What’s the Connection Between Israel and the Kenyan Mall Attack?

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Sept. 22 2013 3:51 PM

What’s the Connection Between Israel and the Kenyan Mall Attack?

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Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) arrive on September 22, 2013 at the Westgate mall in Nairobi.

Photo by SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

With news that Israeli advisors are helping Kenyan authorities formulate a strategy for ending the ongoing siege at a Nairobi shopping mall, readers might be wondering why, exactly, Israel is involved in all of this.

Despite the fact that the attack initially began near an Israeli-owned coffee shop within the mall and several Israelis escaped the assault, it doesn’t appear that this was connected to the attackers' motivations. “This time, the story is not about Israel,” a spokeswoman for the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the New York Times.

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The initial suspicion that there might have been an anti-Israel motivation here seems reasonable in light of recent history. In 2002, 15 people were killed when terrorists bombed an Israeli-owned hotel in the resort city of Mombassa. The attackers also tried unsuccessfully to shoot down an Israeli jet. A previously unknown group called the Army of Palestine took credit but al Qaeda involvement was widely suspected at the time.

Though Kenya severed diplomatic ties with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur war and didn’t restore them until 1989, security cooperation has been growing between the two countries. In 2011, Israel pledged to provide security assistance to Kenya in its efforts to combat the Somali al-Shabab militants responsible for this weekend’s attack.  "Kenya's enemies are Israel's enemies,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time. "We have similar forces planning to bring us down," concurred then Kenyan Prime Minister Raila during a visit to Jerusalem. Shabab leaders have also issued direct threats against Israel, though it’s not clear if they have the capacity to carry out attacks there.

Israel’s involvement in Eastern Africa as a whole has been growing. Israel is also believed to have been behind the bombing of a weapons factory in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, last year. Netanyahu’s government has also sought to build ties with Kenya, Uganda, and newly-independent South Sudan. The AP reported last year that “Israel's Defense Ministry has given clearance for private Israeli security firms to operate in those nations, including some arms sales.” There were reports last month that Mossad was involved in investigating whether terrorism was involved in a fire at the Nairobi airport.

It seems quite possible that cooperation between the two countries may go beyond what’s been publicly reported.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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