Omar Abdirahman admits his moods have been swinging from bad to worse. The 28-year-old lives in fear for his life, but also says his more affluent friends have it worse than he.
“Since I heard about this tragic incident, I have felt really bad,” he said. “You cannot be in any good moods when such tragic incidences involving such loss of lives, property and lapse of security happen.”
Abdirahman, is a university student and a frequent patron at upmarket malls including Westgate Shopping Centre, the retail paradise in Nairobi’s well-to-do Westlands neighbourhood. He was chatting with friends on Saturday in the predominantly Somali neighbourhood of Eastleigh, here in the Kenyan capital, when news emerged of what was thought to be a regular daylight robbery.
Since it became clear that the al-Qaeda-linked Somali group, al-Shebab, was behind the attack, things have been very different for him and most of his friends.
“The Somali people I have spoken to fear going into town or any crowded places because there may be a terrorist strike,” he said. “Most of my Somali friends, the professionals working for organisations, and businesspeople, fear they may be trapped in any xenophobic attacks.”
The blame game begins
Three days into what has turned out to be Kenya’s worst terrorist attack since the bombing of the US embassy in 1998, Abdirahman believes life is set to take a permanent shift for most Somalis residing in Kenya.
Security analysts do not yet agree on what should constitute a consistent direction of assault by Kenya to identify and effectively deal with recurring threats – but many believe profiling almost every citizen would be one key step to prevent future attacks.
“Somalis have been blamed for any attacks involving grenades and gunfire that have ever taken place even if it was otherwise,” said Abdirahman. “That the al-Shabab Islamists have claimed responsibility for this attack has changed a lot of things.”
Mohamed Shahid, a 32-year-old Kenyan-Somali, lives in Westlands, the middle-class neighbourhood rarely touched by the frequent security operations that plague Eastleigh, on the other side of the capital.
“Some of my friends and most Somalis fear they could be executed [in retaliation],” he said. “So many have not gone to work today, because they fear entering matatus [minibuses].”
There has also been a sense of panic in Majengo district, a few kilometres from infamous Eastleigh.
“There is fear here in Majengo, since this is place will also be the target of police,” said Ali Edachi, a resident of the impoverished urban neighbourhood.
The UN monitoring group for Somalia and Eritrea in its yearly report mentioned Majengo as the most notorious recruitment ground for al-Shabab fighters, with an estimated 500 Kenyan youth drafted into the ranks to fight alongside the group in Somalia.
Although there is no curfew in place, the people in this neighbourhood know the drill. Everyone here avoids streets after dark. Edachi says they have a good reason for their caution.
“We know this is one of the places to be targeted after Somali neighbourhoods, because of our youths’ involvement with the terror group al-Shabab activities in and out the country.” Edachi said.
‘Philosophy of cowards’
President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew died in the Westgate attack, made some bold statements. “We have fought for the freedom to live a life we chose,” he told Kenyans. “We have fought courageously to defeat terrorism. Terrorism is the philosophy of the cowards.”
The attack against Westgate was an attack against western lifestyles, said the president.
Shahid’s first thought the Westgate attack was merely a violent robbery. His thoughts turned to his loved ones – thinking any of them could have been caught up in the shooting.
“It later turned out to be a terror attack,” he said. “I said to myself: ‘Not again. They [al-Shabab] did it again.’ I was worried about the people in the mall. It is a big place, and any of my family members, relatives and friends could be there shopping.”
The rescue operation involved as many as 1,000 people being evacuated from the shopping centre. At least 62 people were shot dead by the armed gang – who reportedly first attacked the mall using grenades and automatic rifles.
Condemnation and fear
Religious leaders have condemned the attacks. But there is a feeling that Muslims maybe targeted in reaction to reports that the gunmen specifically targeted non-Muslims, letting some adherants of Islam walk free.
“We know and its obvious Muslims are living in fear after the shopping mall attack,” said Adan Wachu, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims.
“We want the criminals who have killed and targeted innocent people to be brought to justice. They must face the full force of the law. We do not want security officers to target our people discriminatively – but we support any security officers who want to carry out their operation and interrogate suspects…
“We do not want them to target youths in the streets, malls and public transport vehicles. They should be very careful with how they handle this situation.”
The Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) were already tracking down several people they suspect to have been involved in the Westgate siege.
Mombasa resident Thabit Mukhtar Thabit said his 19-year-old nephew was arrested on his way home to the port city on Sunday, after attending a family wedding with his mother.
According to Thabit, ATPU agents stopped the young man’s bus along Nairobi-Mombasa highway at Machakos Junction, 50km outside of the Kenyan capital.
“The officers identified themselves and said they were from ATPU,” he said. “They said they were going with her son. The mother went back to Nairobi. She is still searching for her son, she has gone to all police posts in the city, but the son is nowhere to be seen.
“As a parent, I am very concerned. I don’t know why these police officers are torturing my sister by taking away her son. That is very sad and that is not how to do things and get the culprits. There is no need to harass innocent Muslims as [police] carry out their duties.”
Wachu, of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, said his organisation would work with leaders from other religions.
“We will give security forces any help they may need from our side,” he said. “But we hope any investigation will be done in a accordance to the law.”
Most Somalis living in Nairobi, having fled their homes in Somalia after decades of instability, violence and a collapsed state, fear both the police and public lynch mobs. Many fear the police will start targeting them with arbitrary arrests. They also fear civilian Kenyans may target them.
“I am concerned and I am controlling my movement,” said Abdirahman. “The attack can come from the same group – or someone else – you are not sure.
“I fear going out,” he told Al Jazeera. “The social media sentiment has changed against the Somalis. They are saying the Somalis must go home. There are places you fear to visit because they may attack you, saying: ‘Your people have done this.”