Two stories emerging from Nairobi give concrete context to a range of counter-terrorism theories. The first as reported by The Daily Mail:
A four-year-old British boy caught up in the Kenya mall massacre showed astonishing bravery by confronting a marauding gunman who ended up begging for his forgiveness, it emerged today.
The child told one of the terrorists that he was a “very bad man” as he protected his mother who had been shot in the leg, and six-year-old sister.
Incredibly, the attacker took pity on the family and bizarrely handed the children Mars bars before telling them: “Please forgive me, we are not monsters.”
The second story I have only heard — and even then it was third-hand — on NPR’s Morning Edition. According to the report a nine year old Kenyan boy was wounded. The attacker then turned to the boy’s mother and sister challenging them to quote a passage from the Koran. The family is Muslim. The mother and sister were each able to comply, but they were still shot and killed. The boy screamed out asking why. The attacker explained the fifteen-year-old girl and her mother were not wearing the hijab.
I am prepared to believe both stories.
Another story or really speculation: Last week I abandoned a post on the apparent assassination earlier this month of Alabama-born al Shabaab commander Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki or “the American”. He was allegedly ambushed by other al Shabaab elements.
Hammami, some claim, was a fierce advocate for the Somali nationalist narrative within al Shabaab. Those most likely to benefit from Hammami’s death are champions of an internationalist al Qaeda inspired narrative, such as we have seen play out at the Westgate Mall.
The twenty-nine-year-old US citizen was on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List. Was he also an opponent of the Nairobi attack? Was he a potential ally in containing — domesticating — al Shabaab? When and how might an adversary become an ally? Can monsters be redeemed?
It is, I’ll readily admit, quite precarious, but the paradox of the first story combined with the utter brutality of the second and the tantalizing possibilities of the third, expose what may be our best bet for effectively engaging the terrorist threat. Cold-blooded murder of Muslim women — hajib or not — and children is not an effective recruiting strategy. No matter how disaffected, resentful, or misogynistic a potential terrorist may be, the vast majority are as capable as the four-year-old in recognizing what is “very bad.”
In her groundbreaking text, How Terrorism Ends, Audrey Kurth Cronin, finds that among several end-games is the implosion of the terrorist group. She writes, “Marginalization from their constituency is the death-knell for modern groups… Loss of support may occur if the driving narrative is overtaken by events, contact with ordinary people is lost, or above all if groups target potential members of their own constituencies and provoke a backlash.” (page 203)
This is almost certainly the current plot line for al Shabaab and especially its al Qaeda faction. Such marginalization is largely why al Shabaab lost local support in Somalia with over-aggressive enforcement of Salafist codes. It’s mishandling of the 2011 drought and famine was widely seen inside Somalia as causing the death of tens of thousands. Omar Hammami is said to have decided his more al Qaeda oriented colleagues had “gone crazy” seeking power.
When the world sees the death penalty imposed for dress code violations, even the most conservative are repulsed.
When in the midst of a martyrdom operation the proto-martyr asks forgiveness, we might perceive strategic opportunities worth engaging.