The time needed to plan, organize and execute Al Qaeda’s attack on Nairobi’s exclusive Westgate shopping mall – two years or more – may be judged by looking at the jihadists’ elite military performance, their weaponry and the speed, smooth coordination and ruthlessness of their actions.
Drawing on long acquaintance with this organization’s history, DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism experts reconstruct the stages of preparation the perpetrators passed through before setting foot in the Kenyan shopping mall.
1. Choosing a target. Some time in 2011, an advance reconnaissance team was sent to Nairobi to check out suitable targets. The Kenyan National Intelligence Service-NIS, which doubles as the national domestic and foreign intelligence agency, listed ten potential terrorist targets. One was the Westgate shopping mall. Yet no special security arrangements were put in place.
Thorough advance surveillance exploration has been a routine precursor to al Qaeda strikess for some years.
This was uncovered in the trial before a federal court in Chicago of the Pakistani-American terrorist and spy David Coleman Headley, who made five trips to the Indian city of Mumbai in 2007 and 2008 to scout out local landmarks for the multiple terrorist attacks eventually executed in late 2008.
Headley stayed at the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which his controllers had identified as their main target, and used his Pakistani intelligence training to shoot hours of video during in-house tours.
Even this terrorist-spy’s exhaustive surveillance was not enough. He was sent to four other Indian cities to select an alternative location for a major terrorist attack.
Five stages of preparation for Nairobi
After the Westgate shopping mall was selected, the next five stages went forward:
2. Recruitment of jihadis: The scale of the takeover called for an estimated 30 to 50 men and women. They were rounded up clandestinely – no easy task. Each was assessed for the right attributes for the operation and faced meticulous security vetting to ascertain that no double agents were planted by the various host countries of the recruits.
A group of 15 to 20 was finally chosen, brought together in one place and trained as an operational cell.
That place was most likely somewhere in Europe or Africa, selected for its good air and land travel connections to Kenya and fairly lax security arrangements that would allow terrorists to pass through unnoticed.
That stage would have taken four to six months.
3. Setting up a forward center in Nairobi: In the interests of secrecy, this command center must have been located in the heart of the Somali community and sheltered by the Al Shabaab loyalists. One of its tasks was to find safe houses to accommodate the incoming team of terrorists until they were acclimatized to the local environment. This gave them time for their own spot checks at the target, each of them becoming familiar with his or her area of operation.
The challenge of smuggling in .50 M2 machine guns
4. A smuggling network: The weapons to be used, ammunition and explosives had to be smuggled into Nairobi.
Now we know that in addition to the AK47 assault rifles, this particular Al Qaeda team was armed for the first time with .50 M2 machine guns. The current issue is manufactured by General Dynamics and US Ordnance for use by the US government and foreign allies.
Al Qaeda brought in the powerful M2s to this operation on the strength of experience in two previous terrorist attacks, Mumbai 2008 and Algeria, January 2013. Had they been armed then with this level of firing power, the terrorists could have held out much longer than they did before they were wiped out by Indian and Algerian special forces.
Getting this hardware into the Kenyan capital would have consumed another three months at least.
5. Bringing the weapons to the mall. A second smuggling network was required to bring the team’s hardware out of its hideouts in the city and into the Westgate shopping mall unnoticed. According to one report, they rented one or more shops on several floors of the building some months before the attack to accommodate stocks of ammo sufficient for a long siege. Local trucks delivering merchandise to the shops – and able to pass through without inspection – were used to ferry the lethal supplies.
6. Taking control of cached ammo. After the terrorists stormed into the mall, shooting their rifles and throwing grenades in all directions, DEBKA Weekly’s terror experts note how they made straight for the escalators to reach and secure the arms and ammo caches secretly stored near the tops of the moving stairs.
Plenty of food and drink for a protracted siege
Those hiding places were selected and guarded by a separate undercover team which established a presence in the mall some months in advance under cover of normal business activity. Their tasks were to choose storage areas easily accessible to the raiders and keep them concealed from the personnel employed in the mall’s shops and restaurants and cleaning staff.
This undercover team had to be large enough to cover the Westgate mall’s 66,000 square meters and 80 shops, restaurants and cafes, as well as a movie theater and a casino.
One reason for choosing Westgate was the Israeli ownership of the center and some of the businesses; another was the convenience of stores packed with foodstuffs and beverages on every floor. The attackers could count on ample sustenance for a protracted siege.
After handing over the arms caches and ammo to the attackers, the first group of undercover Al Qaeda agents had done their job and made their escape by mingling with the crowds fleeing the gunfire.
Later, some may have been picked up when the Kenyan police swooped on the Nairobi air terminal to search and detain departing suspects and fanned out across the city to hunt them down.