Nightmare in Nairobi: What Can West Learn From Israel?

The brutal terrorist attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall [Sept. 21] may have put terrorism in Africa back in the headlines, but the truth is that it never really left the headlines over the past few years. The difference is that it was usually limited to local, African headlines. Only an incident of this magnitude, with multiple casualties in an ostensibly “Western” mall in an African state that was relatively “organized” could capture front pages and open news broadcasts around the world, at least for a short time.

Ben Caspit

Soon the Kenyans will finally take control of the situation (which has already lasted many long days), and this no-man’s-land of global terrorism in Africa will retreat to its natural setting, in the back pages of the Western media, where it receives little, if any, attention. We try to ignore what is happening there, in Africa, as if the whole region doesn’t affect us. We try to “sweep it under the rug” and hide it in the same place that we sweep everything we don’t want to see. But it is there. It’s alive and kicking, shooting and killing and blowing things up.

It is important to look at the incident in Kenya from a more global perspective. The ground is shaking in Africa. There are tremors throughout the continent, and they are not limited to Africa either.

Take Tunisia, for instance. Its own revolution was ostensibly quiet, and an ostensibly moderate Islamist party is now in power there. Nevertheless, we are starting to see the beginnings of radical Salafist Islamic terrorism. The Arabic word salaf means “past,” as in “past tense.” It refers to the

idea of restoring Islam to its sources, or rather to its earliest beginnings, when it was “pure” and unconstrained by any outside influences. Salafists regard themselves as the original Muslims, purer than all others. This sometimes connects to extreme acts of terror unlike anything ever seen before.

They are starting to see this up close in Tunisia, and it is happening under an Islamic government. Western intelligence sources have identified a stream of young Salafists from Tunisia flowing into the bloody maelstrom that is Syria, where they join groups that identify with al-Qaeda and participate in the fighting against Assad’s “secular” regime.

Moving onward, Bahrain, which is not in Africa, maintains close ties with the continent. A senior Shiite leader was recently arrested there because of his ties to Hezbollah. Groups connected to al-Qaeda are also continuing their extensive activities in Sudan. In Iraq, some 100 civilians were killed over the past few days in al-Qaeda sponsored attacks against Shiites (in Baghdad), while the total number of casualties in that country since September tops 800.

In Yemen, a branch of al-Qaeda known as the “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” [AQAP] continues to operate against the military and civilians alike. A church was attacked in Pakistan [Sept. 22], and now, al-Shabab al-Mujahedeen, a branch of al-Qaeda in the Horn of Africa, launched the brutal attack in Kenya, apparently in response to the Kenyan army’s actions against the radical Islamic group in Somalia.

The question is, what came first? What is the cause, and what is the effect? There are voices in Europe calling for decreased Western involvement in Africa’s internal affairs. According to this hypothesis, Western involvement in Libya and French involvement in Mali only served to strengthen the radical elements throughout the continent. So, for example, involvement in Libya disturbed a delicate balance of power in the region, and resulted in the strengthening of the Boko Haram Islamic terrorist movement (its name means “Western education is forbidden.”)

The expansion of Western involvement results in increasing frustration among the local population, which, in turn, leads to more intense protests and the strengthening of militant movements in the region. This theory holds that the Americans trained and armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan only to be attacked by them in Iraq — establishing it as a pattern which will repeat itself everywhere. You can know how it started, but you can never tell where or even if it will end. Every tactical victory becomes a strategic defeat. Every short-term achievement is replaced by a long-term setback.

This reminds me of a statement by a senior Shin Bet official in Israel, shortly after the second intifada began in the territories in 2000. At the time, a wave of suicide bombers left Israel’s cities awash in blood and flames, in body parts, and in pillars of smoke. Back then, it seemed as if nothing could be done to counter the phenomenon of dozens and even hundreds of young people who were ready to take their own lives, as long as they took as many “heretics” as possible up to heaven with them.

Islamic extremists believe that these suicide bombers obtain the rank of shahid (“martyr”) and go directly to heaven, where they receive the grace of 72 virgins. That same senior official in the Shin Bet, who held a briefing back then for Israeli journalists, compared the efforts to stop the terrorism that swept across Israel at the time to an attempt “to empty the sea with a teaspoon.”

Well, several years have passed since then, and the sea has been dried out, with a teaspoon or without. Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, and seized and purged the terrorist nests, while the Shin Bet bolstered its intelligence in the region. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority got stronger, and its security forces were revamped and restored with Western aid.

Today, Israel is almost free of terrorism, as it has never been before. I therefore think that the Western approach that it is better not to get involved at all, and that it is preferable to give up in advance is fundamentally wrong. Essentially, it is nothing more than a sort of pretext for typical Western helplessness.

“Were it not for French President François Hollande’s bold intervention (in Operation Serval), there is a good chance that Mali would now be a terrorist state under the aegis of al-Qaeda,” I was told this week by a senior member of Israel’s National Security Council.

Meanwhile, Boaz Ganor, an Israeli expert on terrorism from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and head of its Terrorism and Homeland Security Studies program, says, “The fact that some of the Kenya terror attack perpetrators are Europeans or Americans who converted to Islam proves that there is no local reaction to Western involvement in Africa.

The West tends to bury its head in the sand like an ostrich when confronting such phenomena. You have to call it what it is, and deal with it using the most appropriate tools. Had the French not intervened in Mali, the situation today in that country would be totally different. Islamic terrorism has been flourishing in Africa for the past five or six years. Africa has become a primary target for global jihad, and there are clear reasons for this. It is necessary to deal with this phenomenon, and not accept it as predetermined by fate.”

There are many diverse reasons for the growth of Islamic terrorism in Africa. The continent is home to large and influential Islamic communities, national security forces there are weak, ill equipped, and poorly trained, the intelligence infrastructure is flimsy and insufficient, and the population is impoverished and therefore susceptible to outside influences, particularly by well-funded outfits that know how to indoctrinate their targets. All of these factors make Africa the new paradise of Islamic extremism.

Western intelligence sources have identified the al-Qaeda branch in the Maghreb nations of North Africa as the group that funnels activists and the vast amount of weapons, which accumulated after the Libyan crisis, to sensitive conflict zones in Africa and other places.

“There is extensive activity in prisons, too,” says Ganor. “Many of the prisons have been breached, and many of the imprisoned terrorists have escaped and disappeared. This even took place in Egyptian prisons, during the revolution that toppled Mubarak. Experienced terrorists fled the prisons and found sanctuary in the Sinai, in Gaza and in Africa.

So what can be done about it? “The first thing,” says a senior Israeli defense official, “is not to give up. It’s important to invest in intelligence, because impeding terrorism begins, continues, and ends with precise and accurate intelligence. Make sure that the moderate forces in troubled regions realize that we are with them, and that we have no intention of abandoning them, as has already happened on several occasions.”

In Israel, it is said that there is no reason to accept terrorism as being predetermined by fate. It is true that Israel’s triumph over terrorism was achieved in a limited and clearly delineated area, such as the West Bank and the insulated Gaza Strip, while the current situation involves entire countries and continents. But there are advantages, too. In Israel, the job was left exclusively to the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] and the Shin Bet, while the entire enlightened world should bear the burden of dealing with global jihad and defending the advocates of freedom and peace. Why? Because there’s no one else to do it.