On September 21, 2013, four members of the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabaab attacked the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack turned into a 4-day siege, as Kenyan police and military were ill-equipped to manage the chaotic and dangerous situation. In the end, at least 71 people were killed—including civilians, soldiers, police officers, and the four terrorists—and many more were wounded.
Victims and media analysts interviewed after the attack expressed their disbelief at violence entering into such a normal, everyday space. While violence and shopping may seem incongruous, Suzi Mirgani, author of the book Target Markets: International Terrorism Meets Global Capitalism in the Mall (Transcript Press, 2017), argues that violence is actually embedded in the history of the shopping mall, and is an integral feature of contemporary neoliberal practice.
Mirgani is Managing Editor for Publications at the Center for International and Regional Studies. She outlined the thesis of her book at an April 5, 2017 CIRS talk in which she highlighted the underlying history of militarism that permeates the concept and architecture of shopping malls as a contemporary commercial bunker. She explained the original shopping mall design from the 1950s was actually modeled on full-service army barracks, where everything could be found under one roof, including products, services, and entertainment. “In this sense, shopping malls represent an extension of the military-industrial complex,” Mirgani said.
The notion of shopping has become highly politicized and is increasingly framed as a patriotic duty, especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks, in an attempt to set clear boundaries between the value systems of “us and them.” However, Mirgani noted, in an era defined by the infiltration of neoliberal practice in all forms of everyday life, capitalism, globalization, and terrorism are interconnected.
The shopping mall is a site for the production of desire and consumption, and also for the production of contestation, Mirgani argued. It is a local space filled with global flows and tensions—including the circulation of international neoliberal policies as well as international threats and security efforts. “Westgate becomes a prism that reflects the fraught relationship between a voracious global capitalism and a destructive international terrorism,” she said.
“If we look beyond the jihadist angle of the story, and examine the nexus of security, marketing, and violence, a much more complex picture of the Westgate attacks arises,” Mirgani said. The Westgate Mall is situated in the Westlands district of Nairobi, adjacent to a slum. When it was built, the mall destroyed the informal markets in the area, so it was already a site of contestation. Mirgani said there is a division between urban spaces for those who can afford to partake, and an alien and discordant one for those who cannot.
Neoliberal capitalist practices, and by implication shopping malls, assist in the propagation of unequal power relations. In developing countries, shopping malls are imported wholesale with little regard for their existing surroundings. With its ubiquitous products offered by global distribution networks, “it is in the shopping mall that Nairobi most resembles New York. An attack on one can be symbolically read as an attack on the other,” Mirgani argued.
Cities are imbued with visible hallmarks of war: surveillance technology, barricades, weapons, patrols, and armed and masked personnel on both sides of the ideological divide, Mirgani said. Veterans returning to the US from Iraq and Afghanistan are top candidates for security jobs in shopping malls. In addition, there is an infiltration of surveillance into everyday spaces. The ubiquity of surveillance and CCTV footage means terror attacks are increasingly being recorded, disseminated, and consumed, she said.
Explaining the media’s role in the Westgate attack, Mirgani presented the event as a case study to examine how media networks and extremists each played a role in creating a “spectacle of terror.” She argued: “The Westgate Mall siege was a made-for-television event from the beginning.” Since witness testimonies of the attacks varied wildly, with many disagreeing on what they saw, the only real evidence was gathered from recordings from CCTV cameras and victims’ mobile phones. There was an extraordinary array of visual material produced over the four-day siege, serving to fuel 24-hour news network competition, feeding them with a steady stream of images, audiences, and advertising revenue. Mirgani explained how news networks and entertainment networks are vertically aligned, often owned by the same parent corporation, making their content similar in style and substance.
The violence of the attack was appropriated by both al-Shabaab and the media, making the relationship between them a kind of “symbiosis,” Mirgani said. In the past, extremists had to rely on the news media for the dissemination of their message, but through social media and other channels, they no longer are dependent on editors and network owners. Now there is a reversal of the traditional roles of audiences and news media in which social media users not only report breaking news, but are the source of breaking news. “Terrorists and their critics compete with one another through commodification of violence,” she said.
Mirgani said when she saw pictures of the Westgate Mall disaster, she was reminded of another atrocity from a few months before, the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, in which over 1,000 people died. This was an eight-story commercial building, housing garment factories producing clothing for global brands. Questions emerged for Mirgani about the relationship between international terrorism and global capitalist practice. “Rana Plaza was not made into a global media spectacle as it did not fit within the lucrative ‘fear economy,’ and the prevailing discourse of terror,” she said. “We tend to separate violences: the violence in the capitalist mode of production is ‘normal,’ and to some extent even tolerable, but terrorist violence is alien and unacceptable.”
Atrocities of the neoliberal model are viewed as the unfortunate byproduct of conducting business in the Third World—using subcontractors and outsourced organizations—and not considered to be a problem with the model itself. Violence is a feature of global neoliberal practice as well as a feature of international terrorist practice, Mirgani said. “Even though terrorism and consumerism are conceived as antithetical practices, Westgate Mall provided a ground zero for these supposedly oppositional ends of the spectrum to meet on common ground.” The Westgate shopping mall case study is a space where daily consumption is increasingly militarized and where terrorism and security are increasingly commercialized, she said.
Suzi Mirgani is Managing Editor for Publications at CIRS. She is author of Target Markets: International Terrorism Meets Global Capitalism in the Mall (Transcript Press, 2017); and is co-editor of Bullets and Bulletins: Media and Politics in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings (with Mohamed Zayani, Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2016); and Food Security in the Middle East (with Zahra Babar, Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2014). She is an independent filmmaker working on highlighting stories from Qatar and the Gulf.
Article by Jackie Starbird, Publications and Projects Assistant at CIRS.