Who knew what and when? Those are the questions now being asked in Kenya amid the fallout from the deadly Westgate mall attack in Nairobi on September 21.
A week after the attacks, most fingers pointed at Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) for it’s failure to detect the brazen plot. But now senior Kenyan officials – including four cabinet ministers and the chief of defence – are in the spotlight after the leak of a damning intelligence file full of specific warnings that apparently reached their desks.
One report in January 2013 warned of a “Mumbai-attack style, where the operatives storm into a buidling with guns and grenades and probably hold hostages”.
Another was equally prescient, even naming the eventual target. “The following suspected Al Shabaab operatives are in Nairobi and are planning to mount suicide attacks on undisclosed date, targeting Westgate Mall and Holy Family Basilica [church],” said a situational report dated September 21, 2012 – exactly one year to the day when the assault was launched.
Kenyan politicians had complained that the NIS failed to issue warnings. But Sunday’s leak of the 32-page intelligence file, obtained by Al Jazeera, suggests five senior officials – including the secretaries of interior, defence, foreign affairs, and treasury, as well as the chief of defence forces – were aware of imminent threats.
The senior officals were briefed on the “noticeable rise in the level of threat” starting on September 13, eight days before the Westgate attack. “Briefs were made to them informing them of increasing threat of terrorism and of plans to launch simultaneous attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa on 13th and 20th September, 2013,” one report said.
A parliamentary committee is expected to hear testimony from senior security and intelligence officials this week.
Calls to the interior minister for comment on the leaked report rang unanswered on Monday.
‘Politicised’ security apparatus
Much remains murky about the mall assault, including the death toll and how many attackers were involved. At least 67 people were confirmed killed and more than 170 others wounded. The Kenyan Red Cross said 39 people caught in the attack remain unaccounted for.
Several Horn of Africa security analysts told Al Jazeera institutional rivalry and unclear command lines within Kenyan security agencies were the likely reasons behind the failure to foil the Westgate strike.
“The problem with the Kenyan intelligence service for the last couple of years is that it has been politicised,” said analyst Abdullahi Halakhe.
“It is not run like a professional outfit. They are dealing with internal issues, neutralising political opponents, rather than protecting the country from internal and external aggression,” Halakhe said.
Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa researcher at the London-based think-tank Chattam House, said being on full alert for an attack at all times is not realistic.
“We have seen with previous terrorist attacks, not only in Nairobi and Kampala [Uganda] but also in cities such as New York and London, it is impossible to remain on high-alert continuously,” Soliman said.
“It will always be possible for an individual or a small group to remain unnoticed and carry out atrocities such as Westgate. I doubt the Kenyan police have the capacity to protect all of Nairobi’s significant targets,” Soliman said.
The Westgate assault may also be a culmination of wrong intelligence on the threat posed by groups such as al-Shabab. Amid continuous air strikes against its training facilities, authorities appeared to down-grade the organisation’s potentcy.
“In intelligence the term is … ‘you have to be right all the time and the terrorist only has to be right once’. This is such a situation. One should not forget that Kenya has done quite a lot in preventing previous and other incidents,” said Anneli Botha, senior researcher of terrorism at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS).
Intelligence had indicated that al-Shabab has been steadily lost ground in Somalia, weakened by military gains by the African Union force (AMISOM) and Somali government troops. But the attack appears to have emboldened the organisation.
Some al-Shabab leaders want their fighters confined to Somalia, while others such as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, also known as Godane, have pushed for a global jihad.
“The Westgate attack has strengthened Godane’s hand,” said Halakhe.
Analysts say the al-Shaabab leader may be sending a message to intelligence agencies that reports of infighting and weakness are overblown.
“Godane is saying I am going to show the group is not dead. You took our economical lifeline – that is [the port city of ] Kismayo, but they are telling the Kenyan government we will hit where it hurts – and that was Westgage,” Halakhe said.
“To others who are disenchanted, he is telling them to come back because al-Shabab is the only alternative they have.”
Soliman said a thorough probe will be carried into the attack. “There is a period of mourning and reflection, after which there will be a serious investigation of what took place and measures that can be implemented to prevent such an attack occurring again.”
Halakhe questioned what, if anything, Western intelligence agencies provided to Kenyan authorties. The leaked NIS file said that Israel’s Embassy in Nairobi had warned of “possible terrorist attacks on their citizens” during Jewish holidays from September 4-28, though it cited “Iran and the Hezbollah” as the likely perpetrators.
“If Kenyan intelligence slept on the job where were the Western intelligence services, because they are more sophisticated and more advanced compared to Kenya. Where were they?” asked Halakhe.
Quick to judge
Changes within Kenya’s security appartus will likely be part of the fallout from the Westgate attack, Halakhe said.
“I think the anger and disaffection towards the intelligence failure will lead to some changes within the intelligence unit. There will be some movement, some will be sacked, and some will be moved around,” he said.
Others said a full investigation was needed before laying any blame. Botha said the public should not be too quick to judge, adding Kenya’s involvement in Somalia was already a red flag that attacks back home were a reality.
“When Kenya sent its troops to Somalia and al-Shabab issued threat after threat, we expected a terror attack to happen. Before this there were [also] some grenade attacks in some cities,” Botha said.
The government, meanwhile, has defended its handling of the situation. Kenya’s Interior Ministry Principal Secretary Mutea Iringo has said the security forces should not be blamed for not be alert enough.
“The security forces have prevented many terror attacks in the recent past. The Westgate killings are ‘unfortunate’ since it was among the few instances in which the killers had outsmarted government agencies,” he said.
Botha, a former trainer of South African police, agreed. “One should not be harsh to Kenyan security officials … Other Western countries like America, Britain face these sort of attacks. Unfortunately these sort of attacks happen to the best of countries,” Botha said.
Kenyan police official Jonathan Kosgei defended the handling of the siege by outgunned police officers.
“In all honesty, this was the first time Kenya has witnessed such an audacious terrorist attack on a mall using guns,” Kosgei said. “We knew of bombs, [but] this new style was hard to predict. However, the security forces did their best to contain the situation in the prevailing disadvantaged circumstances.”
A Kenyan lawmaker, meanwhile, has also publicly stated that warnings of an attack on Nairobi landmarks were given to security officials.
Senator Mike Sonko, whose constituency includes Westgate Mall, said two women who apparently knew of the plot approached him months before the assault.
“They mentioned Westgate Mall, Village Market, Parliament and the Kenyatta International Conference Centre as their targets,” Sonko said.
The women were taken to authorities and provided statements, but the information was not acted upon, said Sonko.
“I know I will shock many people here. These people have remained in this area planning the attack for about three months, and despite the investigators getting that information, they could not quell the attack,” he said.