When George W Bush, and the United States, were confronted with the spectre of an enemy willing to kill thousands of innocents to achieve an objective that, to rational beings, is unachievable, their instinct was to fight back with every weapon at their disposal. In addition to punishing an entire nation for what its leaders had done, that is, harbouring their enemy, the United States government re-wrote the rules of armed conflict. Many democratic governments have a fear of assassination, whether of their own leaders or that of the enemy, because if they bend the due process of the law to assuage their anger, so too can their enemies. It is why when the first Gulf War ended, the United States did not attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein, even though he was not similarly inclined.
The rules changed, not on 9/11, but on 19 March 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq with a first strike intended to "decapitate" the Iraqi leadership. Since then, rather than capture its enemies for trial, or kill them on the field of battle in armed combat, the United States has arrogated to itself the power to designate a person as an enemy combatant, to target that enemy combatant whenever he may be found, and to kill him and those with him with extreme prejudice. The decision to assassinate enemy combatants, whether they are in the field of battle or hiding out in a cave, is made by the President of the United States and relies on secret information collected using secret means and reviewed using a secret process that is not subject to anything that comes close to due process. When you become an enemy of the United States, your death is all but guaranteed. You may die at the hands of "special forces" or by hellfire missile fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle controlled from thousands of miles away.
There are now calls for Kenya to take the fight to al Shabaab, and its leadership, wherever they may be, to find them and to assassinate them. On 16 October 2011, Kenya launched a police action in Somalia, code-named Operation Linda Nchi, using the Kenya Defence Forces to "take the fight to al Shabaab" in its Somali strongholds. The launch of the operation was preceded by night-time raids, just like the US invasion of Iraq, by special forces. Unlike the publicity surrounding the US war in Iraq, Kenya's police action has enjoyed a level of secrecy that all Kenyans are familiar with. Whether or not al Shabaab leaders were targetted on the night before the launch of Linda Nchi remains a closely guarded secret.
Westgate is now being used as a fulcrum to leverage the Kenya government to adopt targetted assassinations as policy in the war with al Shabaab. The morality of the proposal is neither here nor there; the Kenya government has a responsibility to protect its people and its territory against the aggression of its enemies. However, if the the script to be adopted is the one adopted by the United States and Israel, then Kenyans have much to be hesitant about. Our history of secret military operations is a dark one. The Shifta Campaign, the Wagalla Massacre and Mt Elgon's Operation Okoa Maisha are merely the most infamous. The accusations of gross human rights abuses remain to go away. Given the large Kenyan Somali population, it is almost certain that some Kenyan Somalis will be accused of being members of the leadership cadre of al Shabaab and if the targetted assassination of al Shabaab leaders is approved, there are Kenyans who may find themselves in the cross-hairs of Kenyan assassins. And because the assassination business is necessarily a secret one, we will never get an opportunity to question the veracity of the information relied on by the government to assassinate an alleged enemy of the state. Further, because of the widening schisms between and among tribes in Kenya, the inherent corruption at the heart of the government, and the contests for power within the government, we will never know how many innocent Kenyans are the victims of assassination for reasons other than their being leaders or members of al Shabaab.
Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that assassinations offer only temporary relief. Iraq begot Yemen, and Afghanistan begot the tribal areas of Pakistan. US drones strikes have simply made the enemies of the US more resilient and diffuse. Al Qaeda, instead of being in the retreat, has spawned affiliates on every continent, bar perhaps Australia, South America and Antarctica. Unless the Kenya government can guarantee that assassinations in and out of Somalia of al Shabaab fighters will force the enemy to capitulate and sue for peace, this is a weapon that must be reserved for tactical reasons, not strategic ones, in the field of battle as a means of demoralising the enemy and disrupting his operations. The strategy, as always, must be to reinforce the legitimacy of the government in Mogadishu, to empower it to police the entire nation, and to prevent al Shabaab from infecting the people with its ideology. The solution to al Shabaab, as has been the case for 8 years, is political, not military.