Security agencies ignored warning of terrorist attack on two occasions

PHOTO | AFP A policeman carries a baby to safety after masked gunmen stormed an upmarket mall and sprayed gunfire on shoppers and staff, killing at least six on September 21, 2013 in Nairobi.

What you need to know:

  • The death of 67 people in a terrorist attack last September could have been avoided, according to a probe by MPs. Security bosses ignored two critical warnings on Al-Shabaab and the military bungled the rescue when soldiers forcibly kicked out GSU officers who had cornered terrorists
  • Government was warned 19 days before the attack, but did not beef up security at shopping mall
  • Poor coordination between police and the military put many lives at risk during siege
  • Immigration officers are too corrupt to secure our borders and total overhaul needed urgently
  • Soldiers looted businesses and the military should not be involved in domestic issues
  • Two Parliamentary teams jointly probed the mid-morning siege that left 67 dead

It is now official: security agencies ignored the warning of an impending terrorist attack two times before the horrific Westgate massacre that killed 67 people and left close to 200 others wounded.

One of the warnings was issued just 19 days to the attack on September 21 last year, and the other at the beginning of August. Shockingly, police did not move to secure the identified targets.

It is also official that GSU commandos had managed to corner the terrorists who struck at the upscale mall and that the change-over to the military bungled the operation.

These are some of the highlights of a report by two parliamentary committees which jointly investigated the mid-morning attack at the Westlands mall that left Kenya and the world in shock.

The report seen by the Sunday Nation says the attack could have been prevented had security agencies acted on intelligence information in 2012.

Chillingly, an intelligence report warned about an impending attack on Westgate exactly a year to the day of the attack. The briefing, dated September 21, 2012, said Somali militants from the al-Shabaab terror group were planning to attack the Israeli-owned mall.

“Another intelligence briefing in February 2013 warned of attacks like those that happened in Mumbai in late 2008, where the operatives storm a building with guns and grenades and probably hold hostages. It is unclear what measures were put in place to prevent the attacks,” says the report.

The warnings just before the attack were filed on August 6 and September 2.

“There was general information on the impending terror attack on all the malls and other strategic Western interests, especially in Nairobi. The information was made available to the relevant security officers in Nairobi County on August 6, 2013 and on September 2, 2013,” says the report of the Joint Committee of National Security and Defence and Foreign Relations.

The committee was co-chaired by MPs Asman Kamama and Ndung’u Gethenji, and tabled the report just before Parliament adjourned in December.

Experts who appeared before the committee said the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers should not have been deployed at the mall because the GSU Recce squad had already cornered the terrorists by the time soldiers arrived at the scene.

“Involvement of the military should be a last resort decision, especially if there is external threat to a nation’s security. The presidential directive to have the Inspector-General to take command of the Westgate Mall operation was proper. The Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces should have ordinarily consulted with the Inspector-General of Police and should have withheld the deployment of KDF,” experts told the MPs inquiring into the attack.

On Saturday, the Leader of Majority in Parliament, Mr Aden Duale, said the report will be discussed when Parliament re-opens next month.

“The report was tabled in December. We will ensure the House Business Committee gives it priority during the first few days of re-opening of Parliament. The last verdict on the report will be from the House to amend and adopt. I urge members to think about Kenya during the debate,” he said.


Mr Duale, who is the Garissa Township MP, urged MPs to look at the report with Kenya’s future in mind.

“Terrorism is a new phenomenon. As a country, we must put in place measures and structures that ensure Westgate does not happen again in Kenya. That is why the House must look at this report keenly,” said Mr Duale in a telephone interview.

The report confirmed earlier claims that when the terror alerts were sounded, the police were lethargic and unresponsive.

“There was general laxity and unresponsiveness among the police over terror alerts within Nairobi,” says the report.

However, during their investigations, Gigiri police chief Vitalis Otieno told MPs that he had no prior knowledge of the attacks.

The report states that Mr Otieno discounted claims that any terrorism alerts were passed on to them.

“The OCPD informed the members that he had no such information and that when he got posted (to Gigiri) he met the management of the mall over security issues and was also taken through the mall to carry out security assessments,” says the report.

Last year, intelligence reports that were leaked to the media showed that Cabinet Secretaries Julius Rotich (Treasury), Joseph ole Lenku (Interior), Amina Mohammed (Foreign Affairs), Raychelle Omamo (Defence) and KDF chief General Julius Karangi were warned that al-Shabaab fighters were plotting an attack in Nairobi.

The parliamentary report says failure to heed the warnings resulted in the Mumbai-style attack at the mall.

The MPs say that although four terror suspects have been identified, the number of terrorists who took part in the attack remains unknown.
However, the report confirms the suspects seen on CCTV shooting shoppers as Abu Baraal, Al Sudani, Omar Naban and Khatab Al Kene.

“On Saturday, September 21, 2013, attackers believed to be about 10 or 15 (number yet to be ascertained) stormed Westgate mall and randomly started shooting. About five armed attackers burst through one of the main entrances, guns blazing, while another four entered through an underground parking lot. Explosives also went off in the building causing some floors to cave in. It is not clear who between the terrorists and the security forces set off the explosions,” says the report.

The four named suspects are believed to have died in the attack. Naban was a relative of Saleh Ali Naban, who was killed in 2009 after US commandos raided an al-Qaeda hideout in Somalia. Saleh Naban was also involved in the 1998 US embassy and Kikambala hotel bombings.

The MPs also confirmed earlier reports that the Westgate operation was bungled from the outset.

“During the siege, the Recce Company from the General Service Unit (GSU) had contained the terrorists in one corner of the Westgate mall. There was, however, poor coordination by the multiagency forces during the operation. The change-over between the Kenya Defence Forces and the police was uncoordinated, which calls for the establishment of an incident Command Control Protocol,” says the report.

The report also talks about uncoordinated reports emanating from the command centre in the aftermath of the siege.

“There was a lot of miscommunication surrounding the aftermath of the Westgate terror attack going by the reports that the terrorists might have used the underground tunnel reported in the media as the escape route,” says the report.

The report upholds claims that KDF soldiers looted businesses at the ruined shopping mall.

“There was looting of business premises within the mall. Action has already been taken on three Kenya Defence Forces soldiers, one Administration Police officer, one Anti-Terror Police Unit officer and one Fire Brigade personnel involved in the looting incident,” details the report.

KDF has flipped-flopped on this issue that soiled its standing in the public eye. When the reports first emerged, KDF denied the claims. Even Mr Kamama and Mr Gethenji defended the soldiers and Gen Karangi, dismissing the reports as false.


And when CCTV clips of soldiers leaving the smouldering mall with full shopping bags were broadcast and published, KDF spin doctors claimed the soldiers were helping themselves to water after a day’s work. Under pressure from the public, KDF retreated and charged some officers in Nakuru.

The report also talks about systemic corruption in the immigration, department of refugee affairs and registration of persons. The latter is in charge of issuing identity cards.

“There is nationwide systemic failure on the part of the Immigration Services Department, Department of Refugee Affairs; and Registration of Persons Department attributed to corruption at the border control points and registration centres, mainly in Nairobi, Coast and North Eastern areas,” says the report.

However, it does not say whether the terrorists rented offices at the mall before the attack.

If adopted by the House, the report is likely to spark debate on the relationship between the various security agencies and their preparedness to defend the country.

However, the report does not pin-point individual leaders who may have failed to execute their mandate before, during or after the attack.