The Al Qaeda Attack on Nairobi: A US, Israeli Intelligence Failure
The capture of 10 attackers and the deaths of five others was reported in the last update by the Kenyan authorities Wednesday, Sept. 25, five days after terrorists attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall.
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said that forensic investigations would establish the identities and nationalities of the five dead terrorists.
It must be said that ten live terrorists in hand are a rare treasure for any counter-terror agency. Questioning them separately, followed by professionally-orchestrated confrontations among team members should soon yield information about where they came from, which organization sent them and the name of their field commander.
But the hard task confronting the investigation, say DEBKA Weekly’s counter-terror experts, is to establish whether the captives were active terror operatives who came in from outside Kenya or local accessories, who never knew who were handing out bribes for assistance, or their roles in the attack.
Here is one instance: Our sources report that in the first hour of the assault on the shopping mall, Saturday, Sept. 21, security guards on duty were persuaded with generous wads of cash to lead the attackers to the central control room of the CCTV cameras studded around the building.
In a trice, the terrorists disconnected the control center from links to the security service’s command center outside. They then sat down before the screens in position to observe every movement inside the building, having placed the interior out of view of watchers on the outside from the first hours of the attack and during the siege which followed.
Many attackers escaped after raiding clothing stores
The terrorists also quickly barricaded themselves in two fortified rooms behind bullet-proof glass against a counter attack by the Kenyan military. Those rooms became their command center.
The ten suspects in custody do not represent the main body of the assault team. Many others made good their escape.
Western intelligence agents found witnesses attesting to a large number of attackers raiding clothing stores on the first day, changing into ordinary apparel and running out, posing as terrified survivors of the shocking ordeal.
Some may have managed to fly out of the country before Kenyan security authorities imposed heavy screening procedures for departing passengers at Nairobi airport.
The number of these fugitives is unknown.
On the first night and the following morning of the attack, reporters were allowed to enter the stricken mall, some of them able to run alongside the first police force to enter the building. But then, a security perimeter was suddenly marked out by someone in control and the press ordered to stay outside the tape, too far to monitor events in and around the building.
This order is said to have coincided with the arrival of Israeli anti-terror advisers.
There is no doubt that after Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), the first to take flak for the failure to spot the coming Al Qaeda attack were Israel’s security agencies.
Glaring intelligence shortcomings
From 2001, Israel provided Kenya with a broad range of military assistance. Israeli military officers helped plan Kenyan operations against the Somali Islamist Al-Shabaab, equipped the Kenyan army with weapons systems, including drones, field intelligence equipment, armored vehicles and speedboats for their coast guard and established new, highly trained commando units.
Their aid program also covered responsibility for setting up a security and intelligence barrier against terrorist operations, a project begun after Oct. 16, 2011, when Al Shabaab threatened Kenya with massive terrorist attacks in retribution for its involvement in the Somali war. Their targets would be the capital, Nairobi, and the port town of Mombassa, where the Kenyan army takes delivery of military supplies.
The security machinery Israeli counter error experts set up and staffed in Kenya’s main cities was able to thwart a number of Somali multiple terrorist attacks, except for a few minor incidents.
The Westgate mall attack exposed major flaws in this protective apparatus. Not only did a large Israeli facility find itself defenseless against assault, but the entire counterterrorism mechanism put in place for Kenya by the Israeli Mossad spy agency, Shin Bet intelligence and police security experts, proved itself flawed.
Mossad and CIA in the same boat for losing intelligence credibility
Questions are bound to be asked about how Israel’s famous security organizations failed to pick up any sign of the coming Al Qaeda assault in East Africa, a part of the world of sensitive importance to Israel.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that Israel also maintains a strong military and intelligence presence in other countries in this region: Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Sudan.
The blow to its prestige is therefore widespread.
While it may be claimed that the Al Qaeda hit on the Nairobi mall was planned and prepared outside Africa in places where Israel intelligence has little or no standing, still the Israeli advisers attached to Kenya’s security and intelligence services should have caught some sign that an attack was afoot from the preparations pursued for months inside a building with substantial Israeli occupancy and ownership.
The number of terrorist attacks thwarted in the past will not make up for this abrupt loss of credibility.
The United States and its Central Intelligence Agency are in the same boat as Israel as far as their credibility is concerned in the Nairobi terrorist episode.
They too maintain an extra-powerful security team in the region.
Al Qaeda no longer uses electronic “chatter”
The CIA station in Nairobi is among the largest in Africa. Ambassador Robert F. Godec was formerly the US State Department’s deputy coordinator for counterterrorism.
US Army Command Sgt. Maj. Darrin Bohn paid an official visit to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa at Camp Lemonnire in Djibouti, as recently as Sept. 13.
He was hosted by US Marine Corps Sgt. Major Bonnie Skinner. During the visit he toured US regional joint task facilities, attended mission briefings and met with personnel and commanders.
The CJTF-HOA’s purview covers Somalia, its Al-Shabaab insurgents, the Kenyan-Somali border region and the whole of Kenya.
Yet one American official explained why they had missed the coming attack by saying there had been no increased electronic “chatter” to indicate a possible major target in Nairobi.
This overused cliché sounds particularly lame since Al Qaeda is known to have moved on to more sophisticated means of communication for its operations than the easily intercepted electronic “chatter.”