At least 68 people lost their lives Saturday in a terrorist attack in a popular shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya's bustling capital city -- the worst such assault the country has seen in years. The onslaught was sudden, ruthless and bloody; men, women and children alike were wounded or shot dead by a group of 10-15 highly skilled assailants. Nairobi security forces continue to pursue the perpetrators, most of whom were still inside the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall along with a small group of hostages as of this writing.

Kenya has not witnessed an attack this deadly since 1998, when an explosion at the American embassy in Nairobi -- concurrent with another attack against the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania -- killed hundreds and wounded thousands. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were indicted for the atrocity, bringing a shadowy group called al-Qaeda into the public spotlight like never before.

The Westgate attack has Nairobi -- and the world -- reeling once again. The incident will have major implications in a region where terrorist activity has been on the rise for years, and where some of Africa's fastest-growing economies are located. 

A Militant Movement

Al Shabab, an Islamist militant group, has claimed responsibility for the attack. The group is based in Somalia, which suffered two decades of endemic violence, recurring famine and widespread poverty after a coup ousted former President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. A new constitution and government, implemented last year, were hailed as milestones for the country of 11 million, and the international community is pitching in to help reconstruct the battered nation. 

Al Shabab, which means "the youth" or “the boys,” is rooted in the patchwork collection of Islamist groups that vied for power after 1991. It became a more cohesive and influential organization following its seizure of the Somalian capital city of Mogadishu in 2006, but an invasion by Ethiopian troops took the city back in December of that year. That event radicalized the group even further; al-Shabab was recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States in 2008, and formally linked up with al-Qaeda in 2012. 

Kenya has been a primary target for al-Shabab fighters ever since Nairobi sent thousands of Kenyan troops to fight in Somalia. The Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has used troops from various African countries to fight the militants since 2007, but Kenya's ramped-up involvement since October 2011 has been instrumental in pushing al-Shabab out of its most important strongholds, including Mogadishu and the port town of Kismayo.

Ever since the beginning of that operation, dubbed Linda Nchi (which means “protect the country” in Swahili) by the Kenyan government, terrorist attacks have been on the rise. Grenades were lobbed in Nairobi, killing at least seven people, within weeks of the Linda Nchi's initiation. Throughout 2012, al-Shabab has launched several attacks against bars and shopping complexes in Nairobi and the port city Mombasa. This year, dozens of security workers have lost their lives in skirmishes at border towns like Dadaab and Garissa.

On its Twitter account, al-Shabab said of the Westgate attack: "What Kenyans are witnessing is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military." Extremist groups all across Africa -- including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, based in the Sahel, and Boko Haram in Nigeria --- are often fraught by division and infighting, and al-Shabab is no different. The group's leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, consolidated power this year and oversaw the killing of several of the militia's top personalities. Godane is considered a particularly extremist hardliner. If the Westgate attack is any indication, his tenure as al-Shabab's leader is likely to take the group in an even more violent direction.

Many Muslims in Africa have taken pains to distance themselves from this latest atrocity and from violent extremism in general. At a conference in Mogadishu this month, about 160 religious scholars gathered to condemn al-Shabab with a strongly worded fatwa. "Al-Shabab has strayed from the correct path of Islam, leading the Somali people onto the wrong path. The ideology they are spreading is a danger to the Islamic religion and the existence of the Somali society," it said, according to the BBC, adding that the group "must atone to God and must cease its erroneous ideology and criminal actions."

Economic Blowback

The perpetrators of the Westgate attack chose their target strategically. The shopping center is a popular destination  not only for well-heeled Kenyans but also for international tourists and dignitaries. It has been reported that among those killed were the Ghanaian poet, professor and former ambassador Kofi Awoonor, a Canadian diplomat, and nationals from countries including India, the U.K., France and South Africa. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said his own nephew was also among the dead.

The mall itself, a five-story complex full of high-end shops, is a clear sign of Kenya's rapid economic growth. The IMF says the country is on track to see its GDP expand by 6 percent this year, and Nairobi is becoming increasingly well-known as a hub for entrepreneurship and innovation. "Westgate is the heart of the middle class – it represents the whole new modern mall culture. Whether you are white, black or brown, it was a place everyone would visit,” said Aly-Khan Satchu, a Nairobi-based investment analyst, to the Financial Times. “This is driving a stake into the economic heart of the new Nairobi – this is the heart of our lives that has been hit.”

The attack could endanger Kenya's growth by deterring foreign investment -- inflows of which hit $382.3 million in the second quarter of this year -- and discouraging tourism, which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and contributes up to 12 percent of annual GDP. But analysts do not see the attack as a long-term threat to Kenya's economy; instead, it signifies broader tensions between the haves and the have-nots in a fast-growing region. 

Al-Shabab is rooted in a poverty-stricken state. Although it was able to procure up to $50 million annually from its former hub in Kismayo via racketeering and a shady network of global financiers, recruitment of young fighters is easiest in struggling areas. Its targets, on the other hand, do not tend to be in poor communities. Extremist groups including al-Shabab often set their sights on commercial centers and tourist attractions where the victims are more likely to be affluent. This tactic allows al-Shabab to position itself as a defender of the downtrodden, a message with wide appeal. Even within thriving economic hubs in Africa, growth is rarely broad-based. In Kenya, unemployment is up around 40 percent, and at least one-third of the population lives in poverty. 

Addressing equality across the region is a slow process. In Kenya, the administration talks a good game about battling unemployment, but the public remains highly suspicious of a government where corruption tends to compromise development initiatives. In Somalia, international efforts to help fund a recovery are under way -- foreign donors pledged $2.4 billion toward that end at a conference in Brussels last week -- and that aid could help to erode al-Shabab's power base, assuming it is well-spent.

Political Posturing

Before the Westgate attack, Kenya's top story was taking place in The Hague. Vice President William Ruto was there for his trial at the International Criminal Court; he has been charged with backing militias that committed atrocities against civilians five years ago. President Kenyatta has also been indicted on similar charges; his trial is scheduled for November. Both politicians assert their innocence. In light of this weekend's tragedy, the ICC allowed Ruto to head home on Monday, a decision that hints at the huge significance of the prosecution of Kenya's national leaders. The cases have had far-reaching effects. African leaders from across the continent have long accused the ICC of meddling in their domestic affairs, noting that all eight investigations currently on the court's docket are based in Africa. And while Kenyatta and Ruto have pledged to cooperate in their own court proceedings, Kenya's parliament recently voted to withdraw itself from the ICC altogether. Now, the African Union has called a summit this month to discuss mass withdrawal from the ICC.

The Westgate attack could actually bolster Kenya's -- and Africa's -- solidarity on this point. This traumatic incident has already raised domestic and international profiles of both Kenyatta and the recently returned Ruto, both of whom pledge to continue their fight against al-Shabab. It also diminishes, if only slightly, the ethnic divisions that have plagued Kenyan democracy for decades.

Religious divisions, on the other hand, may deepen. The number of Muslims in Kenya, a country of 44 million people, is disputed -- the official estimate is that they represent around 11 percent of the total population, though some say as many as one-third of the country practices Islam. At least 2.5 million residents of Kenya are of Somali descent, and many of these citizens live in a Nairobi suburb called Eastleigh, which is commonly referred to as “Little Mogadishu.” Last November, following a grenade attack in Nairobi that killed at least nine people, crowds of non-Muslim Kenyans went on a rampage through Little Mogadishu, damaging property and calling for the Somali community to leave. It was a poignant reminder that religious co-existence can be fragile, and that tragic attacks can sometimes elicit misguided attempts at retribution. Reuters reports that several Eastleigh residents are currently bracing for a backlash. "This will be bad for business here. Some of the shops here will have to close," said Farrah Abdi, a 19-year-old ethnic Somali. "I consider myself more of a Kenyan ... My whole life is here," he added.

Long Roads Ahead

Maintaining peace and unity will be one of the Nairobi administration’s biggest challenges in the aftermath of this weekend's deadly attack, but it won't be the only one. Securing the city of Nairobi, mourning the victims, pursuing al-Shabab in Somalia, maintaining economic growth and dealing with the demands of an international criminal court will all be weighing on the Kenyan administration over the coming months. 

But for the time being, the country -- and especially Nairobi -- will be mourning the loss of dozens of lives as more and more details about the attack, and its perpetrators, become clear. "The despicable perpetrators of this cowardly act hoped to intimidate, divide and cause despondency among Kenyans. They would like us to retreat into a closed, fearful and fractured society where trust, unity and enterprise are difficult to muster," said President Kenyatta in a statement Sunday. "The way we lead our lives, in freedom, openness, unity and consideration for each other, represents our victory over all those who wish us ill," he added.