THE LEAD UP TO TRAGEDY: HOW KENYA’S TRAIL OF MISSTEPS LED TO THE WESTGATE MASSACRE

Crowd_fleeing_sounds_of_gunfire_near_Westgate (1)

A crowd gathered outside a local shopping centre in Kenya, going about their usual business, unaware of the bloodshed that was to commence. Suddenly, a group of heavily armed men dashed onto the scene, and began hurling grenades. Not content with this horrific action, the assailants immediately opened fire toward the unsuspecting crowd, leaving at least one person killed and two others injured. But this was not the Westgate mall massacre. This was 25 September 2013, in Kenya’s northern Wajir town.

Just a day after the conclusion of one of the deadliest attacks ever to hit Nairobi, Kenyan security forces once again found themselves unable to thwart a militant assault allegedly orchestrated by militants linked to al Shabaab. Like the fallout from the siege on the Westgate shopping centre, which took the lives of at least seventy-two people, security analysts have also been left questioning how a supposedly regional military power could be so incapacitated in the face of a clearly well-planned assault on a populated site.

For the Westgate attacks, Kenya’s preparedness and response are even more concerning. This was not just an assault on a local shopping centre. The Westgate Mall is a major destination in Nairobi, regularly attracting shoppers from across the globe, with peak-time hours averaging well over 2,000 visitors. Whilst the official account of the siege, itself, is unlikely to be revealed for some time, reports already suggest that some in the US intelligence community had previously circulated their concerns regarding the status of Nairobi as a “prime target” for a major terror attack. Even a few higher-ups in Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) raised alarm bells specifically related to the Westgate Mall leading up to the attack. Unfortunately, their anxieties proved all too real. Today, Nairobi is left to pick up the pieces and answer a rather difficult question: given the popularity of the target, as well as the transnational nature of the attack, why weren’t Kenyan forces ready? Although the actual response may be complicated, the reasons for Kenya’s inability to confront the problem of terror could arise from three main factors: the alleged corruption within its security establishment, Nairobi’s involvement in neighbouring Somalia, and, perhaps more controversially, its relationship with Israel.

A Case of Corruption

Whilst an official account of the Westgate attack remains unpublished, what can be ascertained is that the assailants, who numbered between twelve-to-fifteen, were highly-skilled members of the Somalia-based, Islamic extremist group, al Shabaab. Moreover, it is known that when word of the assault spread, Kenya’s elite General Service Unit (GSU) deployed to the scene only to engage in a four-day battle of attrition with militants inside the shopping centre before the attacks came to a bloody conclusion on 24 September 2013. The length of time it took to stop the crisis, as well as the inability of Kenya to prevent the assault from happening in the first place, arguably supports The Inkerman Group’s earlier assessment of an East African government ill-prepared to face the consequences of both its domestic and foreign policy decisions. Indeed, as far back as May 2012, Kenya was already under pressure from the international community for its perceived inability to respond to regional terrorism. At the time, tourists began steering clear of the East African nation following a series of targeted bombings in the coastal city of Mombasa. The incident sparked outcry from critics, who questioned whether the military was equipped with enough weaponry, personnel and intelligence to counter the rising tide of militancy. Dan Mwazo, Kenya’s then-Minister of Tourism, tried to alleviate public fears, arguing that his country was still maintaining its “unique position as a preferred tourist destination”.

Despite Mwazo’s well-meaning comments, the former Tourism official did little to assuage the concerns of some visitors – and for that matter, Kenyan citizens – who have noted a particular problem with Kenya: police corruption. Indeed, according to a 2012 report from Transparency International, when asked, 90% of Kenyan citizens reported that their country’s security system is the “most corrupt institution” in the country. In addition, 60% of those surveyed claimed to have paid some form of bribe to police in 2010. When questioned in the 2011 – 2012 Global Competitiveness Report, Kenya’s esteemed business leaders also claimed their country’s security system is “unreliable”. Making matters worse, some officials from Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit have specifically been accosted for “accepting bribes” from militants in order to look the other way in the face of impending assaults. Distrust of the Kenyan security system runs so deep that Constable Benson Gachuhi Kihenjo of the Spring Valley Police Station was forced to deny accusations that he had stolen “a bloodstained wallet, credit cards, cheque books and identifications documents” from the corpse of a Westgate massacre victim.

In Revenge for Somalia?

As previously noted, the Kenyan Government’s decision to plant its feet in Somalia in order to remove the region of the al Shabaab menace, represents another key ingredient in the Westgate tragedy. To be sure, almost immediately following Nairobi’s official deployment to Somalia on 16 October 2011, the group had already been blamed for a bus bombing in the country. Al Shabaab also cautioned Nairobi, warning that if it continued to “pursue the belligerent path of invasion” Kenya would face “cataclysmic consequences”. But retaliation for Kenya’s decision to “invade” Somalia is not the only reason the militants orchestrated the Westgate assault; al Shabaab is also believed to have conducted the four-day siege as a means to rectify Nairobi’s perceived ill-treatment of Somalis. Not all of the Westgate assailants were Somalis – one of the militants is reportedly a UK national, at least two were American – nevertheless, it has been suggested that Kenyan forces may have ‘opened’ their country up to attacks by unfairly targeting, beating and even sexually assaulting members of the Somali community, many of whom understandably feel unwilling to provide security forces with much-needed intelligence in order to avert possible tragedies. Driving the Somali issue home, in May 2012 Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that security forces regularly targeted Somali refugees in the Dadaab refugee camps with little or no cause other than their suspects had the ‘wrong’ nationality. Moreover, HRW claimed that Kenyan citizens of Somali descent in the towns of Garissa, Mandera, and Wajir – the same region later attacked by militants on 25 September 2013 – are often subjected to physical abuse at the hands of government forces who wrongly accuse them of being “al Shabaab”.

Israeli Assets Targeted

Revenge for the abuse on Somalis aside, another critical factor which could have opened the ‘floodgates’ of Kenyan terrorism is Nairobi’s relationship with Israel. To begin with, suspicions have been raised that al Shabaab may have specifically targeted the Westgate shopping centre given its status as an Israeli-owned company. Targeting an Israeli-operated firm in Kenya is not inconceivable. Not only have Islamist militants been blamed for previous assaults on Israeli assets in country – in 2002 fundamentalists were blamed for an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel – Kenya has also been criticised for its security pact with the Jewish state, due to the latter’s continued control over Palestinian territories. To be sure, al Shabaab previously “evoked the Palestinian cause” in its fight against the Israeli Government, a statement which could have made Westgate an even more attractive target.

The Way Ahead

Overall, Kenya is expected to, at least in the long term, ‘bounce back’ from the Westgate assault. Nevertheless, questions regarding its terror preparedness, accusations of police corruption and mistreatment of minorities, as well as its controversial counter-terrorism arrangement with Tel Aviv, are all likely to haunt the administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Indeed, these may prove to be among the most significant issues that Kenyatta must tackle in order to restore his country’s legitimacy as a regional powerhouse and tourist-friendly nation. However, if the President manages to pass much-needed anti-corruption reforms, and reach out to the US, UK and other key allies for economic and political support, Nairobi could find itself more adept at tackling the regional terror threat, and preventing another national tragedy.

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