Identifying religious ideology as key factor in the terrorism is not the same as suggesting that the terrorists represent all Muslims or that all Muslims should be held responsible, they argue – but denying it is specious and self-defeating.
At least 67 people were killed during the four-day hostage crisis which began when more than a dozen gunmen seized control of Nairobi’s upscale Westgate mall.
After the siege ended, al-Shabaab fighters carried out further attacks in two towns along the Kenya-Somalia border, killing at least three people, including two police officers, the Associated Press reported.
In messages posted online during the mall attack, Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali group, said it was reprisal for the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia. They were deployed there in late 2011 after a series of attacks by al-Shabaab fighters who crossed into Kenya to kidnap and kill foreign aid workers and tourists.
But al-Shabaab’s Islamist ideology was also clearly evident during the crisis. Survivors recounted incidents in which gunmen asked hostages questions to determine their religion, with Muslims – or those pretending to be – allowed to leave safely.
In a later email exchange with the Associated Press, an al-Shabaab spokesman stated, “The mujahedeen [Islamic holy warriors] carried out a meticulous vetting process at the mall and have taken every possible precaution to separate the Muslims from the Kuffar [infidels] before carrying out their attack.”
Al-Shabaab spokesmen also revealed their religious focus in some Internet postings, for instance identifying those surrounding the mall not as Kenyan security forces but as “Christians.”
“We authorize the mujahedeen [Islamic holy warriors] inside the building to take actions against the prisoners as much as they are pressed,” terrorist spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage said in a statement posted online two days into the siege. “We are telling Christians advancing onto the mujahedeen to have mercy for their prisoners who will bear the brunt of any force directed against the mujahedeen.”
“As far as al-Shabaab is concerned, this is a religious war,” Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of Barnabas Fund and director of the non-profit Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, said on Thursday.
“The statements of those caught up in the shopping center siege make it clear that this was not purely a retaliatory attack over territory,” he wrote in an editorial. “Hostages were lined up by the militants and questioned about their religion; they were asked to name Mohammed’s mother, quote verses from the Qur’an or recite the Islamic creed. Those who could were let go, those who could not – or would not – were killed.
“The defense of their strict and puritanical brand of Islam, Salafi-Wahhabism, is at the heart of al-Shabaab’s killing spree at Westgate, as it is the driving force behind their activities in Somalia and elsewhere.”
In their responses to the attack Western governments tended to avoid any reference to the terrorist’ religion.
Secretary of State John Kerry referred to “perpetrators of this abhorrent violence” and the need to “reaffirm our determination to counter extremism,” while National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayde referred to “the perpetrators of this heinous act” and “efforts to confront terrorism in all its forms, including the threat posed by al-Shabaab.”
The French presidency spoke of “a terrorist attack” and “a heinous act” without mentioning the perpetrators. Germany’s foreign minister spoke of “terrorists” while his Norwegian counterpart referred to “the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab” and the “the fight against international terrorism.”
One Western leader went further, arguing that there was no link between the incident and the group’s religious ideology.
“These appalling terrorist attacks that take place where the perpetrators claim they do it in the name of a religion – they don’t,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron. “They do it in the name of terror, violence and extremism and their warped view of the world. They don’t represent Islam or Muslims in Britain or anywhere else in the world.”
Christians in the firing line
Sookhdeo recalled previous al-Shabaab attacks targeting Christians in Kenya. Last February terrorists shot dead a Somali Christian pastor and injured another in Garissa, about 100 miles from the Somalia border.
In July 2012, al-Shabaab launched a coordinated attack on two Garissa churches during Sunday services, killing 17 people and injuring more than 60. In October, a nine year-old boy was killed and several other children injured when a hand grenade was thrown into a Nairobi Sunday school class; police blamed “al-Shabaab sympathizers.”
“While world leaders continue to fail to understand, or perhaps accept, the ideological basis within Islam for acts of violence, they will never get to grips with the likes of al-Shabaab,” Sookhdeo said, pointing to Cameron’s remarks.
“To say that ‘they don’t represent Islam or Muslims in Britain or anywhere else in the world’ is flagrantly untrue. While they clearly do not represent the Muslim majority, al-Shabaab, along with countless Islamic terrorist groups that are rising up and gaining recruits around the world, are striving to observe and impose the teachings of the Quran and the hadith (the traditions about Muhammad) in their most absolute sense.”
Recalling warnings by British security chiefs about the risk that Britons taking part in the Somalia jihad could return home and carry out attacks there, Sookhdeo said if such warnings are to be heeded “al-Shabaab needs to be properly understood.”
“For as long as David Cameron and other Western leaders deny the group’s true agenda, they will fail to protect us all from their deadly campaign.”
‘A very pronounced religious ideology’
Douglas Murray, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank, also challenged Cameron’s comments.
“I don’t think any sensible person would argue that the perpetrators represent all Muslims. But it seems strange to say that a separation of people – and massacre of them – based solely on their religious identity can be said to have nothing to do with religion,” he wrote in The Spectator. Murray founded the Center for Social Cohesion, a think tank focusing on extremism and terrorism in Britain.
In a column in the same publication British journalist Melanie McDonagh wrote, “If the Prime Minister had merely observed that the actions of the Kenyan jihadists are abhorrent to the great majority of Muslims and certainly the great majority of British Muslims, no one would have disagreed.
“But to say that al-Shabaab and its representatives in the Westgate shopping mall don’t represent Muslims or Islam anywhere in the world is simply untrue and if we try to deal with jihadis on the basis that they are unspecified extremists rather than people with a very pronounced religious ideology, it’s not really adding to our understanding of what has happened or our ability to prevent something similar happening here.”