Kenya Attack Shows Al-Shabaab's Lingering Threat

Al-Shabaab's attack on a shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya, over the weekend demonstrates that despite its military setbacks, the Somali Islamist militant group is still capable of staging complex operations on foreign soil. Al-Shabaab selected Kenya as a target, because Kenya is a key contributor of troops to the 18,000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which has been supporting the Somali Federal Government in its battle against the militants, who still control large parts of Somalia. Al-Shabaab had already carried out a mass-casualty terror attack in Uganda in 2010 to punish it for its leading role in AMISOM.

Kenya is the leading economy in East Africa, and the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi is popular with affluent Kenyans and foreign visitors. Therefore, the attack on the complex was designed to have maximum coverage by the international media. This raises al-Shabaab's regional profile and also demonstrates the group's ongoing capabilities. These points are significant for al-Shabaab, because it has suffered many setbacks in Somalia over the past few years, as AMISOM has expanded its operations. Al-Shabaab had also suffered a major internal rift earlier this year that resulted in a virtual coup within the group.

Unfortunately, Kenya is no stranger to terrorism, having seen its American embassy bombed by al-Qaeda in 1998, resulting in more than 200 deaths. Four years later, there was an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner as it took off from Mombasa airport. At that same time, a tourist resort popular with Israelis was bombed, resulting in 13 dead. In more recent years, there have been several small-scale terrorist attacks in Kenya.

Furthermore, Kenya also saw widespread ethnic violence following the disputed 2007 presidential election, resulting in more than a thousand people being killed. Although the March 2013 general election passed by peacefully, the Westgate centre attack will remind investors of the risks associated with Kenya. The attack will also hurt Kenya's tourism sector in the near term, especially coming so soon after a fire at Nairobi's airport in August.

Further analysis of the Westgate centre attack is available to subscribers at Business Monitor Online.