Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Westgate Terror Attack - A Preliminary Analysis

After much confusion the Kenyan government on Tuesday, 24th September claimed that the standoff at the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi had ended with the Kenyan security forces taking control of the entire complex. The confusion arose primarily, due to the fact that every time a Kenyan dignitary spoke of the siege having ended, the international media reported of explosions and gunfire at the site. Hence, the status of the standoff remained unclear till the evening of 24th September. 

The Kenyan President addressed the nation stating that the hostage-takers had been overcome and that 62 civilians and six security personnel had been killed; five terrorists were also killed during the course of the operation carried out by the security forces and that eleven suspects were in custody. However, there have been reports of some attackers escaping within few hours of the assault on the mall along with the shoppers. President Kenyatta said that three floors of the mall collapsed during the operation and that bodies were trapped under the rubble. The Kenyan Red Cross said that as many as 65 civilians reported to have been inside the mall were missing, suggesting that the death toll could rise sharply in the days ahead.

The attack by the al-Shabaab left Kenya and Kenyans in a state of shock and disbelief, just as the November 2008 Mumbai attacks shocked and outraged India. The government of Kenya has the onerous responsibility to find out the lapses in its security and must now dispassionately dissect the entire episode, with or without assistance from friendly foreign agencies and take steps to prevent the recurrence of a similar attack. The Kenyans cannot deny that there were shortcomings in their security, for there have been reports of warnings that the Westgate Mall was a target and in the past Kenya had suffered terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Al Qaeda.

The attack highlights the failure of Kenyan intelligence; the Kenyan National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS) re-named the National Intelligence Service did not seem to have any clue about the attack. The NIS ought to have kept tabs on the terror group considering the fact that Kenyan forces have been battling the al-Shabaab in Somalia for the past three years and there was a potential threat emanating from this group.

Like in the case of other terror attacks of this magnitude, a lot of planning seems to have been done before the execution of the plot. The New York Times reports that the plot was hatched weeks or months ago on Somali soil, by the Shabab’s “external operations arm”. A team of English-speaking foreign fighters was carefully selected, along with a target: Nairobi’s gleaming Westgate mall. The building’s blueprints were studied, down to the ventilation ducts. The attack was rehearsed and the team dispatched, slipping undetected through Kenya’s porous borders, often patrolled by underpaid — and deeply corrupt — border guards. 

A day or two before the attack, powerful belt-fed machine guns were secretly stashed in a shop in the mall with the help of a colluding employee, officials say. At least one militant had even packed a change of clothes so he could slip out with fleeing civilians after the killings were done. 

The New York Times report also stated “American officials said the militants must have had a back office in Kenya, a safe house to finalize their plot and store their guns. Witnesses said several militants had toted G3 assault rifles, a bulky weapon that Kenyan security services use. Intelligence analysts say this may mean the militants acquired their weapons from corrupt Kenyan officers, who are known to sell or rent out their guns, charging as little as a few dollars an hour.” 

A thorough reconnaissance also seems to have been carried out. Or else it would have been extremely difficult for the attackers to have survived for almost four days in the mall.

It is erroneous to assume that the attackers slipped into Kenya from across the porous border. The attackers probably came on forged passports from various countries and assembled in a safe house before carrying out the attack. The attackers seemed to have also got logistical support from local Kenyan converts or from migrant Somalis. It is quite difficult for a group of foreign terrorists to enter into an alien country and execute a fedayeen-style attack without any local assistance. 

At the urging of Al-Shabaab, an increasing number of terrorist attacks in Kenya have been carried out by local Kenyans, many of whom are recent converts to Islam. Because the Kenyan insurgents have a different profile from the Somali and Arab militants that allows them to blend in with the general population of Kenya, they are also often harder to track.

According to the BBC, a huge part of Kenya’s security is handled by private contractors, which employ lowly paid workers who have limited contact with the state security system.

Some members of the National Assembly have called for the overhaul of intelligence and immigration departments blaming their laxity for allowing militants to enter the country.
The key to preventing terror strikes like the Westgate attack is the collection and dissemination of timely and accurate intelligence and pre-emptive strikes on terror camps run by al-Shabaab or Al Qaeda. It is also necessary for Kenyan intelligence to foster closer ties and cooperation with Western intelligence agencies and sharing of intelligence information.

A major fall-out of the recent terror attack could be tourism which is an important source of revenue for Kenya. The fact remains that Kenya's services sector, which contributes about 61 percent of GDP, is dominated by tourism. Terrorist attacks and apprehension of insecurity is likely to undermine the tourism industry and adversely affect the economy. Further attacks could also affect the flow of foreign investment into the country.

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