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How Terrorism in Kenya Challenges Us to Be One With Somalis

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The terrorists who took over Nairobi's glitzy Westgate shopping mall last weekend planned their attack meticulously to maximize global impact. It is one of the few conclusions we can draw from the confusion that still remains about what happened in the past few days.

More importantly than the detail, perhaps, is understanding their intention. Designed to generate an unstoppable wave of emotional and political pressure, and probably a change of approach towards Somalis and Somalia, they are hoping to unleash a spiral of violence in east Africa. The horror of the act challenges us to respond with our head, rather than with our heart, if we want to outwit the terrorists.

Westgate has been noted for its vulnerability and attractiveness to attack by the Somali militants, al Shabaab, a point made clear to me more than two years ago when I first arrived in Nairobi to work on Somalia. Nevertheless, the scale, spectacle and planning of this attack stretches current analysis of the movement. There is evidence emerging that this attack involved a range of nationalities and ethnicities. But none of these organizations are static, and branding is often a distraction.

Essentially, this attack may reflect a changing agenda for the al-Shabaab insurgency of old, and that change may provide one opportunity for undermining the terrorists who are only interested in violence.

The history, which created and continues to nurture the insurgency inside Somalia, is vital for understanding what this attack means and helps inform an intelligent response. Al-Shabaab was a breakaway faction of a hardline political movement, the Islamic Courts Union, a collection of Islamic judicial administrations which attracted support when they brought stability to parts of Somalia, when the alternative was chaotic warlordism. The movement was strongest when it popularly opposed the brutal invasion by Ethiopian force, then backed by the U.S., but now relies on alienated youth for its foot soldiers, often forcibly recruited inside Somalia.

Yet, al-Shabaab is not simply a nationalist movement. Some of its first founders had an international Jihadist perspective, having been trained in Afghanistan. And the group has attacked outside Somalia before, notably in Kampala 2010, in retaliation for Uganda's contribution to the African peace force. But this attack goes further than before and comes at a time when al-Shabaab is losing ground, friends and funding inside Somalia.

Latching on to a broader international terrorist agenda is one way to revitalize its cause, gain new funders and recruits; and may make it more vulnerable to disruption. Analysis that this was primarily to prove al-Shabaab's worth and allegiance to al Qaeda, especially as it seems to adhere to Zawahiri's recent video instructions, seems plausible given details emerging from witnesses.

In recent years the group has suffered a series of strategic setbacks; first during the famine of 2011 when it lost domestic popularity for denying aid to starving Somalis, then when it was forced out of the capital, and after it lost control of the revenue rich Kismayo port. That pressure may have fed the inbuilt internationalist-nationalist divide in the movement. The risk is that the foreign intervention in Somalia, particularly on issues like federalism and the constitution, unknowingly enables al-Shabaab nationalists to rebuild as the armed opposition to the Mogadishu government.

Perhaps too late now, but it is difficult to ignore the turnaround decision by the African Union to permit states neighboring Somalia to take part in their African mission. With Kenya's porous northern border and large Somali community, the 2011 incursion by Kenya risked a terrorist backlash, as US diplomats warned in private meetings.

Some suggest the attack in Nairobi demonstrates a growing threat from al-Shabaab. Others, with more experience of Somalia, suggest it reflects a weakened group cut off from its roots. That fits with the recent power grab by the international Jihadist, Ahmed Godane, for control of al-Shabaab who killed and forced out other, more moderate, nationalist leaders. One of those who survived the takeover is now in the hands of the Somali government, an indication of how weakened some elements of the nationalist al-Shabaab are and the opportunities at hand.

Yet again, the question is whether we allow a knee-jerk agenda to be set by a dozen or so violent extremists and a small faction of supporters? Terrorist groups are only as powerful as the response they generate, in terms of the support attracted, the polarization and violence they create. We deny them our social and political disharmony, and we deny them the succor they rely on.

Lessons drawn from Afghanistan, Iraq and previous insurgencies suggest that a militant group flourishes when it has a clear grouping -- ethnic, sectarian or tribal -- that it can feed on in terms of shelter, funding and recruits. The U.S. also learned, after ten years of violence that dialogue with the non-Al Qaeda-affiliated Taliban is key and not mutually exclusive to fighting. This attack by this new al-Shabaab will have horrified many Somalis around the world. Going this far, they have exposed themselves strategically; we must exploit that rift.

The Kenyan government's response, despite borrowing some heavy-handed language from the War on Terror, has been measured so far, seeking unity under the #WeAreOne brand. Resolution is complex and painfully slow, and primarily a matter of political leadership in Somalia, the region and world. Ultimately, a response has to be set within the achievable and must avoid winding up the tempo of violence; applying intelligent politics more than the weapons of war.

Keeping Kenyan Somalis inside mainstream society, and avoiding fueling conflict north of the border, gives Kenya the best opportunity to isolate the terrorists inside al-Shabaab, alienate them from their Somali base and hopefully bring about the ultimate demise of the terrorists.