Public diplomacy is not restricted to governments and NGOs. What happens when terrorists discover the power of it?
this article originally appeared at The Exchange
On Saturday September 21, Al-Shabaab militants laid siege on a popular upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya—a place where only one month ago I could have been found enjoying a coffee and shopping the isles of the Nakumatt. As the militants separated people based on their religion and killed without any thought to the value of human life, I was struck by the power of terrorism. Never before had I felt the panic of trying to find out the safety of all of my friends and family or picturing myself in all of those familiar places now flashing across my screen covered with blood. I couldn’t help but feel anger toward the hatred in these terrorists’ hearts, and I found myself beginning to question everything I thought I once knew. In those hours I spent pouring over live tweets and news reports, I was helpless to the feeling of terror.
The more I questioned the senselessness of this attack on innocent people, the more I began to uncover a war for hearts and minds. Coming from a public diplomacy background, I was struck by the similarities between the tactics and strategies I was learning in the classroom and those I was watching these terrorists use. Public diplomacy is defined as the means used to understand cultures, attitudes and behaviors, build and manage relationships, and influence opinions and actions to advance interests and values. Terrorism is defined by the U.S. FBI as acts, “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coerce a civilian population, or affect the conduct of a government.” The attacks in Nairobi bore a striking resemblance to public diplomacy, with an evil twist.
Using a “soft target” like Westgate Mall, Al-Shabaab set the stage to try and activate the Kenyan and Western public towards the foreign policy issue of external influence in Somalia. A tweet from the Al-Shabaab’s twitter account (@HSM_Press) during the siege stated, “For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land #Westgate.” From the very beginning, once the sporadic killing stopped and hostages became the main focus, the terrorists made it perfectly clear that they were not going to negotiate; their goal was to instill fear and influence the Kenyan and Western public that they needed to convince their governments to leave Somalia. Even at the end of the siege on Wednesday September 25, the group’s leader Ahmed Abdi Mohamed Godane instructed the public, “Make your choice today and withdraw all your forces. Otherwise be prepared for an abundance of blood that will be spilt in your country, economic downfall and displacement.”
The true strategic potential of this attack however, like any good public diplomacy effort, lies below the surface. The problem statement of this campaign may be that there are Kenyan and African Union forces in Somalia, but the objectives go deeper than that. Al-Shabaab has demonstrated a profound knowledge of their target audience and, as Ken Menkhaus has pointed out , aim to incite vengeance and hatred in the hearts of Kenyans against the Somalis living in their own backyard. Since the Somali government fell in 1991, Somalis have been moving into Kenya in large numbers, creating bustling neighborhoods like Eastleigh outside Nairobi. These Somalis have become some of the most successful investors and real estate owners in Kenya, which has led to numerous clashes with envious Kenyans. The potential for this attack at Westgate to influence Kenyans to blame all Somalis is very real, as one resident of Eastleigh stated, “We are naturally worried about retaliatory attacks.” The success of this terror campaign lies in the hearts of the Kenyan people. What lies ahead for Kenya is a choice, “If they respond to this terrible tragedy with restraint and respect for due processes and rule of law, they will do more to undermine Al-Shabaab than all of the counter-terrorism operations conducted inside Somalia.”
With this attack, Al-Shabaab has arguably taken the steps to reframe the conflict in Somalia. The rise of social media has given terrorist organizations a seat at the agenda-setting table; they now have the ability to directly feed messages to the national and international media and publics. They can control what the world hears through platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Skype. This new access has significant relevance to the potential success of this terrorist campaign in Kenya. As Menkhaus points out, “If the deadly attack succeeds in prompting vigilante violence by Kenyan citizens or heavy-handed government reactions against Somali residents, Shabaab stands a chance of recasting itself as the vanguard militia protecting Somalis against external enemies. It desperately needs to reframe the conflict in Somalia as Somalis versus the foreigners, not as Somalis who seek peace and a return to normalcy versus a toxic jihadi movement.” The overall evaluation of success for these Al-Shabaab terrorists lies not in the number of victims but the attitudinal changes brought among the publics affected by this attacks; changes that are meant to garner supporters, recruit followers and sensitize sympathizers.
The increasing interconnected nature of the world has also given rise to the reality thatthe well-being and security of one country is linked to the lives of people thousands of miles away, as demonstrated by the array of nationalities on the list of victims at Westgate mall. Al-Shaabab leaders have said the attack was not only directed at Kenya, but was also “retribution against the Western states that supported the Kenyan invasion and are spilling the blood of innocent Muslims in order to pave the way for their mineral companies.” There are also numerous reports that some of the terrorists in this attack may have been recruited and supported from the West. This attack was not just against the Kenyans, but against all those fighting for peace in Somalia.
As the days unfold and I continue to reflect on the power of terrorism, I find myself trying to answer the question of “how do we win a war against terrorists?” They don’t have a state for the world to attack, they don’t have an economy to sanction, they don’t have a peace to negotiate. We are truly in a battle for hearts and minds, where the power to win this battle lies in the features that sets public diplomacy apart from terrorism: the fostering of a culture of mutual understanding, the opening of two-way symmetrical dialogue with those audiences vulnerable to these terror tactics, and the establishing of relationships. We can be ambassadors of a message of understanding and respect. We can continue to let solidarity and unity rise out of the ashes of the rubble at Westgate by recognizing the Somali Muslims who risked their lives to save their fellow Kenyans. We can engage in a conversation about alleviating trepidation in the hearts of our expatriates living in Africa. We can encourage our governments to continue to support and develop the East African region. We can be the advocates of acceptance and compassion. Because in the battle against terrorism, #WeAreOne.
 KEN MENKHAUS, “What the Deadly Attack on a Kenya Mall was Really About.” http://thinkprogress.org/security/2013/09/22/2662191/deadly-attack-kenya-mall-sign-desperation/