An expert on terror collecting data on the four most significant terrorist attacks across the world in the last 12 years for a text book – which he might call The Ultimate Terror Guidebook, would be well advised to hold off publication until all the facts are in about the crowning event, the fifth.
It occurred at lunchtime Saturday, Sept 21, 2013, when an unknown number of gunmen stormed the upscale Westgate shopping mall of Nairobi through the main gate and possibly the second floor car park. Making their way up to higher floors, they sprayed gunfire and hurled grenades into the crowds, while vetting Muslims by testing their knowledge of ritual. By the time, they reached the Nakumatt supermarket at around 23:00 at least 39 civilians were reported dead.
And that was just the beginning.
Until then, Al Qaeda’s most outstanding attack occurred in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 jihadists murdered nearly 3,000 people by turning four hijacked airliners carrying 227 civilians into deadly weapons against America.
Top talent recruited from AQIM, AQAP, AQLSI and Al Shabaab
Moving east, on Oct. 23, 2002, some 40 to 50 armed Chechens, who claimed allegiance to the Islamist separatist movement aided by al Qaeda, seized the crowded Dubrovka Theater in Moscow.
They took the audience of 850 hostage against Russia’s withdrawal from Chechnya. After a siege of two and-a-half days, the Russian Alpha Group pumped an unidentified chemical agent into the ventilation system and raided the building.
They killed 40 terrorists, but 130 civilians also died of gas poisoning.
Six years later, in 2008, India’s largest city, Mumbai, fell victim to twelve coordinated shooting and bombing attacks starting on Nov. 26 and lasting three days. They left 164 people dead and 308 wounded. The only attacker captured alive confessed that the Pakistani Al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the attacks with the support of the country’s powerful Inter-Service Intelligence agency.
Then, on Jan. 16, 2013, a brigade led by the Al Qaeda-backed Malian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar masterminded a hostage crisis at the Tigantourine gas facility near In Amenas in Algeria.
After four days, Algerian special forces raided the site in an effort to free the more than 800 hostages. At least 39 were killed in the operation, as well as an Algerian security guard and 29 terrorists.
Al Qaeda’s first organized “foreign legion”
It must have taken years for even the smartest terrorist masterminds to collate, study, analyze and draw conclusions from these four events in relation to the Nairobi assault.
In the view of DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism experts, the upshot was the investment of some two years for creating a specialist team combining the top talents of three jihadist branches: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaeda in the Levant, Syria and Iraq (the newest branch which was assigned to the Syrian front).
This combined grouping harnessed with the Somali Al Shabaab, which acts on Al Qaeda’s behalf outside the Middle East and Africa in the US, Canada, Britain, India and France.
According to data spilling out of the Nairobi siege, a shadowy agency recruited 30 or 40 volunteers for the operation, put them through special training courses and shaped them into a unified elite force for Kenya modeled on the commando units of conventional armies.
This project inaugurated the birth of al Qaeda’s first foreign legion.
Kenya’s chief of general staff, Gen. Julius Karangi, said Tuesday, Sept. 24: “They are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world.”
Machine-like precision, perfect sync
This week, the FBI and other US security intelligence agencies started investigating reports that among the attackers were three American converts to Islam, a British woman, a Canadian, a Finn and a Kenyan.
President Uhuru Kenyatta said forensic tests would be conducted to establish the identities and nationalities of the terrorists as well as their dead victims.
This work will progress in pace with the clearing and securing of the mall.
The Kenyan government announced Wednesday, Sept. 25, that the work had begun with the help of foreign experts from the US, Israel, Britain, Canada and Germany and would take seven days for results.
In the face of strenuous denials from London, a British terrorist was named as Samantha Lewthwaite, the 29-year old widow of Jermaine Lindsay, who blew himself up in Al Qaeda’s Juy 7, 2005 bombing attacks on London’s transport system. Dubbed the White Widow, she is said to have moved to Somalia in recent years and joined Al Shabaab.
At Kenya’s request, Interpol has issued a warrant for her arrest.
These revelations attest to Qaeda’s transition to a new phase of its multinational phase and adoption of far more sophisticated tactics. Jihadists of different nationalities have been found before, and in Syria, for instance, a mixed national bag of Islamists is fighting Bashar Assad.
But the multinational outfit seen in Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall displayed a unique combination of machine-like precision, unity and perfect sync for executing a large-scale and very complicated effort.
This level of expertise is far outside the ken of Ahmed Abdi Godane, head of the Somali Al-Shabaab, which still holds onto a small strip of land near the Kenya border after losing Mogadishu, the capital, and the key port of Kismayo.
Al Qaeda reinvented. But who is the top man?
It may be the first grim performance of a reinvented Qaeda with more to follow.
Planning must have taken place across four continents – North America, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
A secret command center, located somewhere outside Kenya, is believed have planned and coordinated the Kenya operation – much like the Hamburg cell for the 9/11 attacks on America. According to US and Germany intelligence agencies, the German center was staffed then by a group of radical Islamists that included Saudis, who eventually became key operatives in the attacks.
Twelve years on, nothing definite has come to light about the Hamburg center, or which other cells were pressed into joining the atrocity against the United States. However, the prevalent assumption often heard in Obama administration circles, that Al Qaeda Central is all but defunct, has proved unfounded in all four major terror operations and most strikingly in Nairobi.
As to whether Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, is indeed at the helm of the jihadist drive or replaced has not been established to this day.