An act of terrorism, such as Al-Shabaab’s during the just ended Westgate Mall incident in Nairobi, Kenya, has two aspects: The method and intensity of violence unleashed, and the fact that it is often for political purpose.
By targeting innocent persons with indiscriminate shooting at the mall, claiming scores of lives with many more injured, the Islamist group was advancing a political cause, if only symbolically.
Over the past two years, at the hands of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the group has declined after losing control of almost all urban areas and the lucrative revenues from seaports such as Kismayu.
Other reasons of its decline include deep and violent internal divisions that have resulted in the deaths of several of its top commanders and the splintering of the group.
The group has greatly lost the popularity it enjoyed during it’s hey days, especially after its inception with far fewer Somalis, both locally and in the Diaspora, now actively supporting it.
It is this decline, ironically, according to some observers that it targeted Kenya’s “soft underbelly” at the mall in the “cowardly” manner it did.
That is, it struck from a point of weakness than strength – “the kicks of a dying horse.”
Note that terrorism, by definition, is a deliberate targeting of civilians in ways that are meant to inspire terror in a civilian population, and by so doing advance a political or other cause by weakening the will of the affected populace.
Most of the groups fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have done it with the burning and pillaging of villages, including rape where it continues to be used as a weapon of war.
It matters greatly that the heinous and dastardly acts continue to occur. But it is also important to understand their underpinnings.
In a volatile region such as ours, especially with the violent goings on with the many fighting factions in eastern DRC, it would be worthwhile to come to grips with the dynamics that drive groups such as the Al-Shabaab.
Their religious pretensions to wanting to gain back political power in Somalia are well known, though they still control a large section in the south of the country.
It is the subtle difference between Al-Shabaab and groups such as the Mai Mai and the FDLR among others in DRC that we should pay more attention to.
A typical terrorist, such as a die-hard Al-Shabaab operative has been described as a principled evildoer. This draws from an argument distinguishing between opportunistic evil and principled evil.
Most evildoers are opportunistic: they act in self-interest. Their goal is to gain something for themselves, whether it is wealth or power. The many groups rampaging in DRC are in this category as they fight over mineral resources and strife for power.
But other criminals are principled, and are made of stunner stuff. They do evil, not out of selfish motives, but because of their convictions.
These persons are typically fanatic and immune to corruption or other temptations, no matter the validity of their convictions.
In their excuse to kill and maim, the Al-Shabaab claim the Islamic principle of jihad and revenge for Kenya Defence Forces’ “invasion” of Somalia that saw their routing from the major urban centres, including Mogadishu and Kismayu.
The Al-Shabaab die-hard operative’s apparent tenaciousness, perseverance and fearlessness shown by his willingness to die for his cause makes him particularly difficult to subdue.
The four-day siege by a handful of the terrorists before being overcome is testament of this.
Unlike the opportunistic criminal, the principled criminal cannot be easily bribed or persuaded. The only way to stop him is by employing unbridled force.
The Westgate attack takes its place in history. But if the Kenyans keep away from shopping malls out of fear in the wake of the Westgate attack, they will have played into the Al-Shabaab hands, unwittingly giving credence to their crazed purposes.
We should never succumb to their rabid fanaticism. Nor should we allow the FDLR, the Mai-Mai and their ilk the senseless violence.
The author is a commentator on Rwanda and regional affairs.Follow https://twitter.com/gituram