Attack in Kenya, Nigeria Put Washington's Trade Focus on Back Burner
By Siobham Goeman and Drew Hinshaw
The four-day siege on a Kenyan mall is prompting U.S. counterterrorism officials to review their assessment of al Qaeda's East African affiliate and what the U.S. should be doing to counter that threat, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
Civilian massacres like the one in Kenya and another in Nigeria last week, meanwhile, are shifting the focus on the continent just as the Obama administration looks to spend more time discussing business in Africa. Taken together, the Kenyan and Nigerian appeals for U.S. assistance that followed the massacres could speed up U.S. engagement in the continent's terrorism problems.
U.S. officials on Tuesday were shipping law-enforcement equipment to local police in Nairobi, two U.S. officials said. Both said they expected Kenya to formalize more-specific requests for counterterrorism assistance, after Kenya's government regroups from a four-day militant siege at Nairobi's upscale Westgate mall that ended late Tuesday, leaving 61 civilians dead.
U.S. diplomats and law-enforcement officials have provided tactical guidance to manage the crisis as well as medical assistance for the victims, a senior administration official said. Intelligence cooperation, which has long been a staple of the U.S.-Kenyan relationship, has also stepped up.
The consensus view among U.S. intelligence analysts has been that the al Qaeda affiliate claiming responsibility for the attack, al-Shabaab, has been weakened considerably by infighting and a joint Kenyan, Ethiopian and African Union counterterrorism effort that began two years ago.
After the bloody attack at the Nairobi mall, U.S. counterterrorism officials are working to gauge whether the attack reflects a shift in strategy or capabilities as al-Shabaab adapts in the face of that regional offensive, which has retaken much of the territory al-Shabaab had laid claim to in its Somali home.
U.S. counterterrorism officials are also looking at whether the attack indicates a new target set for the terrorist group.
The commando-style attack on the shopping mall has renewed fears among intelligence officials that terrorist groups will increase their focus on so-called soft targets—highly public venues that aren't well-fortified like hotels and shopping centers, the senior administration official said
Mitchell Silber, a former intelligence official in the New York Police Department, compared it with the 2008 attack in Mumbai and the more recent Algerian gas-field attack, targets that hold appeal for terror groups. "For propaganda purposes, it's a multiday event," he said. "That's something a singular bombing doesn't give you."
U.S. counterterrorism officials expected al-Shabaab to increase its attacks outside Somalia, said Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism chief.
"I haven't seen anything that suggests this is a new al-Shabaab," said Mr. Benjamin, who is now director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. "I don't see anything to suggest vastly improved tradecraft."
"In some ways, al-Shabaab is leaner and meaner. Although regional military pressure has deprived the group of funds and fighters, internal squabbles have weeded out less extreme members," said a U.S. official, adding that "the organization's committed core remains intact."
The Pentagon has sought to expand its role on the continent, principally in the area of training, to help regional allies counter terrorist threats themselves.
Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with Somalia's president and his top advisers to discuss how the Pentagon could step up training of Somali forces to fight al-Shabaab.
Meanwhile, Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan met with President Barack Obama in New York on Monday and asked him to provide more military intelligence and training of troops for Nigeria, said Reuben Abati, his spokesman. The country is at war with an Islamic insurgency called Boko Haram, whose latest skirmish with soldiers left 87 people dead in the northern village of Benisheik last week.
"For you to fix the world, you must fix Africa," President Jonathan said to President Obama and a handful of reporters who were at the meeting. "For you to fix Africa, you must fix Nigeria."
In New York, Presidents Jonathan and Obama had been scheduled to discuss trade and energy policy. But after the events in Kenya, the two spent most of the conversation talking about terrorism, U.S. and Nigerian officials said.
Many U.S. diplomats are eager to push economic matters higher on the agenda—the continent is home to several of the world's fastest-growing economies—and yet a spree of car bombs and shootouts in varied corners of the continent keeps interrupting that dialogue.
"Any conversation with Kenya or Nigeria will focus almost immediately on the tragic loss of life," said Johnnie Carson, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace. But, he added, "The way these things are dealt with over the long term is by strengthening democratic institutions and values, and by strengthening economic opportunities."
In Kenya and Nigeria, the U.S. also has complicated ties.
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta faces a trial in the International Criminal Court for backing ethnic violence that left hundreds dead in late 2007. The charges, which he denies, have added an awkwardness to the U.S. relationship.
Nigeria, too, remains a close U.S. partner, one that has lent its troops to fight terrorism in Mali, and to peacekeeping missions around the world. Back home in Nigeria, though, those troops are broadly accused of human-rights abuses, limiting U.S. military training with the country. Nigerians say those charges are overblown.
Write to Siobhan Gorman at firstname.lastname@example.org and Drew Hinshaw at email@example.com