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9 years later: Lessons from the Westgate terror attack

On September 21, 2013, Kenya was thrown into terror after gunmen from the Somali terrorists group al Shabaab launched an attack on a mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and injuring many others.

Nine years later, survivors are still reeling from the aftermath of the terror attack.

A security report only made public this month shows that the planners had for months studied the mall, business activities and the type of people who visit it, all the while planning the attack from the Kakuma Refugee camp.

Shoppers scramble for safety as police confronted gunmen who barricaded themselves inside Westgate Mall in Nairobi, on September 21, 2013. PHOTO | FILE

The report by the then UN Security Council Monitoring Group on Somalia indicates that planning began two years earlier in 2011, as the Horn of Africa battled drought and a surge of refugees fled to Kenyan camps.

Shabaabs in Somalia worked with their contacts in Kenya’s capital Nairobi and at the Kakuma refugee camp on the ‘project’, which also involved monetary transactions, the report states.

They managed to avoid detection from security services, partly aided by lax procedures in obtaining mobile phone lines that they used for communication. Detectives later found that eight mobile phone lines directly linked to the attack were registered in Nairobi and switched on days to the attack. These phones numbers were communicating frequently from Nairobi’s Eastleigh area.

The attack was further aided by social media as the report shows that the attackers used a popular site to communicate during and after the attack.

The details were put under lid for nearly a decade after officials decided to embargo the report until September 2021. It was shared with the media this week as the country marks nine years of the attack. All the three attackers who used rifles and grenades to gain entry into and lay a siege on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi’s Westlands area were killed in the attack, according to an earlier statement by the Kenya Defence Forces.

At least 200 people were also injured just weeks after President Uhuru Kenyatta began his term as the then new President.

Kenya marks nine years since the attack with a new president, William Ruto, who admitted that the country faces the same problem of security threats as before.

But there have been lessons learnt, including improved surveillance of terror threats, tighter rules on registering mobile phone lines, and a general better collaboration between security agencies as was witnessed during the Dusit attack in Nairobi in January 2019 when security forces ended a similar siege more quickly than the Westgate siege and with fewer casualties.

The Westgate siege, which lasted for four days, was heavily criticised, prompting President Kenyatta to promise an official inquiry into the attack.

On September 6, 2013, the attackers purchased a Mitsubishi Lancer KAS 575X from a garage in Nairobi which was used to conduct surveillance, rehearse and identify potential secure routes to the mall from Eastleigh.

It is the same vehicle that was used to access the mall by four terrorists on the day of the attack.

The planning never stopped until the last day, as evidence shows that one of the planners in Nairobi even texted his associate in Somalia to confirm that the attack was still ongoing on the second day of the siege.

“Alhamdulillah, had just left Westgate with my coffee and the shooting started. Alhamdulillah.”

Seven years later on October 7, 2020, Mohammed Ahmed Abdi and Hussein Hassan Mustafa were found guilty of planning and committing acts of terror and helping a terrorist group. They were later sentenced to 33 and 18 years’ imprisonment.

The third suspect, Liban Abdullahi, a Somali refugee, was acquitted of the charge of being in Kenya illegally and possessing identification documents by false pretences.

He would later, however, be abducted by unidentified gunmen after leaving the Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU) headquarters in Nairobi where he had gone for clearance.

In his ruling, Chief Magistrate Francis Andayi said he acquitted the suspect over lack of evidence. He explained that although Omar shared his phone with his brother (Ahmed Hassan Abukar who was found guilty), he was not aware that his brother had joined the Shabaab terror group.

In the aftermath of the Westgate attack, Kenya would suffer another heavy loss in April 2015 after Shabaab gunmen raided Garissa University, killing 144 people, mostly students.

But security agencies have since then foiled a number of other attack attempts, including a 2014 incident in Mombasa where a vehicle that had been procured and loaded with two TNT explosive cylinders was seized by the police. The cylinders had been remotely connected to a triggering system and police also seized a cache of arms, including AK-47 rifles, 270 rounds of ammunition, six grenades, five magazines and four detonators.

The report notes that the attack was at some point uncoordinated, an error that brought the country’s security preparedness under sharp scrutiny and sparked transfers of senior security chiefs.

It also led to the enactment of the Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 and the establishment of a Multi-Agency Taskforce (MAT). The laws helped agencies to collaborate better. But critics saw them as an intrusive tool.

Many more terror attack attempts have been foiled within and along the Kenya-Somali border as Nairobi remains on high alert over possible retaliatory attacks.

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