On The Ground: Implications Of Westgate Attack

BMI View: One of our analysts on the ground was in Nairobi during the Westgate attack, Kenya's worst terrorist atrocity since the 1998 US embassy bombing. The incident raises significant questions about the efficacy of the security forces, which appear ill-equipped to handle an increasingly mobile, asymmetric and sophisticated al-Shabaab.

One of BMI's analysts was in Nairobi during the Westgate attack and its aftermath. Here, we present his observations on the implications of the incident.

The terror attack and siege at Nairobi's up-market Westgate mall, which began on September 21 and was officially declared to be over by President Uhuru Kenyatta on September 24, confirmed al-Shabaab's ability to launch large-scale operations on Kenyan soil. The extremist Salafi group, which was the dominant politico-military force in Somalia until a couple of years ago, has been threatening to carry out large-scale attacks against Kenya since before the latter's military invaded southern Somalia in October 2011 (see 'On The Ground Analysis: Somalia Embroilment Creates Rising Risks', July 10, 2013). However, until now, al-Shabaab's activities in Kenya have generally been limited to small-scale gun or grenade attacks against police posts, bars and bus stops, which have usually claimed the lives of one or two people at a time.

On The Ground: Implications Of Westgate Attack

BMI View: One of our analysts on the ground was in Nairobi during the Westgate attack, Kenya's worst terrorist atrocity since the 1998 US embassy bombing. The incident raises significant questions about the efficacy of the security forces, which appear ill-equipped to handle an increasingly mobile, asymmetric and sophisticated al-Shabaab.

One of BMI's analysts was in Nairobi during the Westgate attack and its aftermath. Here, we present his observations on the implications of the incident.

The terror attack and siege at Nairobi's up-market Westgate mall, which began on September 21 and was officially declared to be over by President Uhuru Kenyatta on September 24, confirmed al-Shabaab's ability to launch large-scale operations on Kenyan soil. The extremist Salafi group, which was the dominant politico-military force in Somalia until a couple of years ago, has been threatening to carry out large-scale attacks against Kenya since before the latter's military invaded southern Somalia in October 2011 (see 'On The Ground Analysis: Somalia Embroilment Creates Rising Risks', July 10, 2013). However, until now, al-Shabaab's activities in Kenya have generally been limited to small-scale gun or grenade attacks against police posts, bars and bus stops, which have usually claimed the lives of one or two people at a time.

The only atrocity on Kenyan soil to have approached the scale of Westgate was an attack against two churches in Garissa, where 17 people were killed when masked gunmen hurled grenades and sprayed automatic gunfire during Sunday services in July 2012. The Westgate attack entailed similar initial tactics, but resulted in an official death toll of 61 civilians, together with at least eight soldiers and policemen. The dead included a nephew of President Kenyatta and 18 foreigners, and the official toll is likely to rise further; as we went to press, the Red Cross still listed 39 people as missing.

'Westgate' also entailed a protracted siege that captivated international news outlets for at least five days, thereby providing global broadcast exposure for an extremist Islamic outfit that may well have smuggled heavy weaponry into a rented premises inside the mall before orchestrating its deadly attack.

These factors confirm that far from being a fading organisation, al-Shabaab retains a highly motivated and increasingly geopolitically ambitious core of personnel. Indeed, whilst the group's power in Somalia itself has been reduced significantly in recent years - having been forced to withdraw from Mogadishu by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in August 2011, before being pushed out of the lucrative port of Kismayo by Kenyan troops just over a year ago - its asymmetric capabilities appear more developed than ever. Further evidence of the group's non-conventional capabilities have been signalled by an attack against Mogadishu's court buildings in April and the storming of a well-protected UN compound in early June, with the latter resulting in the death of 22 people.

Significant questions remained unanswered by the Kenyan authorities, as we went to press. Initial reports put the number of attackers at between 10 and 15, and the authorities claimed that they had killed five; yet none of the bodies of the attackers have thus far been retrieved, according to foreign forensic experts who arrived expecting to examine the corpses. The Kenyan authorities state that they are holding several suspects, but have not confirmed whether any of these suspects are operatives from inside the mall. All this hints at the strong possibility that at least some of the attackers fled the scene and are still at large; some shortly after the official attack, according to fleeing witnesses who said that some of the militants changed into civilian clothes and blended into the crowds; and some possibly via an underground tunnel, later in the siege.

Further undermining the credibility of Kenya's government and the security forces, it appears that rivalry between police and army units resulted in a bungling of operations at the mall. The official armed response first came from the General Service Unit (GSU), an elite contingent of Kenya's police force, which took up positions in the mall, taking over a de facto initial response by off-duty policemen and vigilantes. However, a senior GSU officer was fatally shot by units of the Kenya Defence Force (KDF), allegedly resulting in all police and army units being temporarily withdrawn from the mall, before the military took over responsibility for the operation. This alleged temporary vacuum may have given the militants time to regroup and/or escape.

The implication of all this - together with reports of widespread looting by security services - indicate that the Kenyan authorities were almost completely unprepared for an attack of this magnitude, despite the repeated warnings from al-Shabaab that it intended to wreak revenge for the KDF's operations in southern Somalia. A report purporting to be authored by the National Intelligence Service (and dated September 2012) explicitly singled Westgate out as a target. Regardless of the veracity of this particular report, Westgate had long been viewed by security aware individuals here in Kenya as a likely target, given that it is part Israeli-owned and frequented by Kenya's political elite, UN officials and aid workers - all of whom, of course, are regarded as 'fair game' by al-Shabaab, given their complicity in the West-backed intervention Somalia.

Going forward, a significant overhaul of the Kenyan security and intelligence services is clearly required, if the establishment is to rise to the challenge of (i) preventing further large-scale attacks and (ii) responding professionally, in the event that another large-scale attack does occur. President Kenyatta's confirmation that the Westgate attack will not result in his government pulling the KDF out of southern Somalia - as explicitly demanded by al-Shabaab - indicates that the militant group very much intends to follow-up with additional operations.

Beyond high-end bars, restaurants and additional malls in Nairobi, perhaps the most vulnerable potential targets are tourist hotels on the Kenyan Coast, especially given the traction of al-Hijra, an al-Shabaab affiliate, in and around Mombasa. This threat - and widespread international media coverage of the authorities' errors during the Westgate crisis - could significantly undermine tourist arrivals, particularly given the rising suspicions that some of the culprits escaped.

Additionally, the Westgate attack may have implications for the International Criminal Court cases against President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, who are both facing trials for alleged crimes against humanity perpetrated during Kenya's 2008 post-election violence. The two may now claim that dealing adequately with the terror threat is impossible to juggle with appearing at the court, pointing to a possible termination of ostensible co-operation with the ICC - a scenario that would trigger warrants for their arrest. The ICC's continued determination to press ahead with the cases has already been signaled by the unsealing on October 2 of an arrest warrant against Kenyan journalist Walter Barasa, for allegedly offering bribes to witnesses to withdraw from the prosecution's case.

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