How Kenya’s security spending, spying changed after Westgate attack

Thursday September 21 2023

Ariel view of Westgate Mall in Westlands, Nairobi, Kenya taken on September 20, 2016. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG


When Kenya's former president Uhuru Kenyatta took office in March 2013, the country's Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) was a small offshoot of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) that his predecessor Mwai Kibaki had allocated a paltry Ksh30.5 million ($207,482), mostly for salaries.

Then on September 21, 2013, gunmen raided the upmarket Westgate Mall in Nairobi killing at least 67 people, injuring more and prompting a days-long standoff with police.

It turned out to be a terrorist attack that rattled Kenya and the entire region, prompting the state to pour billions of shillings into security agencies.

Read: How Westgate attack jolted region police chiefs into action

The government profiled and watched its own citizens as well as those from neighbouring countries like Somalia, ushering in a new era of mass surveillance.

“Let me make it clear. We shall hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to. We shall get them. We shall punish them for this heinous crime,” said Mr Kenyatta, days after the Westgate attack that came as he settled in office.


In his first budget for the financial year 2014/15, Kenyatta increased allocation to the ATPU more than 10 times to Ksh333.1 million ($2.27 million).

Increased spending on the fight against terrorism, however, went beyond ATPU, which was created in 2003 in response to the attacks on the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998 and on an Israeli-owned Mombasa hotel in 2002.

The government also sank billions into overall internal security systems while demand for private security, including guarding, and CCTV cameras also surged, leading to a business booming as cautious Kenyan households and corporate organisations prioritised their safety.

The biggest beneficiary of security spending was the National Intelligence Services (NIS) —Kenya’s spy agency which had been criticised for failing to pick intelligence ahead of the Westgate terror attack.

Spending on the NIS has more than tripled over the decade from Ksh13.4 billion ($91.2 million) in the year to June 2013 to Ksh44.3 billion ($301.4 million) in the current fiscal period, making it the fastest-growing budget item in the 10 years.

Read: Kenyan court finds two guilty for Westgate attack

The vast budget backed by techies has enhanced NIS capabilities for vast phone, email and Internet surveillance operations.

The eavesdropping was helped by contentious legislation passed in the wake of the Westgate attack, allowing government agencies to listen to and record phone conversations without court permission.

The attack on the upscale mall, a favourite of Kenya’s growing middle class and foreign workers, happened two years after Kenya sent troops into Somalia following a series of kidnappings and raids on its soil.

On September 6, 2013, the Westgate attackers purchased a Mitsubishi Lancer KAS 575X from a garage in Nairobi which was used to conduct surveillance, rehearse and identify potential secure routes to the mall from Eastleigh.

It is the same vehicle that was used to access the mall by four terrorists on the day of the attack, spooking the state.

As a result, the state tapped Safaricom to install a Ksh15 billion ($102 million) security surveillance system backed with thousands of CCTV cameras that relay information to police in real time, recording people and car movements in the bulk of Nairobi roads.

The project involved connecting 195 police stations in Nairobi and Mombasa to high-speed (4G) Internet to ease communication.

The first phase of the surveillance system went live in May 2015, two years after the Westgate attack. Companies and households have also turned to private security as the threat of terrorism remains alive, with active terror cells in neighbouring Somalia and parts of northeastern Kenya.

“So, after the Westgate attack, before you enter any gate there is the deliberate screening of both vehicular and foot traffic,” Jackson Mbuthia, the chief commercial officer at privately-owned SGA Security, said, noting that this was not the case before when the main role of a security guard was to open gates and lift barriers.

Read: 9 years later: Lessons from the Westgate terror attack

Today, there is a shift from manual to more technology-driven systems such as boom barriers and spikes.

Where private security guards specialised more in patrol dogs, they have also moved into sniffer dogs to detect explosives and other ammunition.

“There is no shopping mall you will go to today, or public building that has not got some form of electronic access control,” Mr Mbuthia said.

The Principal Secretary for Internal Security Omollo estimated in an earlier commentary that close to a million people are employed in the private security industry contributing Ksh100 billion ($680.3 million) to Kenya’s GDP.

The legal landscape has also changed as the government enhanced its anti-money laundering (AML) and combating financing terrorism (CFT) framework.

This is in line with a 2021 taskforce report which showed Kenya’s geo-positioning, trade interconnectedness, and high fintech use have increased the country’s vulnerability to money laundering and terrorism financing.

The task force assessed that the banking industry carried the highest money laundering vulnerability, followed by real estate, money remittance providers, Saccos, legal professionals, and second-hand motor vehicle dealers.

The far-reaching changes proposed in the Anti-Money Laundering and Combating of Terrorism Financing Law (Amendment) Bill, 2023, including stiffer penalties for individuals moving large undeclared cash volumes, look set to tighten checks in these sectors.

Real estate agencies, saccos, casinos, forex bureaus, and life insurance brokers have become the latest targets as the government clamps down on economic crimes such as financial terrorism and racketeering.