The terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, is a reminder of how seemingly highly localised militancy can suddenly become an international danger. When it comes to terrorism, no society is an island. Al-Shabab has repeatedly traded blows with neighbouring governments over the past half decade. The Somali militant group has responded with the odd bomb blast. But the Westgate Mall assault is by far the most frontal attack by al-Shabab and one that deliberately had a pan-Islamicist colouration: an Israeli-owned mall frequented by foreign tourists and diplomats.
Al-Shabab affiliated itself to al Qaeda in 2012 and its present leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, has purged the militia’s ranks of commanders who felt al-Shabab should see itself as a Somali group first and then an international jihadi group. Somalia’s militant Islamic problem has now metamorphosed into an international threat.
The broad collapse of al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and the killing of its leader, Osama bin Laden, have contributed to a false belief that international Islamicist terrorism is in its twilight. But as the equally violent terror bombings in Peshawar and near Baghdad that preceded the Westgate Mall attack indicate, local terrorist violence remains potent and can become potentially internationalised quickly.
Since the US troop withdrawal from Iraq, that country has spiralled downward into sectarian violence that is now claiming about a 1,000 lives a month. But it is al Qaeda that is leading the Sunni battle in Iraq. In the same way, it is the Tehreek-e-Taliban that is leading the anti-minority violence in Pakistan.
There are other similar, localised wars going on in Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere. All of these are traditional sectarian or even tribal origins that have been taken over by Islamicist terror groups. All of them have the ability to spill over into the international arena as the line between a local war and global terror blurs.
This is one reason why the talk of an end to the global war on terror should be taken with a bit of salt. Bin Laden’s accomplishment was to combine a half-dozen local jihads into an international network by targeting what he saw was a common strand among all of them — a hatred of the US and its foreign policy.
The result was the 9/11 attack. It may no longer be possible to replicate something as spectacular and monstrous. But there does not seem to be any shortage of local militant leaders who have a similar aspiration. Al Qaeda showed the way, it can be said, and it is a path that cannot be erased from a terrorist’s imagination. Which is why it is important that what exists in terms of transnational cooperation against terror needs to only be sustained but developed further.