Lessons from Westgate raid 10 years later

Thursday, September 21st, 2023 06:00 | By
Lessons from Westgate raid 10 years later
People flee from the Westgate Mall during the terrorist attack on September 21, 2013. PHOTO/PD/Print

Kenya today marks 10 years since the September 21 Westgate Mall terror attack.

The response by the various security agencies was largely seen as uncoordinated, leading to a prolonged siege, and characterized by rivalry and blame games.

An audit later identified the gaps and the government came up with a raft of measures, key among them the multi-agency approach in detecting, deterring and dealing with such attacks.

As a result, there has been improved coordination between security agencies as was witnessed during the Dusit D2 terror attack, surveillance of terror threats, tighter rules on registering mobile phone lines, among others.

Other measures included the enactment of the Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 and the establishment of a Multi-Agency Taskforce (MAT) which helped agencies to collaborate better.

Many more terror attack attempts have been foiled within and along the Kenya-Somali border.

The audit further concluded that the private security guards were major players in the industry and needed to be embraced.

The MAT approach has since enabled security officers drawn from different agencies to collaborate, leading to a significant improvement in the state of security in the country.

This helped in the response to the nearby DusitD2 hotel and office complex attack in January 2019, where 21 people died.

Police and military counter-terror units, foreign security personnel, ambulance and fire brigade personnel coordinated to end the assault.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki says they have thwarted dozens of similar terror-related attempts since 2013 even as he commended security agencies for their actions.

According to the investigators, the Westgate attackers exploited the lax procedures in obtaining mobile phone lines in Kenya.

The probe further revealed that the terrorists’ tradecraft in preparation for the Westgate attack led to the issuance of eight mobile numbers and a network of potentially Somalia-linked numbers.

Possible collusion

These numbers were either assessed to be associated with the attackers who were inside the mall for four days or part of the support and facilitation tier used in preparation for the attack.

A report by the UN Security Council Monitoring Group says that from the eight Kenyan-issued numbers identified, seven were found to be geo-located at the Westgate scene on either 21 September or through to 23 September 2013.

Five of the numbers were apparently all activated and switched on within the deployment/attack’ phase between 17 and 21 September 2013 in Eastleigh in Nairobi.

This is in addition to six of the same numbers all being registered under indigenous names.

At least six of the numbers were all registered with the M-Pesa money transfer service but with either actual or operational names.

“This is also suggestive of possible collusion of mobile phone vendors,” the report says.

The report further adds that one of the planners frequently visited Westgate for surveillance and kept communicating with the planners in Somalia. Had the guards been trained well, they could have noticed this, officials say.

According to the report, before the attack, the security agencies had demonstrated their capability both analytically and operationally in containing many of the terror group’s complex and spectacular plots.

To deter further attacks, security agencies have also stepped up security around vital installations likely to be a target of attack by militants whose activities are still rampant in the Northeastern region and some parts of Lamu County.

The National Counter Terrorism Centre is at the centre of the implementation of the policy by enlisting and sustaining the support of different government ministries, departments and agencies in the fight against terrorism.

The military, National Intelligence Service, police, courts, and office of the Director of Public Prosecutions are involved in multi-agency operations.

There is an improvement in coordination and response by security agencies.

In an interview with People Daily, Security expert Richard Tuta says the response from the security agencies in 2013 during the Westgate Mall attack was largely uncoordinated and this is what led to a great number of people being killed and affected.

Tuta recalls that thirty minutes after the attack was reported, no one had come up with an idea that the attack was not a normal robbery.

“If you look at the response to the Dusit attack, it was an improvement from the lessons learned at the Westgate Mall attack. The first responders thought it was a normal robbery. For Dusit, the response time was short the operation lasted very minimal hours and the damage did not exceed because the attackers had not maximized what they wanted to do. There was better coordination in Dusit,” Tuta stated.

He added that private security guards will now complement the vacuum in the sector but they can be a double-edged sword.

“If poorly selected, poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly remunerated then they become a threat to the security,” he stated.

He added that at the moment Kenya cannot afford to have police officers manning everywhere hence private security guards are the first steps towards the one thousand mile of having officers around every building.

No major large-scale attacks have been witnessed recently, with the Al-Shabaab focusing on the North Eastern Region where officers have been losing lives after their vehicles hit Improvised Explosive Devices hidden underground by the militia.

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