While the Westgate Mall is relatively secure compared to other shopping venues in Nairobi, the security checkpoints are not meant to stop an armed assault. This renders the mall a soft target with the potential for an attack to have a high impact, since it is one of the only modern shopping malls in Kenya that caters to affluent Kenyans and Westerners, who often flock there on weekends.
Kenyan security forces responded quickly to the attack by securing a perimeter around the mall and clearing some portions of it, reportedly evacuating over 1,000 civilians. However, al Shabaab operatives barricaded themselves in the mall basement and other locations throughout the complex, where they held an unknown number of hostages. They also may have deployed explosive devices to prevent an assault on their position, creating a very difficult tactical situation for responding security forces.
Foreign assistance teams from the United States, United Kingdom and Israel are reportedly on the scene, with some possibly deploying from bases throughout Kenya where foreign forces have been conducting training and other operations for years. In the meantime, al Shabaab has claimed via Twitter to have several teams of operatives deployed inside Kenya to attack secondary targets.
The attack shows some similarities to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai by the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba and the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb hostage crisis at the Algerian Ain Amenas gas facility in January 2013. In those attacks, the assailants also focused on taking hostages and staging prolonged standoffs with security forces. In the Westgate attack, al Shabaab has not shown any expanded capabilities. The group has long had operatives in Kenya, and the attackers used firearms and hand grenades, in line with the group's ample access to small arms. But the execution of this attack does mark a distinct change in intent by the group's leadership, who, since the 2010 Kampala suicide bombings, had refrained from mounting significant attacks and instead relied on numerous smaller attacks in the Kenyan-Somali border region or Nairobi's predominantly Somali Eastleigh district.
The weekend attack in Nairobi could bolster Godane's leadership of the transnationalist faction within al Shabaab, while at the same time demonstrating that the group has not been defeated and remains a potent guerilla threat, despite losing significant territory.
The timing of the attack is also notable, and comes on the heels of territorial losses for the group in Mogadishu and Kismayo, as the Somali government and African military forces under the umbrella of the African Union Mission in Somalia with Western support have continued to disrupt and degrade al Shabaab. This offensive push has strained the group's resources and has pushed it to adopt more guerilla-style tactics, as opposed to conventional attempts to gain and hold territory.
Under the stress of expanding operations by African Union peacekeepers and Somali security forces, al Shabaab has also faced increasing internal friction. Only recently, the group's emir, Ahmad Abdi Godane (also known as Abu Zubayr), was able to reassert his leadership over the remaining structures of al Shabaab following the defection of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and the alleged executions of Ibrahim Haji Mead (also known as Ibrahim al-Afghani) and Omar Hammami (also known by the nickname al-Amriki) — both of whom were prominent al Shabaab leaders who had criticized Godane's leadership.
Within al Shabaab, Godane is known to be a proponent of the transnationalist faction, opposing the more Somali nationalist approach of others such as Mukhtar Robow. While the nationalist factions see the fight in Somalia against the federal government and its allies as the most important aspect of al Shabaab's activities, Godane and others feel that al Shabaab should more closely emulate other al Qaeda affiliates and organize international attacks to further the global Islamist struggle.
The weekend attack in Nairobi could bolster Godane's leadership of the transnationalist faction within al Shabaab, while at the same time demonstrating that the group has not been defeated and remains a potent guerilla threat, despite losing significant territory. Earlier shifts in al Shabaab's tactics within Somalia had been observed after Godane consolidated his leadership over the group last June. The end to complex attacks, using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers, and the return to more basic attacks in Mogadishu may have been a sign of a shift in resources toward transnational attacks as Godane took firmer control of the remaining structures of al Shabaab.
Attacks inside Kenya have occurred periodically in recent years, but they have been limited to the border area near Garissa or were the work of al Shabaab sympathizers in Nairobi's Eastleigh district, making this most recent attack a clear shift by al Shabaab to stage a larger attack in a vulnerable, yet higher profile area that would demonstrate its ongoing credibility and counter criticism that it has been defeated.
The attack on the Westgate Mall will likely result in retaliation from Kenya, African Union forces and the Somali government. Renewed attempts to locate and kill Godane and other al Shabaab leaders may be seen in the short term, although these leaders have been able to effectively avoid detection over several years, and a breakthrough will not necessarily take place.
Such attempts by Kenya could be done through closer cooperation with U.S. and British security agencies that are already actively pursuing this effort in Somalia. Kenyan security forces will likely crack down on suspected supporters of al Shabaab within Kenya, as well as in the southern regions of Somalia where the Kenyan Defense Forces are deployed. There is also a significant risk of rioting in the Eastleigh district, where similar riots occurred in the past as a reaction to limited attacks by al Shabaab and its sympathizers.