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In Kenya, a Legacy of Resilience

Kenyan Defense Forces arrive at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where militant attacks occurred. (Simon Maina/Getty Images)
Kenyan Defense Forces arrive at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where militant attacks occurred. (Simon Maina/Getty Images)

(The Root) — For many of Kenya's well-off, Saturdays are for shopping, drinking lattes, nibbling on international fare like sushi and Greek frozen yogurt and window-shopping in Nairobi's upscale malls. There's the Sarit Center, the Village Market and the perhaps the glitziest of them all, the Westgate Mall, where the car park is often filled with vendor booths and children racing and darting about. It is also the multicultural epicenter of bucolic wealth and influence. Diplomats, government officials, academics, doctors, businessmen and other professionals gather there, particularly on weekends. In the gated cocoon of Westgate, race, nationality, religion and ethnicity co-mingle with affable ease.


On Saturday, gunmen shattered this privileged, melting-pot idyll. Some dozen men and at least one woman burst in wielding AK-47 and G-3 assault rifles, spraying bullets and tossing hand grenades into the crowd. It was a coordinated two-prong offensive, with two squads of gunmen entering the mall on separate levels simultaneously. Observers described the armed attackers as well-trained and conscious of trying to separate Muslims from the crowd to spare them from the attack. It was scarcely surprising when al-Shabaab, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, immediately claimed responsibility, and via Twitter vowed further violence, until its account was shut down.

Still, images of the carnage show men, women and children, clearly of different faiths, bloodied and wounded. People in burqas, saris, designer clothes, hip jeans and Saturday track suits — the status symbol of Kenya's elites — are all captured fleeing the scene, helping the injured and taking cover — and bodily covering children — from the blitzkrieg of gunfire. 


The Kenyan government has reported 59 dead from the attack (with the number likely to rise) and 175 injured thus far, as the siege is not yet over. The attackers remain barricaded on Westgate's top floor with some 30 hostages. The Kenyan military, together with Israeli reinforcements, are engaging in an exchange of intermittent gunfire even as I write.

Kenya is near and dear to my heart, as I have worked and lived there on and off for more than 20 years. For nearly all of that time, al-Qaida and its terrorism have been part of Kenya's landscape. Its dramatic start was marked in 1998, when a lorry of explosives detonated outside the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, killing some 200 people. I arrived in Kenya a few weeks later for a Fulbright year, and my graduate-student romanticism evaporated — never to return — when I stood in front of the leveled embassy, the warren of tangled metal and piles of blood-stained, concrete shards symbolic of Kenya's uncertain future as one of al-Qaeida's battlegrounds.

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.

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