Harsh Lessons from Westgate

Terror attack that left more than 60 people dead shows limits of Africa’s counter-terrorism strategy

Harsh Lessons from Westgate Harsh Lessons from Westgate

Uncategorized September 29, 2013 0

Kenyan Red Cross setting up a triage center in front of the westgate mall in Nairobi. Kenyan Red Cross photo Harsh Lessons from Westgate... Harsh Lessons from Westgate
Kenyan Red Cross setting up a triage center in front of the westgate mall in Nairobi. Kenyan Red Cross photo

Harsh Lessons from Westgate

Terror attack that left more than 60 people dead shows limits of Africa’s counter-terrorism strategy

Around midday on Saturday, Sept. 21, between 10 and 20 attackers armed with automatic weapons entered the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. In the following hours, they shot indiscriminately at the hundreds of shoppers, killing at least 60, took an unknown number of hostages and barricaded themselves in shops and a cinema in the complex.

It took security forces nearly four days to end the ensuing siege, during which time at least six soldiers and several of the attackers were killed and parts of the building collapsed. At the time of writing, the Kenyan Red Cross still lists 60 persons as missing, bringing the potential toll of Kenya’s worst terrorist attack since the 1998 embassy bombings to over 100 dead.

Al Shabaab, an Islamist militia fighting Kenyan and government troops in neighboring Somalia has claimed responsibility for the attack. Events are still unfolding and new details come to light every hour, but “Kenya’s brutal coming of age” — as an analysis by the International Crisis Group put it — already teaches some harsh lessons to Kenyans and the international community alike.

Kenyan soldiers in Somalia. U.N./Stuart Price photo

Kenya’s intelligence and security services are pretty terrible

At least some members of the attack team were not Kenyan or Somali.

Accounts vary, but the Kenyan government confirmed the presence of several British and American nationals among the assailants. Witness accounts claim that parts of the group spoke excellent English. Presumably, Al Shabaab chose foreign nationals for the attack, because they knew that those could move more freely in Nairobi, a town filled to the brim with expats working for international organizations like the United Nations.

What isn’t clear, is why Kenya’s and other intelligence services didn’t notice the assembly of an international terrorist all-stars team in the city.

Experts and the intelligence community alike have warned for years that Kenya in general and the Westgate mall in particular are prime targets for Islamist terror groups: The mall and several shops in it are owned by Israelis and draw an international crowd. Allegedly, the attackers went as far as renting an empty shop in the mall to place backup weapons before the attack. This may be one of the reasons why they managed to hold out for so long. The preparation for this attack must have taken months and that none of the dozens of agencies active in Kenya noticed anything (and that some possible leads were plainly ignored) should worry everybody.

Then there is the response to the attack itself. While police were on the scene quickly, they weren’t able to respond to the carnage effectively. The Kenyan government reacted by sending in the army, supported by Israeli and U.S. advisors. Hundreds of soldiers surrounded the mall, helicopters circled over it and armored vehicles drove up — only for the siege to last three more days.

Kenya is a key ally of the U.S. military in the region and its security forces have received training and support from U.S. partners for years. Its army is said to be one of Africa’s most capable and best equipped as the result. Still, it failed to deal with the attack, seemingly unable to get reliable information on what was going on in the mall, as well as being unable to quickly eliminate the attackers and free additional hostages. This puts both capacity of local forces, as well as western training under a bad light.

To add insult to injury, official communication was a disaster, with every government agency involved trying to outdo everybody else — and even individual officers on the scene taking to Twitter to broadcast their views and (dis)information. It is still not clear, for example, why parts of the building collapsed.

While early police reports put the blame on the attackers who reportedly had put parts of the building on fire, others claimed that security forces had tried to blast their way into the building through the roof — which would make no sense whatsoever, if earlier reports that the terrorists had been isolated in the lower two floors of the building were true.

Even if security services were better, the Westgate attack would still have been possible

Essentially, the Westgate attack consisted of some gunmen wreaking havoc in a lightly secured public space. The harsh truth: such things can’t be averted. All the ingredients are available in Kenya and will be for some time to come: guns, motivated people to use them and soft targets.

Kenya borders several countries with recent (or active) experiences of civil war. Borders are porous and light weapons flow freely in East Africa. Shootings between cattle herders and raiders are common in Kenya’s north and assault rifles are relatively easy to conceal.

Kenya has also an ample supply of frustrated young men and women. Poverty is rampant and decades of divisive politics have alienated parts of the population from the government. Conservative Muslim movements on the coast are actively suppressed, because they combine religious teachings with secessionist tendencies. With Al Shabaab reportedly offering a monthly salary of $300 to everybody willing to join, “homegrown” terrorism is here to stay in Kenya.

Lastly, Kenya has ample potential targets which are impossible to adequately secure. It boasts one of the largest tourism industries in Africa, is home to hundreds of international organizations and a growing middle class demanding facilities like Westgate. But shopping centers, schools, cinemas and places of religious gatherings are impossible to secure from determined gunmen, as repeated and regular shooting sprees in the U.S. show.

Burundian soldiers during a night attack on Al Shabaab positions near Mogadishu. U.N./Stuart Price photo

The strategy of repression has failed

There is much talk about Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, which provides the background and — for Al Shabaab — the justification for the Westgate attack. But the East African quest to violently suppress Islamists in Somalia actually began way earlier.

In 1999, the Islamic Courts Union took power in Mogadishu, after the city had been ruled by feuding warlords since 1991. The ICU was definitely “Islamist” by any common sense of the word, shutting down cinemas and soccer games as well as inflicting harsh punishments based on a medieval interpretation of Islamic law. But it was also the first real authority that much of Somalia had known since the collapse of the state and subsequent abandonment by the international community, led by the United States, after the “Black Hawk Down” incident.

The ICU reached out to the Bush administration and regional governments, but nobody was interested in a dialogue with Islamists. Ethiopia, sensing an opportunity, secured U.S. support and invaded, ousting the ICU from Mogadishu.

This is where Al Shabaab enters the stage. The ICU’s youth wing, Al Shabaab was more radical and extreme in its religious teachings. While the ICU collapsed, Al Shabaab emerged from its ashes and branded itself as the defender of Somali independence against outside aggression. In that sense, outside intervention only served to strengthen the most radical elements of Somalia’s Islamists.

Al Shabaab proceeded to retake much of the territory formerly controlled by the ICU, but was held in check by an African Union peacekeeping mission. Then, two years ago, Kenya joined the fray, invading southern Somalia to create a buffer zone between Al Shabaab and its eastern provinces. The result: put under severe pressure, the group descended into infighting, from which the current radical leadership responsible for the attack on Westgate emerged victorious.

With every iteration of this circle of violence, Al Shabaab and Islamist terrorism in East Africa has become more, not less, violent and extreme.

Analysts are at odds if the Westgate attack is a sign of Al Shabaab’s weakness, or its strength. Maybe a concerted response by Kenya, other regional powers and the international community will finally crush the organization. But this will only drive its hardest core further outside the reach of dialogue and moderation.

Soldiers of the African Union AMISOM mission standing guard in Somalia at dawn. U.N./Stuart Price photo

“Solving terrorism” is not a security issue

Taken together, these hard truth mean essentially one thing: ultimately, terrorism is not a security issue and can’t be solved by military means. While a sound system of national security can protect citizens in Kenya and elsewhere from some forms of political violence, the responsibility lies with the politicians and other sectors of society to identify the underlying reasons of this violence and act upon them.

Kenya would do well to look at its past policy towards Somalia and determine if — while inexcusable in their violence — some explanation for the Westgate attack can be found there.

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