Painful lessons from the Westgate terror attack

A police officer (C) secures an area as civilians flee inside Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi September 21, 2013. Photo/REUTERS

What you need to know:

  • Questions: There will be hard questions to be answered as to why this attack was not foreseen and prevented.
  • In the last three months of 2011, 14 incidents were reported, while more than 36 episodes occurred in 2012

As Kenya struggles for meaningful responses to the tragedy at the Westgate mall, it is important to reflect on some of the lessons that this attack has brought home.

The attack has demonstrated how utterly vulnerable Kenya is to acts of terrorism. The series of attacks, into which the Westgate incident falls, began in October 2011, the month of the Kenyan army incursion into Somalia.

During the last three months of that year, no less than 14 terrorist incidents were reported around the country.

In 2012, more than 36 episodes occurred around Kenya and took various forms, including grenades hurled into crowds in urban spaces, the indiscriminate shooting into crowds of people, including worshippers in churches but also mosques, and the slaying of security officers in cold blood.

Most of these incidents took place in the Eastleigh area in Nairobi, and in several towns in the north-eastern part of Kenya, which have become the epicentres of terrorism in Kenya.

The year 2013 has not been different and, excluding the Westgate incident, there have been at least nine terrorist attacks so far.

While these incidents were relatively minor, their frequency, about three a month, is disturbing. Also, between them, they resulted in the deaths of more than 70, about the same number as those reportedly killed at Westgate.

Before the Westgate attack, terrorism had become a way of life in Kenya, one more affliction for the urban population, similar to accidental fires and road accidents. Where it targeted at the poor, terrorism had become mired in the daily narratives of the poor, and was just another reality in the same category as death from treatable illnesses.

The relationship between the more prevalent forms of terrorism and what has just happened at Westgate is that these minor attacks had managed to reduce public outrage against terrorism, and had led the Kenyan public to regard terrorism as their unavoidable fate.

The major difference between the Westgate carnage and the previous incidents is that those were transactional, low-level, low technology assaults, which seemed to rely on spontaneity, improvisation and surprise, rather than meticulous planning.

The Westgate bloodbath, on the other hand, joins the iconic attacks that Kenya had experienced before, including the US embassy bombing in 1998, and the Kikambala bombing of 2002, both of which played to the international gallery, rather than to just the Kenyan public.


The Westgate incident is, however, different from all other high profile attacks in one sense: it witnessed a level of savagery that is usually not associated with terrorism. The killing of young children in cold blood, and the reported acts of torture constitute a new level of barbarity with which terrorism is usually not associated.

In the wake of the Westgate bombing, political leaders have made claims that they had foiled many planned attacks in the past. However, this is just not true. The numbers above simply disprove these claims, and only manage to show that terrorists will just do whatever they want.

The second clarity that the Westgate attack has brought home is just how false the definition of our enemies has been. The Westgate incident was preceded by, and overshadowed claims by the family of Maina Kiai, the former chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, regarding their security.

This was an incident based on the divisions that have emerged in Kenya from the trials of the President and his Deputy before the ICC, in which those who support accountability have been held out as enemies of Kenya.

Is it possible that the security was too busy chasing these phantom enemies and missed out the deliberate planning that must have gone into the attack at Westgate?

Whatever the case, there is now clarity that state security is imperiled not by those that seek accountability, including against the police, but by those who fail in their duty to protect the public from the kind of harm that we have suffered.

It is also clear that whereas we are determined to “look East”, in moments of need, we are forced to look West. The look East is, at this stage, only wishful, and Kenya needs to value her true friends, just the same way that they value Kenya.

There will be hard questions to be answered as to why this attack was not foreseen and prevented. The President should establish an independent and bi-partisan commission of inquiry as the most open way of providing answers to these questions.

Within the corridors of power, there will be massive temptation to cover-up shortcomings but, if we go along with that, we will only be inviting another attack.

While these terrorists have visited unbelievable savagery on us, we must collectively avoid the temptation towards unthinking revenge, the path the US took after 9/11. All our responses must be based on evidence, reason and justice. This means that law enforcement must work hard to find the evidence.

Finally, there has been insufficient openness in the official handling of the attack, which has allowed rumours to take over. For example, it is rumoured that the government has understated the number of those killed.

In the fight against terrorism, openness is our collective armour. To assist the public understand what exactly happened, and its consequences, the government will need to be more open than it has been.

Mr Kegoro is the Executive Director, ICJ-Kenya chapter [email protected]


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