THE BLOODY assault on a Nairobi shopping mall by a Somali jihadist group is a consequence of Kenya’s success in fighting Islamic extremism in East Africa. Two years ago, Kenyan troops joined an African Union force that drove the al-Shabab militia, linked to al-Qaeda, out of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu; last year Kenyan forces joined with a local militia to oust the extremists from the southern port city of Kismayo. The result is that al-Shabab has been greatly weakened in Somalia, and a year-old federal government has the best chance in decades of stabilizing the country.
Al-Shabab has turned to staging terrorist attacks as a way of compensating for its losses. In 2010 it bombed a soccer stadium in Uganda, another contributor to the African Union force, killing 76; in June it attacked the United Nations compound in Mogadishu, killing 15. Its latest target, an upscale complex favored by the Kenyan elite and expatriates, was well chosen: Among the 62 reported dead Monday, 48 hours into the attack, were the nephew of the Kenyan president, a popular radio host and several Western nationals.
The intent of the attack was clear: Al-Shabab says it wants to force Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia. Some in Kenya might sympathize with that demand. In addition to becoming a target for terrorist attacks, Kenya and its African Union partners have paid a high price for their Somalia intervention. According to the United Nations, as many as 3,000 of the African troops have been killed. By comparison, 3,300 U.S. and NATO soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001.
Fortunately, Kenya’s new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, responded strongly on Sunday. “We have ashamed and defeated our attackers,” Mr. Kenyatta said. He vowed not to shrink from the fight against al-Shabab, and the country’s political leaders rallied behind him.
This is a crucial contest — and not just for Kenya. Al-Shabab is one of several al-Qaeda affiliates in an arc that stretches from Yemen to Mali, Algeria and Nigeria. The jihadists threaten to produce a string of failed states, and their transnational ambitions are growing. Al-Shabab has recruited Americans as members.
The United States, which has spent more than $1 billion in the past several years to back security and nation-building efforts in Somalia, has a big stake in Kenya’s continued commitment to counterterrorism. The Obama administration, which has carried out drone strikes and other special forces operations in Somalia, has strongly supported the African Union deployment.
U.S.-Kenya ties were strained by the election in March of Mr. Kenyatta, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in violence that followed a 2007 presidential election. But President Obama rightly called Mr. Kenyatta on Sunday to affirm “the strong and historic partnership” between the United States and Kenya. Kenya will need both moral and material U.S. support as it recovers from this horrific event.