Monday, September 23, 2013

Westgate Terror Attack – Nairobi’s 26/11

On 21st September around noon about ten to fifteen gunmen stormed the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Westlands District of Nairobi, Kenya shooting and killing scores of shoppers and wounding nearly 180 people. Last reports put the fatalities at 63, a figure that was expected to rise. At the time of writing this article, the standoff between the security forces and the terrorists were continuing. The Islamist group based in Somalia, the al-Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the attack and characterised it as retribution for the Kenyan military action in Somalia. It must be noted that the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is an active, regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations in Somalia. It is mandated to support transitional governmental structures, implement a national security plan, train the Somali security forces, and to assist in creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid. As part of its duties AMISOM assists Somalian government forces in its fight against al-Shabaab militants. 

When the attack started, Westgate was packed with shoppers (some witnesses put the figure at 1000) and people sitting down to lunch on Saturday. On the second floor of the three-story building, near the roof car park, a cooking competition for about 50 preschool-aged children was also under way. Witnesses sitting outside ArtCaffe on the ground floor said that a group of people armed with assault weapons and dressed in black drove up by the main entrance at about noon (09:00 GMT).

The Attackers

The group responsible for the Nairobi attack Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM) is also known as Mujahideen Youth Movement or Movement for Striving Youth, commonly known as al-Shabaab (“the youth” or “the boys”)

Al-Shabaab is also known as Ash-Shabaab, Hizbul Shabaab (Arabic: "Party of the Youth"), and the Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations (PRM). For short, the organization is referred to as HSM, which stands for "Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen". The term Shabaab means "youth" in Arabic.

HSM is an off-shoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which disintegrated into several smaller factions after its defeat in 2006 by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its Ethiopian military allies. Islamic Courts Union was a group of Sharia Courts that united themselves to form an administration opposed to TFG. Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was the head of the ICU. 

Till the end of 2006 ICU controlled much of Southern Somalia and major cities including the capital Mogadishu. In December 2006 ICU lost much of the territory controlled by it after suffering defeats in the battles of Baidoa, Bandiradley and Beledweyne. On 28th December 2006 they were forced out of Mogadishu and had to abandon the port city of Kismayo on 1st January 2007.

After the reverses on the battlefield, the hard-line Islamist elements broke ranks with the ICU to form groups like the al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam and continued to wage war against the TFG.

The al-Shabaab has declared that it was waging a jihad (holy war) against enemies of Islam and has been combating TFG and the AMISOM. The outfit is suspected of having links with the Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. 

While the identity of the individual attackers has not been clear, the terror outfit has tweeted that out of some 15 gunmen two were British men from London - Liban Adam and Ahmed Nasir Shirdoon. It is alleged that three Americans, a Canadian and a Finn were among the hostage takers. And it is also suspected that the attack was being led by Samantha Lewthwaite - the "white widow" of a 7/7 bomber. However, an al Shabab military commander named Abu Omar, who claims to be in contact with the gunmen inside the mall, claimed that no women or Westerners were involved in the attack. Speaking to the BBC radio, he said the reports of Britons or Americans being involved were "baseless rumours". "To verify, we do not employ our sisters to carry out military attacks of this type," he added.

Links to Piracy and Financing

Al Shabaab has long been thought to be connected with Somali pirate groups operating in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, but it had been difficult to establish a direct connection between the Islamists and pirates. In December 2010, al Shabaab took control of a pirate base called Harardheere from Hizbul Islam, another Islamist group in Somalia, and reportedly reached a compromise with the local pirate gangs that would give the militants a 20 percent share of all ransoms received from the hijacking of ships. While there is no documentation to confirm such a deal, its share of the ransom money certainly has been lucrative for al Shabaab. Revenues from piracy also have boosted development in parts of Somalia, making it politically even more difficult to put a stop to pirate activity.[1]

Target Kenya

Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country) was the codename for a coordinated military operation launched by the armed forces of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, France and the United States on 16th October 2011 when troops from Kenya crossed the border into the battle zones of Southern Somalia. The operation was aimed at al-Shabaab militant group which was responsible for abducting foreign tourists and aid workers from Kenya.

Al-Shabaab officially denied involvement in any of the kidnappings.  Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for the group, said that its fighters would attack Kenya unless the Kenyan troops are withdrawn. He also claimed that bombardment by Kenyan aircraft had caused damage to infrastructure and civilian casualties. According to the news channel Al Jazeera, al-Shabaab have attempted to capitalize on the incursion by depicting itself as a resistance force fighting foreign occupiers and urged local residents to take up arms against the Kenyan soldiers.

Kenya’s involvement in the operation mentioned above and in AMISOM and its geographical proximity to Somalia made it an attractive target. Also, there have been warnings in the past of an impending attack inside Kenya. The Sunday Telegraph claimed that it had seen United Nations documents that warned last month of an "attempted large-scale [terror] attack" as "elevated."

Striking similarities to Mumbai 26/11

The attack on Westgate brought back memories of the 26th November 2008 attack on Mumbai when about ten well-armed terrorists belonging to the Pak-based Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out a military-style commando attack on multiple targets in South Mumbai including the Taj and Oberoi-Trident Hotels, the Chhabad House in Colaba and the CST Railway Station. The siege lasted for nearly 60 hours before all the terrorists were neutralized. The attackers of the Nairobi Mall seem to have copied the Mumbai attack with one difference, namely, that the attackers in Nairobi have chosen a single target (the shopping mall) instead of multiple targets as in the case of Mumbai. Also a similar pattern seems to be emerging in Nairobi with the standoff entering the third day and the security forces having little or no clue on the number of attackers and the fate of the hostages, if any, in the custody of the terrorists. The Mumbai attackers’ targets were Westerners apart from the local populace. Hence the Taj and Oberoi-Trident frequented by Westerners were targeted. In the Westgate attack, the mall in question was popular with the expats. 

Another similarity between the two attacks is that the attackers were executing hostages after determining their religion – it has been reported by eyewitnesses that the attackers lined up hostages and asked them to either recite verses from the Quran or the name of the Prophet’s mother. If the hostages were unable to do so they were shot. In the Mumbai attack, one of the targets was Jewish – the Chhabad House; in the Nairobi attack, the mall is owned by an Israeli businessman. However the spokeswoman Ilana Stein of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the attack took place near but not inside the Israeli-owned ArtCaffe. She added that one Israeli was slightly injured and three others escaped unharmed, and that the Kenyan interior minister Joe Lenku said Israelis were not targeted. "This time, the story is not about Israel. The minister is saying that this is an internal Kenyan issue. His security forces tell him that this terror organisation was not targeting Israelis."

Though there is no known nexus between the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the al-Shabaab, both being affiliated to Al Qaeda, there is a strong possibility of the al-Shabaab cadres being trained by the LeT in its camps.

Lessons for India

According to Praveen Swami, the Nairobi attacks should be bringing home one lesson to New Delhi policy makers: in a globalised world, Indian nationals and interests are at threat far from the country’s frontiers. In Kenya alone, there are more than 11,000 Indian citizens. With the United States no longer willing to lead the war on terror single-handed, it’s imperative for India to play a greater role in global counter-terrorism efforts, committing wealth—and yes, lives—to defend its citizens.[2]


It is difficult, at this stage, to make any assessment of the tactics adopted by the Kenyan security forces in tackling the terrorist attack. There have been reports of involvement and assistance by the Israeli Special Forces and personnel from the US and Great Britain. The exact role being played by the foreign forces' personnel is not yet known. A full-fledged assessment on the role of the security agencies is possible only after the episode ends. In conclusion, it must be said that no state can afford to under-estimate the capabilities of so-called regional or localized terror groups in carrying out attacks beyond their borders or region. The United States and the United Kingdom must take note of this fact or else a group like Boko Haram or al-Shabaab may carry out the next attack on their soils.


Pete said...

Hi Kumar

All of these Islamic extremist actions: in India Pak, Afgh, Syria, Egypt, N Africa down to Kenya, Indonesia and the Philippines certainly indicates the WoT is not over, rather it is expanding.

Use of NSA anti-terror technology seems more necessary than ever. Increased contact between the NSA and India's equivalent (NTRO?) seems necessary.



Kumar said...

Hi Pete

Unfortunately, international terrorism seems to be spiraling out of control. What is needed is a truly global effort to target rogue states which sponsor and aid terror. The WoT is far from over.

Thanks & regards