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How Westgate attack inspired broad changes in multi-agency cooperation

Wednesday September 21, 2022

A member of the ATA-trained Kenya SPEAR team runs through smoke at the Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi during a Joint Readiness Exercise on October 30, 2021/US Embassy, Nairobi

NAIROBI, Kenya, Sep 21 — Wednesday marked nine years since four masked gunmen forced their way into the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi’s Westlands area and launched a large-scale attack which left at least 67 dead and over 100 injured.

Attackers began the raid with a shooting spree, indiscriminately spraying shoppers and staff with bullets while tossing grenades into crowds at the mall which hosted different businesses including shops, restaurants, and recreational facilities.

The assailants allied to the Somalia-based Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab militant group battled with the Kenyan security forces for four days in one of the country’s deadliest attacks since the August 1998 US Embassy bombing.

The Al-Shabaab militants targeted Kenya in response to its deployment of the military to Somalia to counter a rising insurgency that saw a number of tourists abducted from the Kenyan coast.

The attack took the country by surprise with the lack of clear command structure for multi-agency security operations slowing response by agencies.

newsinsdeDuring the four-day siege, Kenyan forces were put on the spot when some of them were captured on CCTV footage looting from the facility while conducting an operation that was designed to rescue Kenyans from the hands of ruthless terrorists who rejoiced for striking right at the heart of Kenya’s capital.

In some occasions, different branches of the security arms differed on who was calling the shots and how to run the rescue operation which turned messy when some officers shot at each other albeit mistakenly.

Despite the uncoordinated response from Kenyan forces, stories of hope and triumph emerged with licensed civilians taking an initiative to try and help their fellow Kenyans who were trapped.

One of the notable cases was that of the current Garissa Senator Abdul Haji who is credited with saving dozens of lives and that of Constable Benjamin Chemjor, who was dubbed the “Westgate hero” for leading the Flying Squad team in battling terrorist attackers at the Westgate mall.

Today, the Westgate Shopping Mall, which was once a scene of horror and misery, has become a symbol of Kenyans’ hope and resilience following its reopening seven years ago.

The lack of coordination among security agencies during the Westgate Attack forced Kenya to rethink its entire security structure and embark on the retraining of its counterterrorism tactical personnel.

To avoid confusion in the unfortunate event of such an incident, the government established a multi-agency command structure to tackle such complex security challenges.

The success of the radical reform was demonstrated on January 15, 2019, when Al-Qaeda-linked extremists launched a similar attack on the DusitD2 Hotel complex on Riverside Drive, Nairobi.

Unlike the Westgate attack, the response from the security agencies was swift and well-coordinated.

The security agencies led by the elite General Service Unit (GSU) RECCE squad rescued more than 700 civilians and neutralized the assailants in less than two days.

Though the Dusit attack left at least 21 civilians dead, Kenyan forces were praised both at home and abroad for the way they handled the entire operation.

During the Dusit incident, the United States Embassy’s Special Program for Embassy Augmentation Response (SPEAR) squad worked alongside tactical elements to combat the insurgents.

To further improve the readiness of Kenyan forces and interoperability in the wake of global terrorism, Kenya and the United States Embassy in Nairobi conducted a joint terror drill on October 31, 2021, to evaluate preparedness.

The exercise at Rosslyn Academy in Gigiri involved at least 100 officers drawn from the SPEAR team.

Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU), Bomb Disposal Unit, Boarder Patrol Unit, emergency first responders, and disaster management response teams took part.

The drill which was characterized by simulation of gunfire and explosives was carried out in partnership with Aga khan and MP Shah hospitals where ‘victims’ were rushed for emergency treatment.

“The objective is for readiness. It’s the sixth time we have done this, every time we are evaluating response times, capabilities, and interoperability of first responders, and law enforcement, and this is led by the SPEAR team which is a specifically designed group of law enforcement folks who protects diplomatic facilities and personnel,” US Embassy Spokesman Andrew Veveiros told reporters at the time.

The exercise was also attended by representatives from the Kenyan government and the US Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

The mock exercise included simulated explosions, blank gunfire, fire, and traffic disruption around nearby roads within the city.

Other efforts put in place by the Kenyan government include the modernization of its security forces including the military.

In October 2021, the immediate former President, Uhuru Kenyatta, attributed the country’s stability to the investment in the military.

The former Head of State said his administration had rolled out a successful campaign over the years to modernize the military in a bid to guarantee the security of the country.

“In the last eight years, we have undertaken the most consequential and expansive modernization of our military in our nation’s history. We continue to tool and re-retool our security resources to the highest standards; so as to keep our people safe and secure and to preserve our territorial integrity in a just, fair, democratic, and safe country for all,” he added.

“In addition, we are building four additional hospitals to cater for them and their dependents, in recognition of the heavy toll placed on them and their families,” Kenyatta explained.

To boost their capabilities the government also increased funding for the security agencies over the years.

In April 2022, Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani said that national security agencies had been allocated Sh317.8 billion of the Sh3.3 trillion proposed expenditure in the 2022/23 budget.

While outlining the expenditure plan, Yatani said that the funds will support the operations of the National Police Service, the Department of Defence, and the National Intelligence Service towards enhancing security.

“The security of our nation remains paramount and must be maintained to safeguard the considerable development gains,” he said.

In the proposal, Sh128.4 billion was allocated to the Ministry of Defence, Sh46.4 billion to the National Intelligence Service, and Sh122. 2 billion to the police and prison services.

The decline in the number of terror-related attacks in the country has been linked to successful counterterrorism efforts. 


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