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.”