Nairobi, Kenya—Security forces blew part of the roof off the West Gate Mall today. Kenyan soldiers then took up positions, creating a new offensive against the al-Shabab militants. These terrorists took the mall three days ago. 10 to 15 al-Shabab terrorists stormed the upscale shopping venue at that time, shot civilians and took hostages. They have had intermittent gun battles with Kenyan security officials over the last three days, 59 people are believed dead and almost two hundred are injured. Shoppers and mall workers were trapped in the mall but most have been rescued now. The militants still have a few hostages, though Kenyan forces have retaken most of the mall. Militants claim that they will kill their hostages should the Kenyan forces push for a final assault. The question is, what to expect from the siege in Kenya.
What are the militant’s reasons for attacking the West Gate Mall? A spokesman for al-Shabab announced that this operation was to force Kenya to remove its troops from Somalia. Al-Shabab was a radical wing of the Union of Islamic Courts which was in control of a portion of Somalia, a country that has been divided by warlords for over a decade. But al-Shabab and their allies split off and then were forced out in a recent military campaign by the African Union. Kenya supplied a large number of troops to that campaign.
These terrorists are all in one room now in the mall according to Kenyan officials. And the hostages may be wired with explosives. Though there has been no confirmation on that last point. What about the hostage takers themselves? Is it a bluff? Are they really willing to die? Al-shabab militants carrying AK-47 rifles have sprayed bullets and hurled grenades without remorse. These radicals are ready to kill and die for their cause without a second thought.
Nine months ago al-Shabab attacked a desert gasoline outpost in Algeria. This raid was conducted with the same viciousness and without any regard for civilian casualties or self-preservation. These perpetrators will not give up easily. Negotiation is generally the best way officials have to end a hostage crisis without further bloodshed. But in this case saving their own lives cannot be used as leverage with the terrorists.
On the other side of the equation, Kenyan officials have been speaking tough. The Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta stated that security forces have a good chance at taking out these terrorists. And that isn’t all. “We will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully,” he added. President Barack Obama pledged his support. And Israeli advisors are on the ground aiding the Kenyans.
What should we expect from the siege in Kenya? With the Kenyan forces hardened and the militants immovable, we are likely to see a military showdown. It will be difficult to get the hostages out without them being harmed. This can be done but it has to be a well calculated, surgical strike. Failed attempts are just as numerous as successful ones. A glaring example is the Iran hostage crisis from 1979-1981. The U.S. embassy was swarmed by students during the Iranian Revolution. American embassy workers were taken hostage. This crisis lasted 444 days. After negotiation attempts failed, U.S. forces sent to free the hostages crashed their aircraft, killing eight servicemen and one Iranian civilian. The hostages were released just after Ronald Reagan took office.
Another case was the Russian theater crisis in 2002. Chechen militants, fighting for the independence of Chechnya their homeland, took a crowded Russian theater. The Russians pumped in some type of gas, the exact kind is still unknown, to stun or knockout the terrorists. A gun battle ensued. The gas the Russians used killed hostages and militants alike. It was a terrible disaster and a black eye for the Kremlin.
The Russians were successful during the Belsan School crisis, another incident involving Chechen militants. In this case, Russian forces were successful in storming the school and saving the hostages. For an American victory we can look at the case of Roy Hallums an American contractor taken during the second Iraq War. Hallums was freed 311 days later when American forces stormed the farmhouse where he was being held.
What we should expect from the siege in Kenya is a military style showdown. It will have to be a surgical strike. Kenyan forces, carefully instructed by Israeli advisors, will wait for the best time to take the militants out. They will strike fast and hard. If successful, they will take the al-Shabab terrorists by surprise, save the hostages and win the day. The Kenyan president and officials on the ground look hopeful and resolute. This is perhaps a strong indication that a carefully nuanced plan is already taking shape.
By: Philip Perry