As Kenya counted down days to this week’s sixth anniversary of the Westgate Mall attack by the Al Shabaab militant group, police chiefs from across the region congregated in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, to devise strategies of dealing with cross-border crime and terror networks.
The Westgate Mall attack, which was orchestrated by four gunmen led by a Norwegian of Somali origin, occurred on the morning of Saturday, September 21 2013, leaving more than 70 dead and damage to property worth millions of dollars.
The deaths of Kenyans and foreigners sent a chilling message across the region that no place is safe. It shocked many that people could be attacked and held hostage at an upmarket suburb of the Kenyan capital, with security agencies’ response appearing confused and working at cross-purposes to the advantage of the terrorists.
Six years down the line, Westgate has proved to be a watershed moment that jolted the regional police and intelligence forces into close co-operation, leading to a marked reduction in such attacks.
The East African Police Chiefs Co-operation Organisation annual general meeting that was held in Arusha this week was born from the realisation that no country is beyond the terrorists’ reach.
Antiterrorism police units are now on 24-hour standby, ready to respond to any reports of attacks in their respective countries.
“The collaboration is tremendous and any information received is quickly acted upon,” said the Inspector General of the Kenya Police Service Hillary Mutyambai in an exclusive interview with The EastAfrican.
Those in attendance at this year’s AGM included the Sudan Police Forces Director General Lt. Gen. Adil Mohammed, Simon Nyakoro Sirro, Inspector General, Tanzania Police Force, Mr Jurgen Stock, Interpol Secretary General Jean-François Gadeceu; Police Chiefs from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Seychelles, Sudan and representatives of inspector generals of police from other East African countries.
George Kinoti, the director of Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations also attended the meeting.
The police chiefs discussed strategies to fight transnational crimes such as terrorism, money laundering, piracy and human trafficking in the region.
Other countries are also involved in the effort to tackle terrorism from an international perspective.
The Westgate attack led to the creation of the National Counter Terrorism Centre, while most establishments such as malls, businesses, government institutions and other establishments started paying more attention to security by installing an array of security hardware.
The Westgate anniversary has put Kenya Police on high alert to avert the Al-Shabaab’s trade mark of marking such dates with fresh strikes.
The security forces are keen to avoid a repeat of the events of January 15 this year when Al Shabaab gunmen staged a Westgate-type attack at the high-end Dusit-D2 hotel complex along Riverside Drive in Nairobi’s Westlands, taking hostages and killing 21 Kenyans and foreigners.
The attack was staged on the same date as the El-Adde attack on January 15, 2016, in which Al Shabaab overran a camp belonging to the Kenyan contingent of the African peacekeepers in Somalia that left more than 170 soldiers dead.
Even though the security agencies’ response was swift and decisive, which helped to save tens of lives, the attack still put into question the level of preparedness and quality of intelligence gathering in the months and weeks before the strike.
Kenya is the most vulnerable to attacks by Somalia terrorist groups because of its proximity to the war-torn country, a long, common porous border, a large population of Somalis living in the country and Nairobi’s decision to enter Somalia in 2011 before other Amisom members joined in.
Corruption in the police units has also helped dangerous and armed terrorists to bribe their way into the country.
Mr Mutyambai says the security agencies are now much wiser and more alert, in countering the terrorists’ moves.
Yet, the Dusit D2 attack by local sleeper cells rather than ethnic Somalis crossing the borders indicated Al-Shabaab’s versatility.
Most of the Dusit D2 attackers were ordinary-looking Kenyans who raised little or no suspicion in their neighbourhoods, like Violet Kemunto Omwoyo who played a key role in planning the attack together with her husband, Ali Salim Gichunge, who was said to be the leader of the gang.
While Gichunge was killed by the security forces, Omwoyo managed to escape into Somalia. She joined the British national, Samantha, commonly known as the “White Widow,” who was the mastermind behind the Westgate attack also believed to be holed up in Somalia.
Two Cuban doctors abducted by the Al Shabaab in Mandera are also still being held hostage in Somalia.
Mr Mutyambai in the interview said the police are still on the trail of the two women while still trying to locate and rescue the abducted doctors.
“We know that they (the two terror suspects) crossed over to Somalia only that we have not been able to locate them.
However, they are on the watch list and they will be arrested anytime they attempt to cross over” said Mr Mutyambai.
He said the multi-agency approach has enabled the security agencies to dismantle most of the local cells, with scores of suspects apprehended and charged before courts of law.
The Kenyan Director of Public Prosecution, Noordin Haji told The EastAfrican that convictions of the militants have increased since Westgate, a sign that his office has built capacity to prosecute terrorism cases.
“We have partners from different countries in the world and a comprehensive programme that is not only looking at prosecution but countering violent extremism,” he said.
Mr Haji, however, said that Kenya can do better by creating specialised courts to deal with terrorism cases because they are inherently dangerous in nature, even to judicial officers.
He said terrorism investigators still operate in a very harsh environment which sometimes forces them to seek more time from the courts. Getting witnesses in terrorism cases is also difficult because they feel threatened by the criminals.
But even as the Kenyan security agencies take credit for pre-empting many planned attacks, they are still grappling with the reality that mobile money services and the banking sector remain susceptible and are being used by terrorist to transfer funds from various countries into Kenya to finance their activities.
Soon after the Dusit D2 terror attack, it emerged that the cash that was used in preparation of the operation was received from South Africa through a bank based in Westlands, Nairobi.
One of the suspects, Hassan Abdi Nur, was operating 52 M-Pesa agency accounts. The agencies received the cash, which was later withdrawn at a bank in Eastleigh, before it was wired to Somalia.
In August the Kenyan Anti-Terror Police Unit revealed that it was investigating the trail of $22 million that was transferred from a bank in Cape Town, South Africa, which could have been linked to the Dusit D2 attack.
There are also complaints that Kenyans who were recruited by Al-Shabaab to fight in Somalia but later took advantage of an amnesty to return continue living in fear of elimination, even as Mr Mutyambai assured them of their safety.
“We have offered amnesty to those willing to co-operate, after which we take them for rehabilitation. Anybody who knows a returnee who has disappeared is free to come forward,” he said.