab, were retaliating against Kenya for invading Somalia in 2011. Some analysts have even gone so far as to pinpoint Kenyan troops’ takeover of the port of Kismayo, a lucrative trading position for al-Shabab, as the catalyst for the Westgate attack. As one commentator put it: ‘[The Westgate attack] wasn’t a random act. On the contrary, it was a direct consequence of Kenya’s own policy decisions. To say that in no way justifies this heinous attack – it merely identifies cause and effect.’
Yet tit-for-tat accounts miss something. They appear too glib, too easy. They may not excuse a drawn-out atrocity like Westgate, but they do give it a nicely polished rationale.
But it’s a rationale at odds with what actually happened. Yes, the Kenyan military, under the auspices of the African Union, did play a role in weakening al-Shabab’s position in Somalia. And no doubt members of al-Shabab, already a declining, increasingly unpopular grouping in Somalia (even Osama Bin Laden disowned it because of is brutality), did feel anger towards the Kenyan army. But there is a massive, unexplained causal gap between that sense of grievance and the attack on a shopping centre in Nairobi. That’s right, a shopping centre. This wasn’t an attack on the Kenyan state. This wasn’t a gun battle with the Kenyan army, the principal object of al-Shabab ire. No, this was an indiscriminate attack on men, women and children at a shopping centre. The people targeted weren’t intent on a conflict with militant Islamists in Somalia; they were shopping for Old El Paso fajita mix.
This, as Brendan O’Neill has argued, is important to grasp. The new terrorism, of which the Westgate attack was just the latest of countless examples over the past decade, is characterised by an unprecedented barbarism. Its largely Islamist protagonists seem to embrace butchery. So bereft of anything approaching a moral compass are they that nothing seems to register as just a little bit wrong: shooting children in the head, slaughtering families gathered outside a church, blowing up people at a Saturday market. Everyone’s fair game, and the easier the random target, the better. This is presumably what Bilal Abdullah and Mohammed Asha thought in June 2007 when they left a petrol bomb outside London nightclub, Tiger Tiger, despite the Ministry of Defence being only a mile away.
So why is the new terrorism so profoundly nihilistic? The reason for this is that there’s a relationship between the morally unhinged acts and the socially unhinged nature of the protagonist. From the London bombers to the Westgate attackers, there is always something deeply individualised about those who carry out or attempt to carry out these acts. They don’t seem to represent an actual social constituency and as such they are not answerable to anyone outside of their ultra committed cadre. This has a morally disorienting effect.