Why Are Terrorists Attacking A Mall In Nairobi?

The Somali Islamist militant group al Shabaab claimed responsibility for today's massacre at a mall in Kenya. Why are they going after Kenya?

Kenyan soldiers and police at Westgate Shopping Centre

Kenyan soldiers and police storm the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi, following armed gunmen storming the mall and killing at least 39. (Image Source: Reuters)

Today, in Kenya, armed gunmen in combat fatigues attacked an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, using grenades and AK-47s.  At current count, 40 people are dead, more than 150 people are injured, and at least three dozen people are being held hostage by the gunmen in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, in a standoff with authorities that includes the Kenyan army.  The Somali Islamist militant group, al Shabaab, has claimed responsibility for the attack.  The question remains: Why would terrorists attack Nairobi, which boasts a signficant population of Muslims and has mostly stayed out of the general conflict (save for the attack on American embassies in 1998)?  The answer has more to do with Kenya's neighbor Somalia than it does with Islam itself.

Somalia has essentially not been a functioning nation since 1991, when opposition forces overthrew the Communist government of Siad Barre and forced him into exile.  Since that time, various clans in Somalia have been fighting in one state of civil war or another, with the northern half of the country even declaring outright independence, and conflicts sometimes resembling gang wars. 

The so-called Somali Civil War took a more Islamic turn when the Islamic Courts Union formed an army and took over much of the lower half of the country in 2006 and imposing sharia law over much of the land.  However, international condemnation led to an Ethiopian-led invasion of Somalia in 2007, which split the Islamic Courts Union into smaller factions, one of which became al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab, or "The Boys" in Somali, continued to control one part of southern Somalia bordering Kenya following the invasion, and became brief allies with terrorist organzation al-Qaeda.  Kenya, who previously stayed out of the situation in Somalia, were forced their hand when al Shabaab began harrassing the refugee camps on the border, including kidnapping two women working for Doctors Without Borders.  The resulting military operation, Operation Linda Nchi, led to al Shabaab losing all control of their territory in late 2012.

Al Shabaab responded by threatening attacks.  Coming from an incredibly unstable nation, al Shabaab suceeded in striking Kenya directly.