The last couple of days, the world has become increasingly impatient around Kenya’s handling of the Westgate terror attack. The slow and uncertain flow of information coming out of the Kenyan Government- some of it contradictory- has led to the hashtag created for solidarity- #WeAreOne- to evolve into #WeAreOne_dering. A number of articles have appeared in major publications discussing the poor information flow, and highlighting gaps in information that, three days on from the end of the siege, we still don’t have clarity on- like the number of dead, the number or nationalities of attackers, and the sequence and timing of events around the siege’s resolution.
At the same time, questions have been asked around Kenya’s handling of the situation. It’s been suggested that the fact that the attack happened at all indicates a serious failure in Kenyan counter-terrorism and intelligence services.
Criticism is natural in the wake of a major event such as this. The public is angry and fearful. People want to understand what happened so they can begin to close out their grief. Others are fearful and want to be able to trust the authorities to stop it from happening again.
Unfortunately, today’s fast-paced news cycle puts ever-more pressure on the information management around crises such as this. Twitter wants answers in minutes. Mainstream media want to be able to feed their readers new information and keep them hooked on the story, or peoples’ interest wanes. In a time when peoples’ movements are increasingly tracked electronically and everything seems connected, we expect governments and emergency services to be able to trot out figures almost immediately.
I wrote a little about this around the Haiti earthquake, when, after just a few days following the catastrophic disaster, mainstream media was already starting to criticize response agencies for being slow to deliver aid. In fact there were perfectly good reasons why aid was slow being delivered, largely due to the huge destruction of infrastructure that might have been used to bring aid in, and a chaotic environment that meant information about the situation was still highly uncertain.
In the same way, we need to hold off on our criticism of Kenya’s handling of the crisis for now. The only people who have any real right to get upset about the lack of information around the final death-toll are the few hundreds of people still waiting to hear about the fate of the 60-or-so people listed as missing. My heart goes out to them- they are enduring a hellish torture while authorities stall on confirming what they fear most- that indeed their loved ones have been killed in this brutal crime. The rest of us, though, have no real stake in this and should shut up and wait.
The reality is, the complexities of the aftermath of any mass-casualty event are intense. In addition to trying to identify the remains of many people, there is the issue of gathering fragile forensic evidence that will help identify attackers and the procedures they used- which in turn will aid intelligence agencies in holding criminals to account and prevent such attacks in the future- a critical task that is painstakingly slow even under ‘normal’ circumstances.
Add to this the risk that parts of the building or bodies may be booby-trapped, and this process becomes even slower, as security forces and ordinance disposal are required to move foot-by-foot through the complex to ensure that investigators can operate in safety. Then there is the problems caused by the fire. A hot, slow-burning fire of the sort that has smouldered in Westgate for the last couple of days is ideally suited to destroying human remains, and will make the task not just of identifying remains, but also identifying how many remains exist, very challenging. It also means the building is unstable. Portions of it have already collapsed, and investigators will need to move cautiously, particularly around those portions that have already collapsed, to avoid putting themselves at further risk. Whether further rumours that attackers deliberately made corpses harder to identify are true has yet to be confirmed.
Either way, the combination of fire, collapse, and the physical trauma of high-calibre rounds and explosives will make identification of remains challenging. While the Kenyan government appears to be allowing experienced forensic investigators from the US, UK and other places to support them, this task will continue to take time- and it must take time. Not only is it not fair to ask investigators to put themselves at risk for the sake of the news-cycle, but the risk of compromising evidence and losing an opportunity to either bring perpetrators to justice or prevent an attack in future is too great a risk to run.
Well before any comprehensive account of the attack and the security response mounted by Kenyan authorities has been compiled there are already criticisms around the lapses in security that are perceived to have taken place. Some of these have some merit. The poor physical security at Westgate- well understood by security observers to be a highly likely target for exactly this sort of attack- should rightly be a focus for criticism and soul-searching. That very few of the alleged 60-odd missing (presumed hostages) were released after the final series of assaults suggests that many if not most of them may have been killed by hostage-takers or in the process of trying to release them. There are many, many answers missing, and these will emerge over time.
The suggestion that Kenya’s intelligence community is remiss because it failed to identify and prevent such a complex attack really misses the point, however. The Westgate attack succeeded precisely because it was so simple to execute- and for this reason, attacks like it are well understood to be increasingly preferred by terror groups worldwide. The most dramatic example of a similar tactics is the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, with teams of gunmen using grenades and assault-rifles attacking multiple soft targets and keeping security forces at bay for days. Similarly, this year’s disastrous attack on an oil facility in Algeria echoed a very similar approach.
This approach is used because it is cheap, it is simple to execute, it requires minimal expertise among the terrorists who actually carry it out, and it is very hard to detect. The resources required are: some common sense; some local background knowledge; some basic surveillance over a few weeks; some automatic weapons; some grenades; a small group of fighters who are willing to die on the mission; and the means to deliver them to the point of attack.
Let me re-iterate what I’ve written elsewhere. The fact that al Shabaab used this tactic in the Westgate attack does not indicate that they have suddenly become a highly sophisticated operation, or that they demonstrate an unexpectedly high capacity as a militant organization. Saying this is like implying that Vodaphone have demonstrated what a high capacity organization they are by hosting their customer call-centre offshore in India. Well, no. Vodaphone are doing what countless other companies are doing, which is outsourcing their customer service to a ready pool of cheap labour, saving them lots of money. It is not indicative of capacity either way- it is business common-sense, and the easiest, cheapest and most effective way of delivering customer-service outcomes.
In the same way, teams of gunmen attacking soft targets is not sophisticated. It’s simple. It’s cheap, it requires minimal training or preparation (when compared to, say, a car-bombing, which requires highly skilled labour and materials that are often hard to come by), and it is highly effective, in that (unlike a car-bomb, which is over in seconds) it keeps the eyes of the world on the incident for as long as possible (which is central to the goal of any high-profile terrorist attack).
We don’t yet know the full story about the attackers- how they did their surveillance, how they infiltrated the country, how they got their weapons. This is still being determined. It is possible that there were flags that should have been tripped- or that were tripped & ignored- and that criticism is merited. It is equally possible that the fighters entered through legitimate means, gained their weapons (easily accessible in Kenya) through established criminal channels, and offered almost no clues to their intentions that could have been perceived by someone outside their core group.
Likewise, it is possible that Kenya is stalling on releasing information because it recognizes its intelligence or tactical failures and it is still working out how to mitigate public relations damage. Far more likely, the practical complexities of a forensics operation under the circumstances of the Westgate Mall- violent trauma, fire, explosive ordnance, building collapse, mixed criminal and civilian casualties in large numbers, and the sheer size of the mall itself- make this one of the most complex crime scenes any investigative force has had to deal with worldwide since the London and Madrid bombings in the middle of the last decade.
Has Kenya dropped the ball in terms of intelligence and security? Time will tell. But it is far too early to be levelling accusations at them. Al Shabaab’s tactics were purposefully chosen because they are extremely difficult to detect ahead of time and, against a soft target, very hard to stop once they have begun. The most important question now is, what other potential targets remain vulnerable to this sort of attack, and what should be done about them?*
The one piece of criticism that is probably fair to be levelled at them is their poor crisis communication skills externally. Sending mixed messages, making pronouncements before information was known, all these things have added to confusion- far better to remain silent, and also to provide an explanation as to why you are remaining silent (people are not stupid; explain it to them and it will buy you time and support)- than fill empty space with noise, or worse, let other people fill empty space with noise.
My sympathy lies with the families of those still waiting to hear about their loved ones. And to everybody else, let’s back off and let the investigation run its course before we start dishing out blame and accusations.
*Attacks of this nature are almost impossible to fully mitigate without running the risk of creating a fortress mentality, because as high-profile targets (embassies, hotels, offices, malls) become increasingly hardened, attackers will simply switch to focus on smaller targets that are either perceived as less important to guard, or don’t have the resources. We’ve seen this in many places, for example Afghanistan, where extremists have targeted innocuous UN guest-houses rather than attempt to assault military compounds, and it is probably the single biggest concern now for Nairobi. As security is beefed up at major installations, mid-range hotels and international business will become the most vulnerable targets.