The terrorist attack on an upmarket mall in Nairobi is over a month old and more bodies are still being found in the rubble even as investigations proceed in an opaque manner. The Westgate carnage has left 75 people dead and several hundred injured; and twenty-three people still remain missing.
The numbers would have been higher had it not been for the timely efforts of a handful of ordinary Kenyan civilians. In the first hour, these poorly organised and ill-trained people managed to rescue hundreds of people. Using nothing more than a few small arms and teargas canisters they managed to sequester the terrorists to a small portion of the mall.
The Kenyan Red Cross was able to provide an emergency medical response even under fire and bring the wounded to safety. No words of praise are sufficient for these brave Kenyans – their conduct in this terrible time is a shining example for the rest of humanity.
What happened after the first few hours is, however, a classic example of what not to do when faced with such a situation.
An hour or so into the attacks, elements of the Kenyan paramilitary forces, the General Services Unit (GSU), arrived on the scene and they were confronted with a very difficult situation. Although the GSU (Recce) unit is trained in hostage rescue, there was a major shortage of accurate information. The number of attackers varied wildly and numerous reports of attackers leaving the building disguised as civilian victims were emerging.
It was unclear if the terrorists had deployed snipers to challenge the countervailing forces.
Help quickly arrived from Israel and Britain, which have helped train the GSU (Recce). With all these resources the GSU (Recce) began to sort through the mass of information at its disposal and formulate a response when it hit a problem which defied all solutions – the over assertiveness of the Kenyan military.
As the crisis progressed elements of the Kenyan military’s special forces (20th Para-Commando and 40th Rangers) arrived on the scene. The military was disinterested in what the GSU (Recce) had to say. Numerous arguments broke out between the GSU commanders and the military personnel. In one incident of friendly fire, a GSU (Recce) commander was fatally injured by the Kenyan military.
After this incident the GSU withdrew from the site and the Kenyan military took charge. This turf war created great disorientation in the security forces, and acts of indiscipline followed in its wake. Additionally, the terrorists used this time to reorganise and strengthen their defensive positions in the mall.
The Kenyan military’s special operations forces lacked the training in hostage rescue operations. The soldiers did the best they could, but the terrorists were a step ahead of them. Either via internet or satellite phone, the terrorists kept in touch with external sources which kept them informed of the rescue efforts. As the Kenyan military advanced on their position, the terrorists used snipers to slow their movement and detonated carefully placed explosives that structurally compromised the mall. Three days and several large explosions later, the Kenyan military declared the siege was over. By then three floors of the mall had collapsed and an unknown number of people lay trapped under the rubble. The terrorists claimed victory as did the Kenyan military.
At present little is known about the exact identities of the attackers. A number of crime scene units from various countries are assisting the Kenyan police in the investigation. The rubble from the collapse is in the process of being cleared away. It is unclear when or if ever a clear picture of the attackers will emerge. The Kenyan police have a few dozen people in custody but no public knowledge of the masterminds behind this atrocity exists.
While Al-Shabaab’s claim of responsibility is uncontested, much speculation surrounds the rationale behind the attack. Equally perplexing is the Kenyan military’s behaviour during the crisis. Al-Shabaab and the Kenyan military appeared very keen to get at each other’s throats. It is likely that the answers to these questions lie in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) operations in Jubbaland in Somalia. Kenyan forces have been at the spearhead of highly successful anti-Al-Shabaab missions here.
A leaked United Nations Security Council report points to a thriving illegal trade in Somali charcoal in the Port Kismayo area of Jubbaland. This trade runs into hundreds of millions of dollars a year and until some years ago it was almost entirely controlled by traders loyal to Al-Shabaab. This is no longer the case. The defection of the Ras Kamboni militia from the Shabaab ranks and the Kenyan AMISOM operations have resulted in a sharp decline in Shabaab revenues from this trade. This decline in revenue has put such intense pressure on Al Shabaab’s financial channels that the group has undergone a severe reorganization.
A faction led by Abdi Godane has successfully courted Al Qaida money managers and consolidated its hold on the organisation by killing other leaders. Most of the illegal charcoal trade is now in the hands of Somali traders with strong ties to the Kenyan military. The proximity of these ties led to allegations that the Kenyan military is directly involved in the smuggling trade. Against this background it is easier to appreciate why the Kenyan military personalized the siege at the Westgate Mall.
Like the Mumbai tragedy of November 2008, the Westgate Mall siege offers a painful lesson in the true price of institutional obduracy and a distortion of professional integrity. Urban terrorism that picks the softest of soft targets is an exigency that cannot be wished away. It is best if state and civil society learn from the mistakes made and evolve stratagems that will prevent or preempt such deplorable atrocities – anywhere in the world.
Commentary by S. Sunil is based the former editor of the Security Research Review.