Fighting the good fight? Making sense of the Nairobi Westgate massacre

Avoiding youth radicalization begs for deeper thinking about the way in which the west conceives of itself with regard to the rest of the world and how it maintains and projects this image. 

Sadaf Lakhani
18 October 2013

Elif Yavuz died, eight and a half months pregnant, in the arms of her partner, Ross Langdon. The raw sorrow I share with the many people whose lives were touched by my friend Elif’s infectious personality and her drive to make a difference makes me look harder at my work to try to find meaning in what happened and to honor Elif’s voice in this tragedy.

Elif was most certainly everything that the media reported her to be: brilliant, caring, lively, and passionate about helping others. On top of this she had a great sense of humor and, as she referred to it herself, an acute ‘BS-detector’; I am sure she would have been bemused and somewhat dismayed by all the media coverage that she has received in her death. The massacre at the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi was a tragedy at the level of each of the 71 lives that were taken and the multitude of others affected.

Events like Westgate are reminders of the good fights that we are engaged in to protect lives and restore human dignity. But lives are needlessly taken the world over in so many other ways that are less dramatic than the events at Westgate, but are nevertheless as unnecessary as well as insidious.  The issue, for example, to which Elif had dedicated her life - malaria - reminds us that we live in a world where some injustices seem to have been accepted. The latest data shows that more than one million people, the majority of them under 5 year olds living in Africa, are likely to die of malaria this year. Although effective treatment has been developed, it is prohibitively expensive for the majority of sufferers.

Or consider hunger - another issue about which Elif felt strongly: approximately 19 million children will suffer from acute malnutrition this year - 3.5 million of them will die. In the US two-thirds of K-8 grade teachers say most or a lot of their students rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. Yet a cut in the food stamps program which services the nearly 1 in 6 Americans who are food insecure, was voted on, and passed, in the US House of Representatives last month. As senator Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman if the Senate Agriculture Committee, put it, the bill says “[…] get a good paying job or your family will just have to go hungry."

The evidence suggests that it is precisely these apparent contradictions in values and the feeling of the world being an unfair place that lies at the root of the recurrent violence in countries like Somalia, and which incites the anger that fuels young people’s subscription to violent ideologies.

A large part of the response against terrorism - and the part that is most visible - has been about managing threats from violent extremists. These include measures such as smarter and deeper intelligence gathering, securing diplomatic facilities and improving security at ports and borders. We have also tried to remove the safe havens offered by failing states to terror groups, by employing military techniques that seek out and destroy with accuracy potential terror-cell members and facilities, or by providing training and logistical support, such as the USAID is doing in Pakistan, India, and Lebanon, for local law enforcement to detect and neutralize explosive devices.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations committee after the Boston bombing in April this year,  “America is the guardian of global security.” Along with the identity and role of “guardian” comes a scrutiny that means that the culture, values and actions of the US and its allies, and any apparent inconsistencies between them, are witnessed, if not examined closely, by billions of people around the world.

Whilst the members of jihad-inspired groups are often locals, fighting close to home, the number of foreign fighters these groups attract appears to be growing. The profile of those carrying out the al-Shabaab attack last month, and the numerous foreign fighters that have joined the opposition forces in Syria, include young people coming from the west - the US and UK for example. They are often second-generation immigrants from fragile or war-torn states. The Boston Marathon bombings illustrate that the threat from jihadist violence on US soil has shifted away from plots directly coordinated by Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, to attacks carried out by largely un-trained, disaffected individuals who subscribe to the ideologies of such groups. While al-Qaeda may have been weakened in recent years, the movement’s ideology still resonates and inspires new followers.

Since the time of 9/11, who jihadists are, what exactly they stand for and where they will attack is becoming less and less definable and predictable. And some aspects of the United States counter-terrorism strategy itself – such as the use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen and the continued holding of prisoners at Guantanamo bay without civilian trial – most certainly contribute to the notion that America does not adhere to its own stated values, and as such to the spread of extreme ideologies, and the radicalization of individuals in these countries and beyond. The radicalization process of young people, as we see from evidence from Pakistan is linked very much to education and socialization agents but also to perceptions of injustice around wealth, influence and status.  Khurrum Wahid, a Miami-based defense attorney who has defended several Americans who were alleged Al-Qaeda members or terror-plotters notes that the ‘disenfranchisement’ of young people who had started out wanting to leave a positive mark on the world is a major motivating factor behind youth radicalization.

Elif, whose family was originally from Turkey, but settled in the Netherlands, was also a young person who wanted to change the world for the better. She had the personality, education, sheer will to do so. She was also acutely aware that many others did not have access to opportunities like those to which she had been exposed. Socio-economics, however, is only one part of the problem. Working with Pakistani and Somali youth in inner city London in the late 1990s as part of my doctoral thesis on social exclusion, I saw firsthand how they struggled.  Not only with the poor housing, indifferent schooling and the prospect of minimum-wage jobs - if they were lucky - but also with creating an identity and finding meaning for themselves in a society within which they felt alien.

The green-on blue phenomenon - the killing of US and UK ISAF troops in Afghanistan by Afghan security personnel - may lend further insight to the cultural aspect of radicalization. In recent years, green-on-blue attacks accounted for about 15% of coalition deaths. While at least some of the attacks can be attributed to the Taliban strategy of infiltrating Afghani security forces, the majority of attacks, however, are arguably a result of misunderstandings based on cultural differences felt on the part of Afghan security personnel towards their American counterparts. Afghan troops reported feeling that their ISAF counter-parts were arrogant, rude, and showed a lack of knowledge and disrespect towards their cultures. A draft of a new handbook prepared last year for the US military in Afghanistan recognized that the cultural dissonance between US and Afghan troops would not be addressed only by more sensitive language, but rather entails a change in the way in which US troops view their counter-parts. While this perception of western arrogance has unfortunately contributed to grief and loss in both Afghanistan and in the US, this perception of the west has also permeated the globe.

Despite the growing threat from attacks, the US and the UK have not yet developed the means to better identify the radicalization process of ‘home-grown’ terrorists, or for halting that process[1]. Avoiding youth radicalization entails a strategy that is multi-faceted in nature, linking aid programming in targeted countries, to education and immigration policy at home, targeted anti-radicalization interventions, and expanding employment opportunities for young people, amongst others. But it also begs for deeper thinking about the way in which the west conceives of itself with regard to the rest of the world and how it maintains and projects this image.

The language that we use, for example, should avoid juxtaposing western values with Islamic ones. And in our drive to ‘bring down dictators’ and spread democracy world-wide, we should avoid pitting ‘us’ versus ‘ them’, conflating religion with a lack of freedom and religious conservatism with extremism. Hopefully those changes can also be more than merely rhetoric, if we want to fight the right fight. Without this kind of reflection and attendant changes, more young people will give their lives and more will have their lives taken from them.

Watching the world comment on Elif’s death, with those who carried out the attacks often cast as being ‘evil’, I’ve been wondering what my friend would have thought if she had a chance to face the person who shot her. I remember reading in the press the story of a 4 year old boy who told one of the attackers at Westgate who had shot his mother in the leg that he was a 'very bad man’. The attacker handed the boy and his sister Mars bars before letting them leave the complex and telling them: 'Please forgive me, we are not monsters’. While Elif believed in the good that could be done in this world, I don’t think she believed in monsters. 

[1] Jihadist Terrorism: a threat assessment, available here.

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