Until a few days ago, it was just part of the routine: shoppers entering the Westgate mall in central Nairobi stopped at the door and opened their bags for a quick security inspection. The guards who checked them, private contractors, brandished hand-held metal detectors.
Now, after a three-day standoff with gunmen that has left at least 62 people dead and more than 150 wounded, the security at Nairobi’s premier shopping centre seems woefully inadequate.
An unknown number of gunmen stormed the compound on Saturday, flinging grenades and shooting in a pattern that witnesses described as indiscriminate.
The attack followed a scenario long feared by counterterrorism experts, not just in Kenya but globally: a well-organised assault on a soft target — a place that is teeming with civilians and seemingly impossible to protect. Thousands of people went through the mall’s automatic glass doors on a busy day.
“This was one of the few high-end shopping destinations that affluent Kenyans and expats enjoy,” said Mark Schroeder, vice president for Africa analysis at Stratfor risk consulting. “You have a world of civilians congregating in one location, so for an attacker, it is really an ideal target if they are trying to bring prominence to their group.”
There are other places in Nairobi that draw equal numbers of elite Kenyans and expatriate residents, but Westgate is almost certainly the most exposed. Unlike an embassy or international compound, there are no gates or fences. The shopping centre lies in a dense neighbourhood, surrounded on all sides with narrow roads that clog with traffic during peak commuting hours.
“It’s a pretty lightly guarded place, as many places are,” said Cedric Barnes, head of the Horn of Africa research at the International Crisis Group. “The guards and metal detectors won’t deter armed heavily armed groups.”
The Somali militant group Al Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the assault, had previously vowed to attack Kenyan targets in retaliation for Nairobi’s participation in an African Union-UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia known as Amisom. Beginning in late 2011, Kenyan troops pushed northward across the border and they quickly seized territory from Al Shabaab, including the key port city of Kismayo.
But previous, foiled Al Shabab plots in Kenya targeted government and diplomatic facilities — places where it was easy to fortify perimeter security. Westgate was the one target left unguarded.
“Anybody who has ever spent any time in Nairobi will tell you that Westgate was known to be a target, both in terms of the popular mindset as well as official warnings,” said Mr Barnes.
So if the threat was known, many are now asking: how come Westgate was not better prepared for a nightmare scenario?
One reason was logistical: forcing customers to pass through a host of security checks would affect business. The facility’s reliance on private contractors may also have contributed, offering the veneer of security with little actual ability to respond to assaults. Some analysts now expect the Kenyan security forces to maintain a more visible presence in the capital.
But even if better security had been in place, experts say Al Shabab has worked for several years to fine-tune its ability to hit civilians. Its first such attack, using grenades and gunmen, took place in 2010 at Al Muna Hotel in Mogadishu, a popular spot for government officials, killing at least 76. On June 19 this year, they used the same tactic, striking the UN compound in the Somali capital in an attack that killed 15.
“Al Shabab has been pushed out of the Somali capital, so what they are resorting to at the moment is asymmetric methods,” said Elio Yao, spokesman for the Amisom mission. “The threat level is changing and we are also trying to adjust, but now they are blending into the population to commit acts of atrocities.”
The Westgate assault followed a similar pattern, using small arms and well-trained gunmen.
Matt Bryden, director of the Nairobi-based Sahan research group, a non-profit think tank, said intelligence is perhaps the best — and perhaps only — weapon available to stop such soft-target assaults. In Kenya, both local and international security services have worked for several years to bulk up their strength in tracking down militant cells linked to Al Shabab.
“It’s extremely difficult to defend against a complex, well-planned attack like this, so the bigger question is, how could an operation of this size and complexity have escaped the attention of the security services,” Mr Bryden said
“The Kenyans had been prepared for any eventuality,” said Mr Yao. “But as you know such terrorism attacks cannot be prevented 100 per cent.”