Al Shabab’s attack of the Westgate mall in Kenya had the single goal of creating a spectacle of terror. Ostensibly, the goal was to terrorize the Kenyan civilian population into demanding that the Kenyan government withdraw its troops from Somalia. But because most human beings cannot be in sympathy with people who can kill innocent civilians (including small children) and then tweet taunts and brags about it, there is nothing to be achieved beyond that moment of terror. 

Terror for terror’s sake is why freedom fighters and revolutionaries historically distanced themselves from terror tactics. Part of the work done by Cuban revolutionaries and the Mau Mau freedom fighters in Kenya was to stop bandits terrorizing peasants and villagers in their names. Nelson Mandela, in his 1964 statement at the Rivonia trial, went to great lengths to explain why the ANC had sanctioned the creation of an armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). On why they opted for sabotage as part of their guerilla warfare strategy, Mandela said it was because “sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations.”

But even so, terrorism does not happen outside of history. After years of a violent anarchy in Somalia, the Islamic Court Union (ICU)—a loose formation of Islamic judicial systems)—by most reports managed to restore civil order, open the Mogadishu airport and earn support from a Somali majority. A 2007 briefing paper by the respected Chathman House states that, “The Courts achieved the unthinkable, uniting Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years, and reestablishing peace and security.”

From the outside, there was nothing ideal about the ICU; it was holding together a coalition of interests that ranged from the best of the moderates and the worst of the militants. This worried the United States so much so that when George Bush was asked what he thought about the ICU, PBS reports him as replying that, “[Our] first concern, of course, would be to make sure that Somalia does not become an al-Qaida safe haven, a place from which terrorists plot and plan.” Ethiopia with the approval of the United States, invaded Somalia, the ICU lost and splintered with the moderates going into exile and the militants forming al Shabab. 

So what should have been a Somali problem requiring a Somali solution to address counterproductive militancy within the ICU became an Ethiopian and American problem.  The end result was more anarchy in Somalia that now had no chance at a central authority, and the birth of al Shabab. 

In the long run, the ICU might have united Somalia into a country that had the interests of the majority at its heart, or one that was to become an outpost of terror. The point is, we don’t know, because of a preemptive action that consequently led to the birth of al Shabab. 

But that is only a sliver of the story. Somalia, thanks to colonialism, was carved up—parts of it served to Kenya and other parts to Ethiopia. As a result, Somali nationalists have been calling for a greater Somalia in which the people who share the same language and culture can live within the same borders. But Kenyan and Ethiopian governments, in spite of the sheer illogical nature of the colonial borders, have stood in the way, leading to low-intensity warfare that occasionally flares up into Somalis being massacred. Only recently has the Kenya government owned up to the 1984 Wagalla massacre that left hundreds of Kenyan Somali dead. 

The larger problem is that we live in an age where the supposed good guys cannot claim a higher moral ground than al Shabab. That the U.S. war on terror has been an act of terror is self-evident. Iraqi Body Count currently estimates the number of Iraqi civilian deaths between 115,072 and 126,230.

Obama’s drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan constantly humming above Pakistani and Afghani villages have caused so much fear, destruction and civilian deaths that they can only be understood within the framework of state terrorism. While arguing the numbers are contested, the Columbia Human Rights Clinic “found reports of between 72 and 155 civilians killed in 2011 Pakistan drone strikes.” 

In the meantime, the New York Times reports that on regular Tuesday morning meetings, Obama “insist[s] on approving every new name on an expanding ‘kill list.’ ” In other words, the president of the United States of America has been openly engaging in extra-judicial killings.

In Kenya, the ICC has accused president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy president, William Ruto, of committing crimes against humanity during the 2007 post-electoral violence. In a bizarre case of multi-tasking atrocities, William Ruto (already appearing before the court) was granted a one-week reprieve to leave the Hague and go back to Kenya to deal with the terror attack. And true to form, their allies (according to Reuters) would like to see the “ICC suspend its ongoing prosecutions…for two to three years.”

When war and the rhetoric of war sanctions and normalizes the killing of civilians, we should recall Mandela’s flawed but beautiful humanism. He ended his Rivonia statement this way:  “I have fought against White domination, and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela did not say he was prepared to kill civilians for his ideal; rather, he was ready to die for the ideal that no one group, Black or White, or one people or nation, should dominate another.

A shorter version of this essay first appeared in The Guardian.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi. You can follow him on Twitter @mukomawangugi, and visit