from Africa in Transition and Africa Program

Justice, Terrorism, and Nairobi's Westgate Mall

Men work on a damaged section of the Westgate Shopping Mall, after al-Shabab militants launched an attack on the mall in September 2013, in Nairobi on January 21, 2014.
Men work on a damaged section of the Westgate Shopping Mall, after al-Shabab militants launched an attack on the mall in September 2013, in Nairobi on January 21, 2014. Noor Khamis/Reuters

October 9, 2020

Men work on a damaged section of the Westgate Shopping Mall, after al-Shabab militants launched an attack on the mall in September 2013, in Nairobi on January 21, 2014.
Men work on a damaged section of the Westgate Shopping Mall, after al-Shabab militants launched an attack on the mall in September 2013, in Nairobi on January 21, 2014. Noor Khamis/Reuters
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The 2013 al-Shabab attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall lasted four days and left sixty-seven shoppers dead, the youngest an eight-year-old child. The attack was fully captured on the mall's security cameras and broadcast around the world. The attack was seen as a response to Kenyan military activity in Somalia against al-Shabab that began in 2011. At the time, the attack became, for the developed world, the face of jihadi terrorism in Africa. It also highlighted the incapacity of the Kenyan security services: soldiers and police fired on one another and looted shops.

Since then, Westgate has receded in importance as terrorist attacks have accelerated. In 2015, al-Shabab killed 148 in an attack on Kenya's Garissa University. A 2019 al-Shabab attack in Nairobi killed twenty-one; a January 2020 attack on a Kenyan airfield killed three U.S. citizens. Al-Shabab remains active in Somalia. Terrorism in other parts of Africa overshadows Westgate. For example, in West Africa jihadi terrorism appears to be strengthening in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin. In southern Africa terrorists are newly active in Mozambique. As for Westgate, the mall partially reopened in 2015, and altogether in 2018. Among food, clothes, and other routine merchandise, it continues to purvey the Western luxury goods that are anathema to jihadis. At present, mall security is provided by an Israeli company. 

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The four apparent perpetrators of the Westgate attack were killed at the time. However, the forensics were sloppily done, offering no assurance that some perpetrators did—or did not—escape. Three were subsequently arrested for allegedly helping the attackers. All are ethnically Somali and two are Kenyan citizens.

The three were indicted in 2013; after numerous delays, two were convicted on October 7 and will be sentenced on October 22. The third, the one who does not hold Kenyan citizenship, was acquitted. Some four different magistrates were involved as the judicial process slowly unfolded; there was no jury. Testimony was heard from 140 witnesses, but apparently telephone records of the defendants’ conversations with the perpetrators before the attack was the primary basis for conviction of the two.

When it opened, Westgate was seen as an icon of Kenya's middle class and of the "Africa rising" narrative. Following the 2013 attack, it symbolized the horrors of terrorism. Now, it is essentially a footnote, except perhaps in Kenya itself.

More on:

Kenya

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

East Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa

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