Tim Black discusses what we know and don’t know about the Kenyan terror attack and why recent terrorist attacks seem less directed at the organs of the state and much more at society as a whole:
Some analysts have even gone so far as to pinpoint Kenyan troops’ take over of the port of Kismayo, a lucrative trading position for al-Shabab, as the catalyst for the Westgate attack. As one commentator put it: ‘[The Westgate attack] wasn’t a random act. On the contrary, it was a direct consequence of Kenya’s own policy decisions. To say that in no way justifies this heinous attack – it merely identifies cause and effect.’
Yet tit-for-tat accounts miss something. They appear too glib, too easy. They may not excuse a drawn-out atrocity like Westgate, but they do give it a nicely polished rationale.
But it’s a rationale at odds with what actually happened. Yes, the Kenyan military, under the auspices of the African Union, did play a role in weakening al-Shabab’s position in Somalia. And no doubt members of al-Shabab, already a declining, increasingly unpopular grouping in Somalia (even Osama Bin Laden disowned it because of is brutality), did feel anger towards the Kenyan army. But there is a massive, unexplained causal gap between that sense of grievance and the attack on a shopping centre in Nairobi. That’s right, a shopping centre. This wasn’t an attack on the Kenyan state. This wasn’t a gun battle with the Kenyan army, the principal object of al-Shabab ire. No, this was an indiscriminate attack on men, women and children at a shopping centre. The people targeted weren’t intent on a conflict with militant Islamists in Somalia; they were shopping for Old El Paso fajita mix.
What’s important to grasp here is that the new terrorism does not draw its militants from any specific struggle in Somalia, or anywhere else for that matter. Rather, it draws upon a broad and deep disillusionment with modern society; it exploits the non-identity between society’s threadbare values and particular members. And it turns certain individuals upon society as a whole. Hence the new terrorism does not target the institutions of the state; it targets the institutions of civil society. In particular, it targets the embodiments of modern social life: a shopping centre in Nairobi, an office block in New York, a market in Baghdad.
In 1911, amid anarchist bomb plots, Vladamir Lenin wrote a scathing critique of what he called ‘individual terrorism’ — the act, for example, of assassinating a minister — on the grounds that it turned what could be a mass struggle into the act of a single individual. ‘In our eyes’, he wrote, ‘individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission’. Today’s individual terrorist is far more degenerate than his anarchist precursors. So far removed from the masses is he, so little concerned is he with any actual struggle for something in particular, that his terror is turned against the masses. The consequences have been barbaric.