“There will be no negotiations whatsoever.” — Al-Shabab spokesman
Nairobi’s Westgate mall is more than a retail center. It’s a social hub — a space for shared enjoyment and community celebration. It’s also a place for kids. In fact, a children’s event was taking place on Saturday. Then the jihadists turned up and turned it into a death trap. And that’s not all they did this weekend.
Attacking a funeral in Iraq.
Blowing up worshipers in a Pakistani church.
Let’s be clear. Westgate was attacked for two reasons. First, in its public character, the mall offered al-Shabab an opportunity to spread terror across all of Kenyan society. Second, packed with families, Westgate offered the terrorists hundreds of strategic pawns. In its killing sprees, al-Shabab seeks a new regional understanding: that its resolve is supreme above all others. That unless its adversaries yield, more Westgates will follow.
At a basic level, al-Shabab’s strategy is far from original. By definition, terrorism involves the deliberate cultivation of fear as a political tool.
Yet modern Salafi Jihadism takes this dynamic to an unprecedented level. It has the instinctive reflex toward unrestrained brutality. Gratuitous violence guarantees attention. Think about the Iraq war. The image of masked assailants sawing off the heads of bound and terrified prisoners is seared indelibly into our memory.
Of course, this raises a key question: How do the jihadists excuse their atrocities?
In the blend of theocratic absolutism and perverse consequentialism. From the jihadist perspective, their violence is justified in the service of God’s intrinsic will.
Grappling with this notion of ordained will is crucial. It affords us insight into the existential rigidity with which these terrorists regard the world. In short, Salafi Jihadists claim that the price of peace is our non-interference — they hint that our acquiescence will buy us our safety. They’re lying. Theirs is an ideology with a supra-national (and, as they see it, divine) pursuit — a global caliphate of absolute power. Take al-Shabab. As Beifuss and Bellini note in their study of terrorist iconography, Branding Terror, al-Shabab’s logo, a rifle-sheltered Koran sitting upon a green globe, is unmistakably clear in its prevailing message: This group will never find satisfaction in local politics.
Iraq’s recent history offers us a guide to al-Shabab’s likely path.
In 2006–07, as a flood of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) car bombs drove Iraq toward functional oblivion, many claimed that an American military withdrawal would engender political reconciliation. They believed that the presence of American forces was providing the fuel for AQI extremism. The fallacy of their argument is proved in today’s Iraq. Now, in America’s absence, AQI has morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Salafist pretense of a nationalist-Islamic resistance has given way to ISIL’s ultimate ideal of a regional political implosion.
It says much about the Salafi Jihadist movement that chaos and despair are its closest allies — the fog of anarchy provides the opening for its borderless brutality.
Faced with these outrages, the responsibility of global civil society is abundantly clear.
Just as we must guard against those who would use atrocities to spread bigotry, so must Salafi Jihadism meet our unhesitating resolve. These terrorists pursue the destruction of democratic society. They want us to believe that opposing them is futile. That they’ve already won.
Instead, faced with their threats, we must furnish something else — a renewed stand against them.