The Hollywood film Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott, came out at around the same time as 9/11 in 2001. To many of its admirers, the tale of a beleaguered band of US Marines caught up in the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993 was one of heroism and personal sacrifice against the odds. To its detractors, it boosted the role of the US military, demeaned the Somalis, and tried to make a heroic episode out of a bungled military operation in a former colonial country.
The terrible attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi brought all this back. Most of the reporting is concentrating on the loss of human life, the nature of the Islamist group al-Shabaab, and whether US and British nationals were involved in the attack which saw nationals from many different countries, as well as Kenyans, killed.
Little mentioned are the reasons why al-Shabaab might launch such a deadly attack, other than the usual ‘explanation’ that they are ‘evil’ or that they ‘hate our way of life’. There have been calls for western intervention in Somalia in response to the killings. USA Today, for example, says ‘Somalia could be the new Afghanistan. A lawless, fundamentalist Somalia could incubate a Somali Osama bin Laden and new attacks on the USA, just as Afghanistan protected and nurtured bin Laden and al-Qaeda’.
It continues: ‘Leaving Somalia to al-Shabaab is not an option’.
It may come as news to USA Today, but far from the western powers and their African allies leaving Somalia alone, they have staged repeated interventions in the country, as they did in 1993, and continue to do so. Then, 18 US soldiers died, plus a Malaysian and Pakistani, but over 1,000 Somalis did.
Did no one notice the military invasion by Kenya two years ago, backed by the US and France? The US has also carried out repeated drone strikes in Somalia. Israeli forces have also been involved, as they were in the military operation at Westgate.
When the Islamic Courts government came to power in 2006 it was generally viewed as bringing some very limited stability to a country that had been fraught by war for decades. The US backed an Ethiopian invasion in 2009 to fight against the Islamic Courts. The ensuing chaos led to the rise of al-Shabaab.
European Union ships patrol the Somali coast looking for pirates. One of the main concerns of the western powers is the control of rich natural resources in the country including iron ore, uranium, copper, natural gas and crude oil.
Kenya is a leading ally of the US in the region, along with Ethiopia. A terrorist attack in its capital has been expected, and it is not accidental surely that the target was a shopping mall, symbol of ‘western values’ and neoliberalism, and magnet for rich westerners and Kenyans in Nairobi.
Everyone should condemn any such attack. But the loss of human life there is far less than the terrible catastrophe that has befallen so many Somalis in the past decades.
Perhaps the most frightening response to it, however, is the rush to demand, as we saw recently in Syria, that ‘something must be done’. There is a terrifying inability to acknowledge that US, British, French or Kenyan government actions have played any part in creating conditions for these attacks. Instead, the growing threat of terrorism is treated as a horror movie: the evil bin Laden is killed in Pakistan, but is now returning somewhere else – this time in Somalia. So more drone attacks, more special forces, more proxy wars carried out by US allies in Africa. And when they root out the new bin Laden, they will find yet another new bin Laden – in Libya, or Yemen, or Mali, or even in Syria.
Even the most frightening Hollywood films have to end some time. But this terrifying war to root out terror goes on and on. And as long as it does, there will be more terror attacks and a refusal to countenance political solutions.
Maybe they should tear up the script and start again.