As the Westgate Mall attack continues to unfold, one thing is for certain: al-Shabaab has scored a major victory. Viewed by some as having been successfully beaten back by Kenyan and AU forces, al-Shabaab has grabbed global headlines and proven that it is fully capable of inflicting its long-promised assault on civilians in Kenya. All the while, it has demonstrated its abilities to launch a coordinated offensive, to strike terror in the everyday lives of Kenyans and their multicultural community and to offer would-be followers a reason to join its local, and global, crusade.
It is also a reminder — yet again — to the U.S., Britain and other Western allies that Kenya, like other parts of Africa and the developing world, are on the front line of global terrorism. For certain, neither Kenyans, nor their Western allies, can police the seas, nor can they protect against every soft target. However, as I am reminded today of the tangled remains of the U.S. Embassy and the smell of the dried blood and soot that lingered in Kenya’s streets for months, I am transported back in time to the tough talk of the U.S. and its allies, talk that has proven scarcely effective (and some might say has been counterproductive) in global efforts to protect ordinary men and women — particularly in places like Kenya, Mali, Tanzania, India and elsewhere — from terror.
Nor, today, can I forget the sentiment of the Kenyans with whom I lived and worked in the aftermath of the U.S. Embassy bombing. There was a stoic determination to forge ahead, and to remind themselves, and the world, that many ordinary Kenyans were not only tolerant of others, but had also co-existed with different races, religions, ethnicities and nationalities for decades, if not longer. For certain, Kenya has had violent eruptions in its own domestic past, but al-Qaida and al-Shabaab attacks are on a wholly different order as a daily capriciousness was ushered in with the embassy bombing — a capriciousness that now infuses the urban existence of millions of Kenyans.
As the horrifying uncertainty for some 30 hostages continues, there is little promise that another major attack isn’t forthcoming. Indeed, some might argue that al-Shabaab may well be emboldened by this cowardly attack. Still, if one is to hold onto any sign of hope, it is in the images of terror captured from the Westgate Mall. Amid the overturned café seats, bodies strewn across marble staircases and half-eaten plates of quiche lorraine are glimmers of some of the Kenya that I know. There are still shots of men and women of multiple nationalities, races, religions, ethnicities — and yes, even classes — carrying wounded, comforting, administering first aid and protecting children. This is the same multicultural, multidimensional and bewilderingly resilient Kenya that I encountered some 15 years ago, and which is as alive and vibrant today despite — or perhaps in part because of — the very real threat of al-Shabaab terror that inscribes their everyday lives.
Caroline Elkins is professor of history and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and Pulitzer-prize winning author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.