The atrocities on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall with the hostage crisis and the death of tens of people cannot be considered as a single event, but it has to be encompassed in a wider chain of violence and terrorism that al-Qaeda is exerting through the development of its affiliates in Africa, Southeastern Asia and Middle East. Through that prism, al-Qaeda is said to be a very resilient and adaptable organization that can efficiently deploy its scopes on field around the globe.
The extremist group of Shabab has assumed the responsibility for the hostage and the killings in Kenya. The development and the outcome of this crisis is similar to the width and depth of similar acts of violence in Southeastern Asia, as for instance in Mumbai in 2008: such terrorist acts were targeted against non-Muslim population, the fighters of the terrorist groups were proved to be extremely well-prepared and qualified against the pressure from the police and the military forces, and the entity of the people killed were all Westerners. Such attacks, despite the fact that they are not “impressing”, can actually turn to be quite popular, even amongst the least conservative parts of the Muslim society. And this popularity literally stems from the reproduction of some clichés of cognitive knowledge, such as the hatred for the West or even the most intrigue aspects of the jihadist rhetoric.
The attack of Shabab can equally be considered as an act of impression and strength amongst other affiliate organizations that are developed in Africa and nourished from an antagonistic approach over al-Qaeda’s network. A network that gradually achieves wider influence in areas of Muslim-led authoritarian regimes like Somalia or Sudan, regions and states where the law of sharia is implemented and jihad is thriving. The strong appeal for violence and retaliation, terrorism and absolute social and political authoritarianism are phenomena triggered from illiteracy, poverty, the lack of a rudimentary state of welfare, the religious fundamentalism and racism. And it is not only in the Muslim world that are applied; there are broader social phenomena that can be seen worldwide, but find such plausibility when the debate in mainstream media comes into the struggle between the West and the Muslim world.
The death of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda after the attack of US forces in his headquarters in Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011, engendered the hope that the organization, in lack of its natural leader, would progressively weaken and dismantle. The US Minister of Defense at that time Leon Panetta was openly pointing out that the death of bin Laden was a direct and strategic strike against al-Qaeda, which was believed that it could turn incapable of deploying complex terrorist attacks. Nonetheless, only two years after bin Laden’s death, Panetta’s statements would not be verified, but in the contrary al-Qaeda would grow and develop new techniques and practices of terrorist and extremist attacks.
Sources from the US intelligence services were constantly stressing out that the successor of bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, does not possess the same intellectual and strategic leverage as his predecessor did, but in practice what we discern is more of a strategic shift from al-Zawahiri rather than a retreat against the odds. A strategic shift that is more focused on intrusive and less complex attacks considering the scale of attacks of al-Qaeda. In this respect, the organization has developed strong ties with many jihadist affiliates across Africa and Southeastern Asia by engulfing dynamic parts of youth, well-educated and with experience in crisis management in the business world, a fact that turns al-Qaeda more adaptable to modern politics and more appealing to the masses. Furthermore, the lowering of fanaticism in the ranks of leaders is also an essential feature that the organization has developed in order to be more professional and efficient.
What is more, the development of al-Qaeda in Africa was coincided with the so-called “Arab Spring”, which was initially sparked by the mere thirst for democracy and ended up to be a chaotic situation and anomie in most of the cases. In the midst of the Arab Spring the organization achieved to expand its network and incorporate significant warriors of the field, such as the Bedouins that are deployed in Sinai and launch daily attacks against the Egyptian army bringing additional instability and widespread fear. In addition to that, it is worth underlying that al-Qaeda has also accomplished to peddle in high-risk areas where conflicts are deeply-rooted. In Syria for instance, al-Qaeda has been a crony for both camps, associating its acts and embedding fighters regardless of whether they support or despise President Assad. It is this adaptability that has made the organization so popular and efficient these last years.
To conclude with, it is also vital to underscore al-Qaeda’s focus on a number of states and regions that accumulate common geopolitical features: access to the sea; racial and religious strife; strive for natural resources. From Maghreb to Middle East, and from Afghanistan to Yemen, al-Qaeda’s positioning is always in accordance with the previous features. Because, at the end of the day, al-Qaeda is nothing less than a well-developed and hierarchical organization, with concrete interests, goals and planning, aiming at increasing both influence and gains from a series of religious, political, and economic wars.