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Al Shabaab's grisly PR pitch


When my now wife attended an international conference of students in Uganda, the young African delegation denounced Western depictions of Africa as 'the violent continent'. Such one-dimensional caricature is easily lampooned in the above viral video by the NGO Mama Hope.

The seasoned Africa-watcher Laura Seay went further than attacking Hollywood, and took issue with Western media outlets, asking last year 'Why is there so much bad reporting on Africa?'

She answered, 'Many major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent ... This is insane. Africa is a continent of 54 distinct states, all with multiple languages and ethnic groups and unique political dynamics. Nowhere else in the world — not even in undercovered Latin America — would one person be expected to report on so many complicated situations.'

I haven't seen any coverage of the al Shabaab terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that I would call bad. However I take her point. And I also take the point of the student delegates in Uganda. When was the last time Africa made our nightly news bulletins for a story that didn't involve guns?

In the case of the Westgate mall massacre though, news agencies aren't the only instigators of the wall to wall coverage. With the death toll climbing at the time of writing to 72, we are witnessing what Dr Laura Hammond calls 'performative violence'.

Last week most Australians had not heard of al Shabaab. Few outside of defence and diplomatic circles would recall our modest participation in the African Union push to undercut al Shabaab's power base within Somalia. But after a grisly four-day 'performance', complete with social media strategy, this has changed. And while Australians were not the intended audience, the attack was deliberate and carefully thought out with the media in mind.

It was a massacre made for media consumption.

Al Shabaab is only one of the many toxic legacies of Somalia's political instability. The pointy end of the Horn of Africa, Somalia has consistently ranked as the most failed state in the Fund for Peace's Failed State Index. Called the most lawless place on the planet, the chaos has been cruel to the civilian population.

By way of illustration, when my father turns 60 he will be nearly a decade older than the average life expectancy in Somalia. My newborn son was born into a country with an infant mortality rate 20 times better than Somalia. In 2011 alone a quarter of a million people died from starvation.

Somalia is grim. And yet last year was a relatively good year for Somalia. The African Union pushed al Shabaab out of their main strongholds, a lethal famine finally ended (although two million people still suffer from food insecurity), piracy dramatically fell and a UN brokered peace process brought in the first internationally recognised government in 20 years.

Faced with marginalisation, al Shabaab's attack may have been an attempt for renewed relevancy. This makes Kenya's response critical to not only its own future but Somalia's and by extension the entire Horn of Africa.

The last thing they should do is seek revenge. Kenya has a history of heavy handedness towards its Somali minorities and their sympathisers. In light of the recent outrage it might be tempted to continue in this mould. However this would only strengthen the terrorist movement that has recently suffered significant strategic losses.

A better way forward was hinted at by a remarkable four-year-old English boy caught up in the carnage. The youngster told a gunman point blank, 'You're a bad man, let us leave.' Presumably shocked, the al Shabaab gunmen gave him chocolates, asked for his forgiveness and let him and his family escape.

I don't mean to suggest that Kenyan security forces should pursue terrorists to verbal them. Rather a measured, discriminate response that eschewed collective punishment and prioritised the safety and security of all Kenyans would allow the government to draw a line between the 'bad men' and themselves. Included in this latter category would be the many people inside Somalia and the Somali Diaspora horrified at recent events.

Not only would this strengthen the Kenyan government's response by tapping into the legitimacy that comes from morally informed action. It would also deny oxygen to the al Shabaab movement, which could only help protect the tentative gains Somalia has started to make.

Evan Ellis headshotEvan Ellis is a freelance journalist currently completing his Masters in International Studies with a China major.

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, Kenya, Somalia, al Shabaab



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Existing comments

The terror attack in Nairobi by criminal extremists was partly a result of the poison rising from a failed state, but also from a poisonous ideology which should not be called “Islamic”. Just recently a group of 165 Somali religious leaders issued a fatwa condemning al-Shabab. It stated, in part: • “Al-Shabab, an extremist group, must atone to God and must cease its erroneous ideology and criminal actions. • “It is forbidden to join, sympathise or give any kind of support to al-Shabab. • “It is a religious duty to refuse shelter to al-Shabab members, who must be handed over to Somali institutions responsible for security. • “It is a taboo to negotiate on behalf of al-Shabab members in custody or release them from jail. • “Somali officials have a religious duty to protect the Somali people from the atrocities of al-Shabab. The Somali public also has an obligation to assist the government in its security operations against al-Shabab.” This type of criminal group is a threat to the world Muslim community, not just in East Africa. Hysterical Islamophobia in response to these criminals who harm Islam only assists these distorted extremists in their quest to pose as the persecuted righteous. They do not reflect Islam at all.

Bilal Cleland | 26 September 2013  

If the Kenyan government follows your advice, Evan, maybe the Australian government could learn from them.

Gavan | 27 September 2013  

It's good to see Bilal Cleland's comment. For too long, the attempts made by moderate Muslims to defend their faith community against the militant extremists who have poisoned the words 'Muslim' and 'Islam', have gone unnoticed by the non-Muslim world. Councils of Ulama and other groups of Muslim religious leaders help to return some balance to world perceptions of Islam and Muslims only when their edicts opposing terrorism practised by militant fundamentalists are widely publicised to non-Muslims. If the media does not consider such edicts to be news-worthy, then at least individual Muslims could publicise them in feedback comments and letters to the editor.

Ian Fraser | 30 September 2013  

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