The siege of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall has finally come to an end. Kenyan forces have been battling militants claiming to be members of the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabaab group after they stormed the western-style shopping precinct on a busy Saturday afternoon and took hostages, killing over 70 people in the process.
Within hours of the Westgate attack, agents from Israel’s elite counter-terrorism unit were dispatched to assist Kenya.
According to several Western officials, the Kenyans initially rebuffed offers of assistance from the US government and turned instead to the Israelis, who helped plan specific tactical operations, rather than any combat missions.
Al-Shabaab, meaning “the youth” in Arabic, emerged in 2006 as the radical youth wing of Somalia’s now-defunct Union of Islamic Courts. The group once controlled large parts of southern Somalia, but with foreign support the Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud gained back swathes of this territory, pushing Al-Shabaab into the rural areas.
Kenya was one of these foreign supporters. The Kenyan army crossed the Somali border in 2011, routing Al-Shabaab from Mogadishu and Kismayo, teaming up with Ethiopian forces and even hosting a Somali parliament in exile. In doing so it placed itself in the firing line of the militants as well as critics, who saw Kenya’s military intervention as unlawful.
Kenya was aware of potential reprisals for its cross-border move. “We know fighting more than you and defeated other invaders,” said Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Rage. “Your attack [on] us means your skyscrapers will be destroyed, your tourism will disappear,” he warned.
Some claim that the Westgate attack is the dying kick of the Islamist militant group which can no longer survive the crackdown waged by Kenya and others. However, Al-Shabaab’s spokesman for military operations, Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab, asserted that this was only the beginning. “It is possible that if they don’t withdraw then attacks like this will happen in Kenyan cities and towns every day,” he said.
Whilst Israel remained officially silent on the matter of security co-operation, the leadership was quick to send its condolences to the Kenyans. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the Israeli people identified with the pain of the Kenyan people, and also with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s personal loss.
“There is no justification for the murder of innocent civilians and Israel stands shoulder to shoulder with the Kenyan government and people at this difficult time,” added Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Where did such close ties between Israel and Kenya spring from? Following a visit to Israel by Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga in 2011, a statement from Odinga’s office said Netanyahu had promised to help build “a coalition against fundamentalism”, bringing together Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Tanzania.
“Kenya’s enemies are Israel’s enemies so we should be able to help,” Netanyahu commented after Odinga’s visit. “We have similar forces planning to bring us down. I see it as an opportunity to strengthen our ties,” he said.
“Israel is a key geo-strategic partner,” claimed director general of the Kenyan Foreign Ministry, Tom Amolo, according to leaked US State Department cables. “It is a suitable counterweight for us to those states in our region that do not share our values.”
Kenya cut its ties with Israel, as did many other African nations, following its 1973 war with the surrounding Arab states. Previously Israel had been critical of South Africa’s apartheid regime, choosing instead to build relations with the region’s post-colonial states. However in the wake of the 1973 conflict, the Zionist state faced isolation in Africa so turned to South Africa instead, becoming good friends with the apartheid state headed by Nazi sympathisers.
It took an attack aimed at Israel and undertaken across the Kenyan border in Uganda to thaw the frosty relations. When Palestinian and German militants demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli and other jails hijacked a plane en route from Israel to Paris, forcing it to land in Kampala, the Kenyan government permitted Israeli forces to refuel in Nairobi.
Two subsequent attacks on Israeli targets occurred in Kenya itself. In 2002 militants bombed an Israeli-owned hotel in the coastal resort of Mombasa, killing 13 people; two missiles then narrowly missed an Israeli airliner as it took off from Nairobi Airport.
Co-operation between Kenya and Israel has since grown from strength to strength, with the pair signing a security treaty a month after Kenya’s incursion into Somalia, although Kenya is not the only African nation with which Israel is strengthening its ties. In the last two years, 40 senior African officials from various states have visited Israel.
Through ties with African countries, Israel is hoping to create a strong nexus of nations engaged in the fight against Islamist militant groups. Groups such as such Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Ansar Dine in Mali, which have appeared and spilt across national borders, are in focus.
Reports suggest a connection between Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the umbrella organisation of “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”, which operates in numerous African countries. After Al-Shabaab pledged alliance to Al-Qaeda in 2012 the concern, in Israel’s eyes, is that a global Islamist militant alliance is forming, with previously national movements internationalising their aims, increasing the potential of link ups with militants in Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.
For Israel, therefore, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea are of particular strategic interest. Geographically Ethiopia and Eritrea have the potential to act as a buffer zone, blocking a large access path to the Red Sea, which Israel believes is one of Iran’s routes for supplying weapons to Gaza. Israel Defence Forces officials suspect that Iran moves weapons from Sudan, through the Red Sea, to the Sinai and on to Gaza; Israel has been accused of being behind the bombing of a Sudanese weapons factory, adding to the explosive mix. Alongside Kenya, though, Ethiopia and Eritrea are creating a geographic shield caging Somalia and curtailing some of the Somali militants’ capacity to link with other movements across the continent.
As a result Israel has been active in engaging with the three nations. It is one of Ethiopia’s major military suppliers and dutifully assisted successive Ethiopian governments during the Eritrean War of Independence which Israel reportedly saw as a war against “the Red Sea becoming the Arab Sea”. The Zionist state has now also established spy bases in Eritrea, according to a report by Stratfor Global Intelligence, which monitors Iran’s activities and coastal movements. Iran is also alleged to have surveillance bases in Eritrea, taking the Iran vs. Israel confrontation deep into Africa.
The Christian-rooted leadership of the three countries is also seen by Israel as a buffer zone against the rise of Islam. With the Christian leadership of Kenya calling on the self-styled Jewish state for assistance, and the increasing moves of Israel to ally with similar governments in the region, the Somali situation is becoming viewed as a more globalised coalition of Christians, or non-Muslims, against Muslims. Al-Shabaab has evoked the Palestinians’ fight against Zionist forces, threatening retaliation for Jewish claims to Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site.
Israel has a long history of involvement in Africa, from agricultural aid to military assistance. Now more than ever it is seeking to develop those ties, seeing African states, especially those in East Africa, as crucial allies in the war against Islamist militant movements. What Westgate highlighted was how far Israel has already got towards achieving its objectives.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.