Kenya mall al-shabaab attacks reveal security cracks

By Parselelo Kantai in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 23 September 2013 14:34

Black smoke was billowing from the Westgate Mall as Kenyan security forces escalated the operation to rescue the remaining hostages and hideaways still inside. It is still unclear whether the smoke is the result of the attackers detonating more explosives or whether it has come from the ongoing assault by Kenyan security operatives. A fierce gun battle had raged for most of Monday morning into the afternoon.

Rumours circulating strongly suggest that the attackers have booby-trapped the building, a reason why the government’s response had been delayed. The government has been quick to downplay speculation. But while the government insists that it has the situation under control, it is quite clear over 48 hours after the Saturday midday attack that the crew of 15 Al Shabaab attackers are still dictating terms.

So when the dust and the gunfire settles, there will be other questions

Internal Security secretary, Joseph ole Lenku reported that two of the attackers had been killed and 10 of the Kenyan forces were injured. The government’s official civilian death count stands at 62; on Sunday night, the International Red Cross had reported that 68 people had been killed. Lenku also revealed that government forces were now in control of all the mall’s four floors and its parking basement, and that the attackers were in hiding inside the mall.

Woman and grenades

Somali insurgent group, Al Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the attack late on Saturday. The identity of the attackers remains unknown although it is said that they number between 10 and 15. Eye-witnesses spoke of a woman leading the gun-toting crew that stormed the mall at noon on Saturday.

During a press conference on Monday afternoon, Ole Lenku, who was flanked by Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) Chief of Staff, Julius Karangi sought to quell the rumours by saying that all the attackers were male even if some may have been disguised as women. There is speculation that the woman involved is Samantha Lethwaite, a white British woman from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Nicknamed ‘the white widow’, she has been linked to a spate of grenade attacks on the Kenyan coast.

There is also talk that some of the other attackers are American.

In a worrying indication of how confused the situation was at the mall, one of the militants is said to have slipped out among the rescued on Saturday evening – despite a survivor claiming that he raised the alarm and that he was ignored. On monday morning the suspected al-Shabaab militant was arrested at the Nairobi airport. Whether this tactic is being used by other militants is still unclear.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Shabaab’s spokesman for military operations, Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab, claimed that the attack was driven by Kenya’s incursion into southern Somalia. And while he was vague on whether Shabaab was behind the almost 50 grenade attacks mostly in Northern Kenya, at the coast and in the Somali-dominated Eastleigh section of Nairobi, he was emphatic that KDF operations in Somalia had killed thousands and that the attack on Westgate was the group’s response.

Since October when the KDF went into southern Somalia, Kenya has been beset by low-level grenade attacks. The attacks reached a peak mid-last year with the bombings of churches in Garissa. Later in the year, grenades were detonated in buses in Nairobi. While in each case only a few people have been killed and injured, incrementally they have claimed scores of Kenyans.

No group has ever claimed responsibility for those attacks and there has been some suspicion that they were either orchestrated by Shabaab cells in Kenya or by government security operatives themselves.

Indescriminate killings

An unspecified number of civilians are still hostage. News reports late Sunday evening suggested that over 1,000 civilians had been rescued since security forces moved in on Saturday afternoon. Many of those rescued had been hiding in the various shops inside the mall.

Some claimed to have been rescued by a combination of US Special Forces and Kenyan security. Both the Americans and the Israelis – many of the shops in the upscale mall are Israeli-owned – were quick to offer support to the Kenyan government. As well, there is talk that Kenyan undercover agents were operating inside the building from quite early on after the attack and rescuing shoppers.

The initial attack could not have chosen a softer target on a busier weekend on Nairobi’s social calendar. A children’s cookery competition was proceeding in the food court on the second floor when the gunmen invaded. It is not yet known how many children were killed but reports suggested that the shooting and killing was indiscriminate. Survivors also spoke of being made to recite verses from the Koran, literally on pain of death.

And with the Safaricom Sevens International Rugby Festival going on across town and a literary festival within the Westlands neighbourhood where the Westgate Mall is located, Nairobi’s upscale shoppers were out in numbers. Opened in late 2007, the Israeli-owned mall is a four-floor monument to European and American designer labels, frequented by diplomats, expats, politicians and Nairobi’s well-heeled classes.

“They shall not get away with their despicable and beastly attack. We will punish the masterminds swiftly and very painfully,” said Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta. And the President has been personally affected: he lost a nephew, who together with his fiancée was caught up in the bloody melee inside the mall.

Prominent in this unfolding city tragedy is the loss of Ghanaian poet and diplomat, Kofi Awoonor. Taking a break from the Storymoja-Hay literary festival which he was attending, he had gone shopping with his nephew on Saturday morning. A tribute by Kenyan writers was being planned for him on Monday evening.

Since the attack, Kenyans have turned out in large numbers to assist the victims. In a moving show of solidarity, citizens queued at hospitals around the country to donate blood for the wounded.

Disappearance of operatives

While the security response has been commendable, there will be many questions to be answered by Kenya’s security agencies. Was there any prior intelligence that Al Shabaab was planning an attack? Mr Kenyatta, during a press conference Sunday, appeared to deny this, saying that this was the one planned attack that had slipped through the security cordon.

At the same time, the Westgate Mall itself, subject of much controversy a few years ago because a section of its parking is built on a riparian reserve, was always a soft target mostly because of its links to Israeli investors.

Almost every single major terrorist raid in Kenya has targeted Israeli holdings. On December 31, 1980, the Jewish-owned Norfolk Hotel was hit by a bomb linked to the PLO. In 2002, an Israeli-owned hotel in Kikambala on the Coast was attacked by suicide bombers; a rocket-launched missile narrowly missed an El Al flight taking off from the airport in Mombasa. The question of how plans to construct Westgate were given the green light may just come to haunt the government.

Since President Kenyatta was sworn in in April, he has had to contend with one security crisis after another. Crime across the country has reached crisis levels in some cases forcing the KDF to intervene, as it did with unflattering results in Mandera County, in the old Northeastern Province where a combination of clan warfare and Al Shabaab incursions have left over 100 people dead.

Then in July, Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport’s arrival terminal was destroyed by a fire. There have been others. None of these incidents have yielded either arrests or practical resolution.

So when the dust and the gunfire settles, there will be other questions to do with the wisdom of the government’s Somalia adventure and its overall security policy. Security officials acknowledge that there are over 600,000 small weapons illegally in the hands of civilians, a sobering reality when one considers the sophistication of the weapons the Westgate attackers are said to be using.

On a separate track, it was never clear why the government chose to go in pursuit of Al Shabaab when it did. Linked to this, the disappearance of 400 pro-Kenya government Somali operatives in 2011 has never been explained. Trained for months as part of the government’s strategy to deal with Shabaab, it may well be that the government itself now finds itself contending with a Frakenstein of its own creation.

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