This week is the first anniversary of the terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall. On September 21, 2013, gunmen linked to the Somalia terror group Al Shabaab attacked the mall, and by the time the siege ended on September 24, there were at least 67 dead, and over 175 people injured.
Typically, a new American documentary Terror at the Mall, is causing the usual debate about how outsiders come to “steal” our stories, and then fail to give a “nuanced picture”, yadda, yadda . . . .In late October a friend who was visiting Kenya and staying at The Tribe Hotel in Gigiri came downtown for coffee. We talked and denounced Al Shabaab and other terrorists for nearly two hours. When it was time to leave, I offered to call my regular cabbie to take him back to Gigiri.
No need, he said, the one that had brought him was waiting. “Wow, that is a lot of waiting fee you are going to pay”, I said.
“No, I am not paying anything”, he said. “I had asked him to go away and pick me up later, and he said it wouldn’t make a difference. I was the first customer he had had in nearly a week, and he wasn’t going to get one even if he left.”
His story was not unique. More than a month after Westgate, restaurants were plagued by empty tables, cinemas by empty seats, and hotels were staring daily at empty rooms.
Kenya has changed in many ways, all of it the work of just eight terrorists. In fact the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, Amisom, estimates that though the Shabaab has many sleeper cells all over the region it can activate, its core of trained combatants is “less than 6,000”.
These 6,000 militants have had a wider eastern Africa of 300 million people, and combined militaries, police, and intelligence services numbering over 400,000 in a tizzy.
Remarkable, if you think of it, because it means the total Shabaab combatants are fewer than the number of people who attend a Safari Sevens rugby finals match in Nairobi!
Part of it has got to do with the fact that terrorism succeeds precisely because it is terror – it spreads fear. Death and destruction make more noise than birth and creation. Thus if instead a mass childbirth event had been organised at Westgate at which 67 children had been born instead of 67 people murdered, it would hardly have made even the local headlines.
But all is not lost. Terrorists have taught us to be vigilant; they have forced security sector reforms; forced rigid and conservative spy agencies to adopt new technologies, but there are still things that the security establishments – and our societies in general – can learn from the likes of Shabaab.
For example, too often, the excuse is that streets don’t get cleaned because there aren’t enough city cleaners; school children don’t get taught because there aren’t enough teachers; and criminals don’t get caught because there aren’t enough police.
The first thing we can learn is that while a few men can unleash industrial-scale evil and terror, a few men and women too can also do mega-scale good if they are used well.
This problem of there not being enough is usually linked to lack of funds/budgets. Consider this, though. Some estimates have it that Shabaab’s annual operational budget is between $18 million and $30 million. That is probably less than the combined revenues the companies in Westgate mall were making in one quarter before the attack.
The Westgate attack probably didn’t cost Shabaab $3,000. Shabaab, then, exploits our weakness. We use our resources inefficiently, and steal quite a chunk of them. Otherwise, with the money available to State and public institutions, they could address all the problems of poverty, marginalisation, and unemployment that terrorists use to recruit, and still have some left.
In short, the terrorists are showing us how we can beat them: Let’s just be more efficient with our resources.
Which leads to the final point. A lot of the time those who try to understand terror groups like Shabaab spend a lot of time looking for and studying their “terror manuals”. We are going about this all wrong. I think terrorists just read good management books. The difference is that they take them more seriously.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is Editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3