Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: George Mulala/Polaris/Newscom)

Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: George Mulala/Polaris/Newscom)

Who is al-Shabaab?

Al-Shabaab is an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group operating in the Horn of Africa. The group emerged in 2006 as a radical youth wing of the Islamic Courts government in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has been very successful in attracting foreign recruits to Somalia to join al-Shabaab. The group is notorious for piracy and kidnappings, as well as controlling larges swathes of territory in Somalia. Despite advances made by Kenyan and other international forces under the umbrella of the African Union Peacekeeping force, AMISOM, the group continues to operate freely in rural Somalia. The group continues to carry out frequent suicide attacks in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, including at the U.N. Headquarters and an annex of the Turkish Embassy.

Why did they target a shopping mall in Nairobi?

The Westgate Mall is a high-profile location in Nairobi, Kenya. Many expatriates and affluent Kenyans frequent the mall. According to officials, mall traffic on the weekend hits around 10,000 people. This terrorist attack is a true tragedy for Kenyans and the international community. The large presence of foreigners at the mall ensured greater international coverage of the incident for the terrorists. The effects of the attack on Kenya’s tourism industry will likely be felt for some time following the incident. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is said to have lost close family in the attack.

What do they want?

Al-Shabaab wants Kenya and all other foreign troops present in Somalia to leave immediately. Kenya moved into southern Somalia in 2011 to expel al-Shabaab from strategic locations, including the port of Kismayo, that they used receive supplies and to launch piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean. There are currently about 4,000 Kenyan troops in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has been threatening reprisal attacks for Kenyan military activities within Somalia for the past two years, but none of the attacks has been as large as the Westgate Mall attack.

How does this affect the United States?

Al-Shabaab was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States in 2008. Kenya has been a strategic partner of the U.S. in combating terrorism in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, and the relationship was strengthened following the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. The Westgate Mall attack highlights that the threat of al-Shabaab has not been mitigated and vigilance is required on behalf of all partners to combat terrorism in the region. In 2011, when General Carter Ham was the Commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), he said al-Shabaab and its extremist supporters are the greatest threats to East Africa.