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Africa

'Al-Shabab attacks could destabilize the entire region'

An expert on Islamism Guido Steinberg says the attack on a Nairobi shopping mall by Islamists shows that a Somali-based conflict is spreading to other countries.

Attacks on the up-scale Nairobi shopping mall has left at least 69 people dead and over 200 wounded. The Somali-based Islamist group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the killings. Analysts said the latest attacks in Kenya could further lead to the whole destabilization of the entire region. On Monday, the interior ministry said the fire in the mall had been contained, although plumes of smoke continued to dominate Nairobi's skyline as night fell.

Deutsche Welle: al-Shabab has said it is behind the attacks on Nairobi's Westgate shopping centre in Kenya, what do you think was the motive of this attack?

Guido Steinberg: Up to now we are not exactly sure who is behind these attacks. The perpetrators seem to be Kenyan based activists linked to the Somali al-Shabab. One can therefore conclude that the attack is supposed to put pressure on the Kenyan government to pull its troops out of Somalia. Since 2006 Kenya has stepped-up its crack-down on Islamist militants. In October 2011, Kenyan troops marched into Somalia and joined African Union troops, who had been in the country, to fight the al-Shabab. Since then, al-Shabab has experienced defeats.

Was the choice of the place, aimed at attracting as much attention as possible?

Yes it probably did. If they had chosen a shopping centre where mainly Kenyans shop, the attention given to the event would have also been great. But when you kill western citizens and there is a connection to Israel, you attract even more attention. That is the nature of Islamist terrorism. The anti-western orientation of al-Shabab probably also played a major role in choosing a location for the attack. We have to wait for more information as to whether al-Shabab had other partners in this, who are perhaps linked even closer to al-Qaeda?

The attack is not the first in Kenya, but since 1998, it is the worst. What does that mean for the security situation in East Africa. Should we expect more of the Somali conflict to be exported across borders?

Yes the attack is a clear indication that the Somalia conflict is expanding to its neighbouring countries. We had the first major indication with the 11th July 2010 attack during the football world cup finals at a rugby club and an Ethiopian restaurant in the Ugandan capital Kampala. The motives of al-Shabab, who staged that attack, were similar. The aim was to put pressure on Ugandan troops, who were already part of the African Union's peace-keeping troops in Somalia. Now we have a similar situation in Kenya and the escalation of terrorist violence in the country was to be expected.

Why?

For one, Somalia's conflict is anyway spilling over its borders into Kenya. There are a great number of Somali refugees in Kenya. We are seeing growing radicalization and the government is reacting with a heavy hand against Somalis living in Kenya. Secondly, there is the military intervention in Somalia. Such actions often lead to counter-actions and this case from the militant group. We have seen these methods by other groups in different conflict areas.

Who supports the Islamists in Kenyan and the region?

al-Shabab has managed to garner much sympathy in Kenya. There is a strong Islamist underground, which lives off the circumstance that, part of the Muslim population especially at the coast feel closer to the Arab world than to Africa. Moreover, the government only responds to Islamist radicalization with repressive measures.

Is there no end in sight for Somalia's conflict, despite the advancement of the Somali government and the AU troops?

Many observers believed that the calming down of the military situation in Somalia, the stabilization of the government and the weakening of al-Shabab, would result in a quieting of the situation. But this should generally not be expected in a situation where religious, social, cultural and political conflicts in the neighbouring countries remain unsolved. Such activities generally lead to groups like al-Shabab to look for alternative ways of continuing the battle. In Somalia, their chances are currently minimal. They are on defensive and have lost control of major towns in the south-east of the country. This is why they are now trying to fight their opponents with all possible means. This will probably lead to a further destabilization of the entire region.

Dr. Guido Steinberg is a senior associate researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

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