Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Before Kenya Attack, A Warning On Terrorism

Wall Street Journal
September 30, 2013
Pg. 12


Intelligence Report Cautioned Over Assault on Mall, Where Signals of Impending Event Were Missed

By Heidi Vogt and Patrick McGroarty
NAIROBI, Kenya—Raheem Biviji was inside Diamond Trust bank, waiting for a clerk to deposit his check, when the gunfire started.
He darted inside the bank's vault, and huddled there with 30 other people. Through the cracked door they saw the legs of Islamic militants scurrying past. It was 12:20 p.m. on Sept. 21, and shots and explosions would go on for hours at the popular shopping complex. "It just looked like there was a war inside the mall," Mr. Biviji said.
That al-Shabaab fighters moved so quickly and deeply into Westgate mall, carrying grenades and belt-fed machine guns, speaks to apparent intelligence failures, security breaches and a brave but confused initial response on the part of soldiers and police.
At least 67 people were killed in the four-day siege that ended Tuesday night. Hundreds were saved in moments of heroism. Now, part of the nation's trauma is untangling how the brutal attack happened in the first place.
It wasn't exactly a surprise.
A year before the assault, a Kenyan government intelligence report warned of a potential attack at Westgate, according to a copy reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The briefing, dated Sept. 21, 2012, said Somali militants from the group al-Shabaab were planning to target the part-Israeli-owned mall. It didn't provide evidence to back that claim.
"The following suspected al-Shabaab operatives are in Nairobi and are planning to mount suicide attacks on undisclosed date, targeting Westgate mall," the brief stated.
Another intelligence briefing from February warned of attacks like those that struck Mumbai in late 2008, "where the operatives storm into a building with guns and grenades and probably hold hostages."
Presidential spokesman Manoah Esipisu declined to speak about the Kenyan intelligence report, and declined to say whether officials adjusted security precautions based on the briefings.
In the Mumbai attacks, Pakistani militants attacked luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish center, killing more than 160 people. The assault on Nairobi's Westgate mall by al-Shabaab militants was similar in style, but the assailants' nationalities seemed more diverse, officials and witnesses said.
One orthodontist trapped inside his clinic said he saw two tall and skinny men in their early 20s, who, he said, looked like they were from Somalia. Others said they saw men who had lighter skin and spoke Arabic. Some heard English; several witnesses said they saw a pale-looking woman who shouted "Allah!" as she shot people.
Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku said a ninth suspect was arrested on Sunday, but he refused to answer questions about the identities or nationalities of any of the alleged attackers. "It is premature to release these details now," he said.
Some of the survivors said the attackers asked people to identify themselves if they were Muslim, and let those people go. They also heard militants blaming Kenyans for shedding blood as peacekeeper troops in Somalia, hinting at the attackers' motivation.
As the siege unfolded, the militant group praised its fighters inside the mall and promised more attacks. "The mesmeric performance by the #Westgate Warriors was undoubtedly gripping, but despair not folks, that was just the premiere of Act 1," according to a message on the group's official Twitter account.
Two days after the siege ended, on Thursday, Interpol issued an international arrest notice for Samantha Lewthwaite, a British woman who is the widow of one of four London suicide bombers who killed 56 people in 2005. The Kenyan government is investigating the 29-year-old Ms. Lewthwaite in relation to the Nairobi shopping-mall attacks; she is also wanted in relation to explosives-related charges connected to a 2011 terror plot.
In the month leading up to the Westgate attack, signals appeared to have been missed in the mall itself.
Kenyan authorities said after the attack they discovered an explosives-laden vehicle that was parked in the basement parking lot for more than a month before the Sept. 21 attack, according to a Western security officer. The officials believe that was part of an effort to stockpile ammunition, the officer said.
Even before the siege was over, the Kenyan government asked owners of cars parked at the mall to come with their registrations to pick them up—an apparent effort to counter any further explosives risks in the parking lot.
One member of an elite police unit who responded to the attack, and who worked previously at the Westgate, suspected a shop had been rented before the attack so militants could move firepower through a freight entrance. Officials haven't responded to questions about that possibility.
Tony Sahni, who oversaw private security guards at Westgate for the security company Securex, confirmed that goods going through the tenants' freight elevator aren't checked by security, although he argued that doing so would be too time-consuming a task, especially for the mall's big Wal-Mart-like store, called Nakumatt.
"Are you going to check everything that goes into that store?" he asked.
The mall—a gathering place for Nairobi's elite—wasn't unprotected. About 40 unarmed guards were on duty Saturday at various entrances to the mall and patrolling common areas, Mr. Sahni said. About 12:15 p.m., Mr. Sahni said, three cars drove up to Westgate and at least three people got out of each vehicle and ran toward different entrances.
Security guard Ben Mulwa, at the wheel of his Mercedes sedan, had just pulled into the mall's parking garage when he heard the gunfire roar. Mr. Mulwa, 31, ducked behind a flower bed with another guard. The two looked at each other, he said, realizing they had picked a poor hiding place.
Moments later, four gunmen fired into the flowers. Mr. Mulwa saw the flash of blood fly from his colleague's head, a shot that killed him. Then one of the gunmen turned to him. "What I remember is I saw his face," said Mr. Mulwa. "It was a very cold face."
The first shot grazed his forehead; another ricocheted into his knee. The gunman moved on. Police arrived and Mr. Mulwa limped away.
Those who initially responded were members of the Flying Squad, a paramilitary arm of the police that deals with organized crime, said a police officer from another unit. Flying Squad members were already on the scene when he got to Westgate two hours into the attack, he said. So were off-duty police and members of a civilian neighborhood defense group. Everybody was shooting.
The policeman ran over to a colleague who had arrived before him. "Who are the enemies?" he asked. "Shoot anyone with a hijab," or head scarf, the second policemen said, according to his colleague.
Dharmesh Vaya had just dropped off his wife and children at a cooking competition on the roof. Before his daughter, 16-year-old Midal, had a chance to compete, the 44-year-old banker was sorting out a problem with his iPad when his wife Jyotibala called to ask him get the kids something to eat. A few minutes after Mr. Vaya entered the supermarket with his two children and a nephew, they heard shooting.
"Ta-ta-ta—I thought it was a bank robbery," Mr. Vaya said.
A bank robbery it wasn't. The shooters never even entered the second-floor bank where Mr. Biviji was hiding in the vault with others.
Mr. Biviji and the others were rescued by Kenyan soldiers and members of a community response team at about 5:30 p.m. and walked out of the bank, past the day's carnage. As gunfire intensified, the military moved in to the mall and the Kenyan police withdrew.
The policeman with the elite police squad took four civilians hiding with him down the escalator and out the front entrance. But he said their retreat cost them ground against the militants. Once it got dark, the Kenyan soldiers also withdrew.
Militants began to roam the mall freely, hunting for those still alive. Peter Ouma, a 25-year-old construction worker, survived until morning hiding under the stairs. "They were knocking on the doors, and saying 'Police, open!' And then if you opened the door, they killed you," he said.
Sunday and Monday mornings brought more gunfire and blasts, despite government assurances the situation had been brought under control. On Tuesday afternoon, the Kenyan government said that part of three floors had collapsed. Kenyan soldiers at the scene said the collapse resulted from firing rocket-propelled grenades in a part of the building that soldiers said militants had rigged with explosives.
In an address to the nation later that night, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said the militants had been defeated. But victory came at a cost.
Mr. Vaya, the banker, survived gunfire in the supermarket with his children, but his wife had been killed at the Nakumatt entrance when she came to look for her family. On Sunday, he returned to the mall to collect his black Toyota Land Cruiser. Security guards escorted him out through the devastated mall.
The Indian-born banker, wearing flip-flops and a short-sleeved plaid shirt, was reluctant to describe what he saw inside. "This is a beautiful country. I would not want to leave this place," he said. "It's so sad."
--Nicholas Bariyo and Idil Abshir in Nairobi, Drew Hinshaw in Accra, Ghana, and Devon Maylie in Johannesburg contributed to this article.

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