The Security Lapses That Led to the Nairobi-Mall Terrorist Attack

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Nichole Sobecki / AFP / Getty Images

A Kenyan woman comes out of an air vent where she was hiding during an attack by masked gunmen at a shopping mall in Nairobi on Sept. 21, 2013

As Kenyan security forces fought a fierce gun battle against al-Shabab militants at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall on Monday, trying to break the three-day hostage siege, some wondered how the country’s intelligence and police services could have missed the warning signs of a spectacular attack in the heart of the capital, despite the U.S. plowing billions of dollars a year into Kenya’s antiterrorism efforts — the fifth biggest such U.S. program in the world.

One clue, say experts, could lie with the patchy Kenyan police forces, which NGOs and diplomats have for years accused of rampant corruption and lack of professionalism. “You have to address corruption if you want to address terrorism,” says Anneli Botha, a senior terrorism researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, or ISS, in Pretoria, South Africa, who had spent the past three weeks in Nairobi helping to train Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit. Botha, a former police captain herself, says corruption among Kenyan police — including bribe taking among border-security officers — makes it very difficult to tackle terrorist threats. “It is a big issue among police forces, not only in Kenya but around the continent,” she told TIME by phone on Monday, back home in South Africa.

The attackers, believed to number between 10 and 15, stormed the mall on Saturday morning, while a children’s cooking contest — well publicized — was in process. About five armed attackers burst through one of the main entrances, guns blazing, while another four entered through an underground parking lot. After hours of fierce gunfire, Kenyan officials said on Monday afternoon they had broken the over 50-hour-long siege, which killed about 69 people, including at least three armed militants. Defense chief General Julius Karangi told reporters the group set mattresses on fire inside the building — explaining why thick black smoke billowed from the mall most of the day — in a ploy to escape the security cordon that ringed the area. “We have an idea who these people are, and they are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world,” he said.

But that’s little comfort to the families of victims — many whom must wonder what went wrong. In an effort to smash al-Shabab’s network in Kenya, police have recently cracked down hard on suspected terrorists, rounding up hundreds of people, frequently on patchy evidence and with little legal redress.

In May, Human Rights Watch said Kenyan police had “unleashed 10 weeks of hell” in Nairobi’s Somali refugee communities, “torturing, abusing and stealing from some of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people,” according to Gerry Simpson, who wrote a 68-page report titled You Are All Terrorists. Refugees told the organization that police had rounded up at least 1,000 people and raped several of them.

In another attempt to dismantle al-Shabab’s networks, Kenyan police have also tried to remove Somalis from city neighborhoods, and house them instead in refugee camps. That has infuriated Somalis, many of whom have lived in Kenya for decades. And apart from the Somalis themselves, police suspicion has fallen also on Muslim Kenyans, several of whom are thought to have joined al-Shabab. Witnesses to Saturday’s Nairobi siege told journalists they had seen “black men” among the attackers, and some speculate that those might include Kenyans.

In fact, the recent police crackdown could well have aggravated the situation in two ways: by boosting the organization’s ability to recruit Kenyans, and by alienating the very people Kenya needs to sniff out intelligence about al-Shabab’s plans. “The Somali population is disaffected,” says Lauren Ploch Blanchard, Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, who authored a report in February on Kenya’s potential threats. “The police patrols and crackdowns in the Somali communities have gone up quite a bit over the past couple of years,” she told TIME by phone on Monday. “It contributes to a lack of trust in the authorities, with people not quite so willing to report what is going on.”

In truth, there might have been little to prevent Saturday’s attack, which occurred in a bustling commercial hub where hundreds of people converge on Saturdays, and which has several entry and exit points. Blanchard says U.S. officials have long regarded Nairobi as a prime target for a major terrorist attack, especially since the Kenyan government intervened militarily in 2011 against al-Shabab strongholds in Somalia. Both she and Botha believe Kenyan police and military have foiled several al-Shabab plots in the capital. “It is rather surprising that an attack of this kind has not happened before,” Blanchard says. “There are a large number of Westerners, and the U.N. headquarters [for East Africa] is there.”

While there are some security guards at the entrances to Westgate mall, Botha says their presence is “window dressing.” And Botha’s colleague in Nairobi, Emmanuel Kisiangani, senior Kenya researcher for ISS, says although the guards have magnetic wands, “I’m not sure they have been functioning.” He told TIME on Monday that although officials will surely ramp up security in Nairobi after the attack, he predicts that “in a month’s time it will be relaxed again. The security is not maintained.”

69 comments
govindano1
govindano1

@Vrrbal what do you wanted them to say ? why are you being shocked ?

IanBortner
IanBortner

The only answer for nations suffering from terrorists massacres that don't want a fascist security state is the compulsory arming of all fighting age males and instruction in the use and tactics of firearms. 

AlexFeltham
AlexFeltham

Security should never be good enough in a free country to stop terrorists.

If it is you don't have a free country anymore.

A USA Today columnist suggested that Obama might visit the country of his father's birth to show solidarity.

I have my doubts about it given Obama's new ally in the "War on Terror". Now that the CIA are arming the Syrian FSA in its fight with Assad America should consider itself part of Team Al Qaeda.

There's agreat take on that in: "Our Enemy's Enemy Is Our Enemy" at:

http://john-moloney.blogspot.com/#!/2013/09/our-enemys-enemy-is-our-enemy.html

bobsackimanow
bobsackimanow

Another article slanted by the reporter And the magazine as usual. So let's not blame the attackers who killed innocent children, women and non believers, let's blame the policeThis article reminds me of the response from the US State Dept spokesperson who sated these murderers should be captured and brought to justice. No, they should be shot and killed on site. Oh and let's remember what Mr Obama stated "al Qaeda is on the run".

WamuyuGatheru
WamuyuGatheru

So what corruption was there in the London transport system, in Boston? Must have been mega corruption on 9/11...?? Please do your research before writing on important global issues.

falcon269
falcon269

The evil acts of groups and individuals are not the responsibility of the government, as you imply they are. Each terrorist is completely responsible for his own actions. Police and security have a responsibility for normal safety and law enforcement, but they do not share any of the responsibility for evil attacks, and you should not imply that they do.

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

Perhaps they don't have a trillion dollars to turn their country into a totalitarian police state? Or maybe they just don't want to.

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

weswakweli
weswakweli

You have done NOTHING to link the attack to your police corruption claims. Poor reporting.  And this: "Kenyan police have also tried to remove Somalis from city neighborhoods, and house them instead in refugee camps" is an extremely foolish way of trying to create animosity between Kenyans of all origins. Shame, shame, shame on you.

NefariousHeights
NefariousHeights

@Vivwalt ; Ouch. Don't stir up a hive of AFRICANIZED Hornets and not expect to get swarmed upon. You're writing falls short of the standards the TIME is world-renowned for. What happened to the journalistic ethos of yester-year? What passes for balanced, objective news? I'm not going to fire any more shots as everyone else already has... We would all love to hear your response.

HarpreetRPM
HarpreetRPM

@TIME well it happened so that would be an emphatic YES! Whether there is anyone to blame for any oversight is another question.

KisingerR
KisingerR

@TIME @TIMEWorld Let's avoid blaming Kenya.I was preaching in Uganda(Busia) 4 months ago and Kenyan Christians were worried about extremism.

leonkukkuk
leonkukkuk

@AndrewMwenda Americans give some millions but only for anti terrorism affecting Americans. Kenya security concerns is not on the agenda.

Kizito256
Kizito256

@AndrewMwenda just cant believe what Time reporters are thinking when it comes to color. Its like as if some are from mars

FrankNderesi
FrankNderesi

@vivwait you are such an ignorant writer. Please!! why don"t spend a little time to research your work properly before putting yourself to such shameful pulicity. I think its time for International journalism to grow up and stop using Africa as a spring board to their trophies. You just come out as ignorant, incompetent, uncouth and annoying. #totally disgusted.. 

TheWiseReptile
TheWiseReptile

@AndrewMwenda African journos, like you, have been complaining about this since world began. Tell us now why this has never been overcome

smuchope
smuchope

@AndrewMwenda They can't miss the headlines....They should remember that they ran away from Somalia after a defeat.....

lisamowmow
lisamowmow

@TIME @TIMEWorld Stop blaming them for not being able to track/anticipate every insane extremist group's action.

CheChelagat
CheChelagat

Vivienne, I am Kenyan, but what I get from this article is that you want me to accuse my Govt for an international problem, heck, even some of the attackers were American and British! I would have appreciated this more if you had suggested solutions, that's what we want now......we are hurting, we have lost. 


oedgar
oedgar

While @vivwalt may have gotten a few facts wrong like Gen Karangi's exact title, we cannot be oblivious to the fact that this attack has occured because of various reasons one of them being corruption.

Not too long ago, these Kenyan's baying for Vivian's blood will surely remember that a senior police officer was arrested for transporting would be attackers, 6 in a week charging each person KES 50, 000. The only reason the story broke out is because of his greed - not sharing the loot with juniour officers who felt cheated and ratted against their boss.

An attack of such magnitude at Westgate cannot have been carried out without help from either locals or police. A friend put this 12 hours ago on his Facebook page: Looking at this Westgate situation.....you are tempted to ask some questions and then work backwards.....an ordinary assault rifle holds 60-30 rounds if there are 15 fighters that brings the total firepower to between 450 and 900. Injured and dead stand at 237 (62+175)...target accuracy 26% to 53%....Q. How much fire power do they have...shouldn't it have ran out ...How do you move 900-450 bullets and a couple of explosives without being noticed... Was the fire-power smuggled in....did they move to this particular shop they are now cornered in intentionally or were they repelled to that corner?...... the devil is in the details

While international media houses sometimes are too lazy to put correspondents on the ground and yet want to give reports from all angles during such occurrences, you have to be objective when reading such articles.


ColloNjagi
ColloNjagi

@Tuuryare10 @TIMEWorld :that is the answer now ask a question! You can have the best military & police but without intelligence ur useless

wilhelmhalys
wilhelmhalys

@TIME @TIMEWorld there is a good book from Malcolm Gladwell"What the dog saw" expaining why intel. Services may miss out the evidences..

Njomo_Muigai
Njomo_Muigai

@WamuyuGatheruWhadaya mean. There is terrible corruption within the ranks of the Kenya Police. It is horrible. I live in Kenya and I know. Every public transport vehicle has to pay a bribe daily to operate the roads. Cops go around ALL pubs collecting money every week. Get arrested some time and you will know. So before asking the author to do her research ( which incidentally she has) think deeply about what kind of comments you make

NefariousHeights
NefariousHeights

@Vivwalt Your* for all the grammar people

Journalists must be held accountable for their words in the same way these terrorists shall be for their actions. Writing from the comforts of your homes and countries does't give you literary license to spew your own thoughts all over the internet. You're responsible for hundreds of thousands of impressions that you create for all your readers.

MMakuer
MMakuer

@TheWiseReptile, consider the West's media monopoly to answer your question on an unending complain about "white man" by African journalists

AndrewMwenda
AndrewMwenda

@MMakuer Well my point is this attempt to show that American "generosity" has been abused by "African looters" to explain tragedy in Kenya

mrwakanesa
mrwakanesa

@oedgar  i have also been wondering the same, especially on the supply of ammunition. initial attack and resisting for over 50 hrs requires nothing short of a "small" armoury. something just doesn't add up..........