by Joshua Ramisch
The harrowing images from Nairobi’s burning and blood-soaked Westgate Mall have come not just from journalists but from the cellphones nearly everyone in the building was carrying. Twitter has been alive with updates from all sides: from the Kenyan Defense Forces, from terrified people trapped inside the mall, and from accounts claiming to speak on behalf of the gunmen holding them hostage. We still remember the terrified phone calls from the Twin Towers over a decade ago, but imagine if the passengers and hijackers, journalists and fire fighters, and even al-Qaeda’s commanders had been tweeting and retweeting in the frantic chaos of that already endlessly long day. Westgate has been a siege fought on the ground and in cyberspace: Terror 2.0.
Other gunmen and bombers around the world have used the web to post their rants and suicide videos, but this explicit use of online terror is a worrying innovation. And it is no coincidence that this attack has happened in Kenya. President Uhuru Kenyatta rode to election victory in March 2013 announcing that his would be a ‘digital’ government unlike his ‘analogue’ predecessors. He promised laptops for every school child and a 21st century approach to growing the economy. More Kenyans—rich and poor—own cellphones than have access to electricity or even to safe drinking water. With only a cellphone, you can send money instantly to your family anywhere in the country. Kenyans turn to their cellphones for information from social media that they trust more than just the official government line.
The truth is always a casualty of war, but in Kenya we are living this in microblogged real time.
This ‘digital’ face of Kenya is part of what distinguishes the Westgate attack from previous acts of terrorism. Kenya is, of course, no stranger to terror: in 1998, when Osama bin Laden was not yet a household name, al-Qaeda bombed the US embassy in Nairobi and killed over 200 Kenyans. In attacking the Westgate Mall, al-Shabab clearly wanted to hit not just a symbol of Western influence but the very heart of middle class, ‘digital’ Kenya. To sow maximum disorder, they hit a place where they knew panic and horror would spread instantly and globally from thousands of cellphones.
Al-Shabab are a group of extremists whose extreme brand of Islamic law was able to flourish unchecked while Somalia lacked a central government. Their militant ideology was denounced by many Somali Muslims even as they took control of Mogadishu and southern Somalia in the mid-2000s. They funded their activities with piracy off the Horn of Africa, with smuggling, and with organized crime fueled in part by the economic growth and housing boom next door in Kenya. When African Union forces began liberating Somali territory held by al-Shabab in 2011, the group turned to kidnapping, including several high-profile hostages taken from Kenya.
In response, Kenya declared war on al-Shabab and unilaterally entered Somali territory in October 2011 to fight them. The group threatened to take the fight to Kenyan soil, but until now the retaliation threatened has been isolated acts of violence on a small scale. The grenades thrown in a crowded bus station, outdoor churches, and a nightclub by al-Shabab supporters over the last two years have been in the working class parts of Nairobi or Mombasa, or in the distant parts of Kenya that border Somalia itself. Despite the fears of the UN headquarters based in Nairobi—or of the many expatriate businesspeople, aid workers, and diplomats—the hotels, restaurants, and malls frequented by wealthier Kenyans, expatriates, or tourists have not come under attack. Entering these places, you go through a security gate or a pat-down by a guard with a wand, much like you would at a small airport. But without any attacks, these routine searches began to feel symbolic. In the 2013 election, no presidential candidate was challenged on their Somalia policy and the war felt very far away indeed.
Bringing the war to Kenyan soil in a brazen attack raises new questions about al-Shabab and Kenya’s role in the global war on terror. After Kenya’s Defense Forces had captured the al-Shabab strongholds in Somalia last year, the militants appeared to be fragmented and without a power base. They maintained a belligerent web presence, boasting of their strong links with al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri; but without access to the financial networks, al-Shabab appeared incapable of turning their cyber menace into real-world action.
The truth is always a casualty of war, but in Kenya we are living this in microblogged real time. One Kenyan on Twitter (#KOT) @AMGitonga posted “The Shebab cowards don’t shake me, their twitter acc does”. For every citizen blogger like @RobertAlai, who broke the attack story on Saturday September 21 with retweets from people inside the building, there has been a haze of contradictory information from Kenyan officials, media and al-Shabab. Claims by the Defense Forces (first made on Sunday afternoon) that the “final push” was underway or that “all floors are under control” have been at odds with tweets from the jihadis and with the images streaming live of ongoing gunfire or billowing smoke. When @HSM_Press2 claimed on Sunday to have a list of foreign nationals amongst the gunmen, these names were widely circulated and undoubtedly fueled an image of the militants’ global threat, even when al-Shabab spokesmen and Twitter declared the account to be a copycat.
As this crisis wore into its fourth day, Kenyans have used social media to band together in solidarity, reblogging under the hashtag #WeAreOne. They are changing their profile pictures to the national flag or a vigil candle, and raising millions of shillings of money over the phone networks for the relief effort. On Twitter, angry Kenyans and others have exchanged insults with the purported jihadi accounts and forced many of them to close. Al-Shabab may be counting on their online offensive to breathe new life into the war they have been losing on the ground in Somalia—but this new chapter in the book on terrorism is far from over.