Analysis: Kenya’s #Westgate mall terror outrage ; Questions waiting to be answered. #Nairobi

2500 illegal weapons being destroyed, a fraction of the estimated 100,000 in circulation

2500 illegal weapons being destroyed in 2010, a fraction of the estimated 100,000 in circulation

As dusk fell on the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Security forces continued on their combing operations to subdue last pockets of resistance and take complete control of the city’s uptown Westgate shopping mall . This mass casualty hit by the Somalia based militants Al-Shabab was long time in the coming since Kenya’s foray in to southern Somalia, and bears an uncanny remembrance to the infamous Mumbai terror attacks in India in the way it was carried out. However, unlike India, Kenya was and still is acutely vulnerable to being struck again in a similar fashion by the militant organisation. As far as Kenya is concerned It was not a question if but when.Now that siege is finally over, no doubt the world will be waking up to realise the full extent of the horror that place and as Nairobians are left to pick up the pieces, important questions remain to be answered.

Confusion and mayhem reigned from the moment the armed assailants struck in the midst of a busy Saturday afternoon, and as the attackers blasted their way in to the mall,  the Kenyan Police suspected it was a robbery gone wrong, but as news and more details emerged it was clear the situation at hand was much more serious.

Al-Shabab’s jovial declaration over twitter, left no one in doubt as to the motivation behind the latest outrage. Since going in to somalia Kenya has been suffering from repeat but amateurish attacks using mainly grenades and pistols. However, though these attacks have been attributed to and linked to Al-Shabab, the perpetrators usually came from Kenya’s very own radical islamist milieu that grew increasingly closer to the Somalia based militants. Martin Plaut, a veteran journalist and former BBC AFRICA editor, explores and provides a well worth reading analysis on Kenya’s home grown Jihadi phenomenon.

The Kenyan governments’ response to the ever more heightened threat by the militants from counter terrorism policy, security preparations through to foreign policy leaves a lot to be admired.  Kenya heavily rely’s on hard cash currency from tourism, and high profile kidnappings of foreign tourists in its northern region, amongst other national interests (such as the Lamu project, Energy finds in disputed areas) convinced the government at the time to adopt a cavalier approach by marching over the border to solve serious security issues in the country’s troubled northern regions.  Here is a useful and succinct blog post by Tres Thomas on the local and international dynamics that the Kenyan government is grappling with.

The British connection 

On the question weather a British national took part of the attack,Kenya, especially before its incursion into southern Somalia almost two years has acted as a conduit for many western fighters wanting to joining Al-Shabab’s jihad on the Somali government. The most notable recent high profile case is Michael Adebolajo, who was caught and sent back to the UK where he murdered a British soldier.

The curious case of Samantha Lewthwaite is featuring increasingly in media reports, especially more since Kenya’s foreign minister Amina Mohamed suggested her as one of the British suspects responsible for the mall terror incident. Samantha’s alleged links to various plots has been instrumental in her rise to notoriety, not least because she is the former wife of the infamous London 7/7 suicide bombing in 2005 Germaine Lindsay. More recently Samantha has been associated to Somalia’s Al-Qaeda allied organisation Al Shabab, since she first entered into Kenya in August 2011 using a fake South African passport.

Ms. Lewthwaite came to the fore when It was first reported that, she was questioned by Kenyan anti terror police unit after arresting members of a cell which included fellow brit Jermaine grant, and she was subsequently released. Further details emerged that she escaped over the border to Somalia after her release, and at a later date according to Kenyan police and close associate re-entered and was planning terror attacks. Media reports cite eye witnesses seeing a women leading the attack on Westgate shopping mall. Information from the Kenyan government sources allude to that Ms. Lewthwaite is the female leading the attack . Other reports cast doubt on her involvement. But More importantly, a blog entry by a Muslim Youth Council (MYC)  -an local jihadi outfit that is familiar with Ms. Lewthwaite and known to have coalesced with previously – suggests she is fighting along side ‘Amniyat’ – Al- Shabab’s feared security apparatus in Somalia.  Al-Shabab have also recently on their twitter page “Categorically” denied any female involvement in the terror raid. What is for certain is that despite her high profile she managed to evade arrest.

British fighters from middle eastern,Asian and Somali heritage since the rise of Al Shabab have  ascended to prominent positions within the organisation. Unlike American fighters who were practically used as canon fodder – used in suicide missions and the such, the jihadi outfit’s slick media production and twitter page is managed by an obscure personality, clearly London raised and highly educated judging by the strong accent and choice of words.

Bilal el Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr both stripped of their British nationality shortly before they were killed in a CIA drone strike in southern Somalia, both used Kenya as transit point and slipped in to Somalia having been caught once before. Berjawi is also  thought to have a been a protégé of the 1998 Kenya US bombing masterminds Fazul Abdullah and Nabhan Salih Al Nabhan, the latter was killed at hands of US special force whilst travelling in southern Somalia.

No one knows for sure for the time being the identities nor the nationalities of the gunmen, in fact “a senior U.S. official said Monday the claim was looking less solid as they continued to investigate”. By mentioning western nationalities the Kenyan government is keen portray the Westgate terror attack as a threat emanating not only from neighbouring Somalia, but from radical networks based in western countries. In particular Kenyan foreign minister Amina Mohamed offered no real insight on the attackers in the interview conducted by american television network and divulged tidbits of information that was already doing the rounds in news media reports.  But despite Kenyan efforts, the country became a crucial transit point for fresh supplies of local an international recruits who would eventually comeback as seasoned fighters.

Sourcing of Weapons 

Even western intelligence agencies were taken by surprise as they reported no increase communication between various militant cells, in the words of one security source “we didn’t manage to detect this one” . Therefore it would be unrealistic to expect a country that has less experience and certainly far less financial liquidity to have predicted such gratuitous violence.

Clearly this particular cell was keen not to arouse any suspicion in the run up to the  operation, it is therefore more than likely that the impressive fire power that attackers used to carry out their objectives was sourced from within the Country. It can be observed the the map below, Nairobi is quite a distance from the border, approximately 400 miles away (600 KM).

Not only it would have been daunting logistically, but carrying significant amounts weapons  and ammunition all the way from Somalia to the target area would have been suicidal. They would have risked apprehension somewhere along the route.

Nairobi to Somalia boarder map

In the early stages of the assault a police source described how the the gunmen managed to drive a car loaded with ammunition in to the mall’s car park, also in another instance a soldier claimed the the militants were using “a belt-fed PKM machine gun”. It is no secret that Kenya suffers from serious illegal trade, the issue is more palpable in rural parts of he country where communal blood letting is a regular occurrence throughout the year.

There may have even been an element of corruption in how weapons were sourced, according to the New York Times, witness said that “several militants had toted G3 assault rifles, a bulky weapon that Kenyan security services use. Intelligence analysts say this may mean the militants acquired their weapons from corrupt Kenyan officers, who are known to sell or rent out their guns, charging as little as a few dollars an hour.”

That said, paying a closer attention to these wider security issues and linking it to the chosen method of the attackers offers vital clues as to how Kenya could have significantly reduced the chances of the Mumbai style attack occurring. Perhaps revisiting and re-evaluating illegal trade policies and tackling endemic corruption should be central to future lines of investigations.

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