After Westgate massacre, Somali militants hit Kenyan border towns

As attacks kill three Kenyan police, calls rise in Nairobi to battle terror in a more systematic way. No formal command structure existed to deal with the Westgate mall siege, experts say.

Siegfried Modola/Reuters
Police officers guard the edge of a security perimeter put into place a distance from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, in the early hours of the morning during a standoff operation between Kenyan security forces and gunmen inside the building, Tuesday, September 24, 2013.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

No sooner did Kenyan authorities declare an end to the bloody Westgate mall massacre, carried out by Somali militants -- then two Kenyan towns near the largely un-policed border of Somalia were hit by militants, killing three policemen and bringing an end to many months of peace.

The rural attacks add to concerns that the high publicity and heavy death toll of the Westgate attack have emboldened Al Shabab militants at a time when Kenyan forces have them on the run in Somalia – and that cross border attacks may represent a new militant strategy.

The border attacks also add to growing talk in Nairobi about battling terror in a more organized way.

Militants hit the towns of Mandera on Thursday and Wajir on Wednesday amid provocative Twitter statements by Al Shabab’s emerging leader, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, known as Godane. Addressing the Kenyan public, Godane stated that, “there is no way that you, the Kenyan public, could possibly endure a prolonged war in Somalia and you cannot also withstand a war of attrition inside your own country.”

Somali radical attacks in Kenyan border towns in 2010 were one reason the Kenyan Army engaged with Al Shabab inside Somalia. Kenya’s Army is now part of an African Union force that recently drove Al Shabab, which means “the youth,” out of its Somali urban strongholds.

In the town of Wajir, hit Wednesday, a senior police officer, Isaiah Odhiambo, told the Monitor that, “We are holding one suspect in connection with the attack. We believe he is one of those who are involved,” though police in both towns have not said the attackers were Al Shabab.

Al Shabab chief Godone in his Wednesday tweet did not appear to take direct credit for the smaller attacks, though news sources and analysts in Kenya are making the assumption that they were carried out by members of Al Shabab.

The siege of the upscale Westgate mall started Saturday and shocked Kenyans and the world for its ferocity as 61 people were killed. Relatives of President Uhuru Kenyatta were victims as was a prominent poet from Ghana and a pregnant Harvard- educated scholar who worked for the Clinton Global Initiative and her husband. The posh mall is popular with wealthy Kenyans, expats and diplomats for its shops, cafes and movie theaters.

Since Al Shabab gunmen opened fire in the mall Saturday, many ordinary Kenyans as well as politicians and security analysts have started calling for reforms in the country’s security sector, especially after the siege by 15 attackers took four days to end.

“Terrorists keep changing tactics. Kenya needs to have an effective intelligence network so that it can be ahead of them,” says Benjamin Muema, a former colonel in the Kenyan Army who is now a security consultant in Nairobi. “All security agencies need to work to forestall any future happenings.”

Col. Muema says Nairobi has no formal command structure for coordinating different security forces in case of an attack and that the Westgate mall chaos and the ongoing lack of clarity about what happened, suggests that the mall response quickly became more “political” than tactical.

In 2011, in the months after Kenyan forces entered Somalia, Al Shabab forces reacted in Kenya by attacking churches, public places and the police in Nairobi, and in the towns of Mombasa and Garissa.

Those tactics appeared to change on Sept. 21 when they laid siege to Westgate.

In the rural attacks along the Somali border in the past 48 hours, the militants used hit-and-run tactics. 

In Thursday morning’s assault in Mandera, two police officers were killed and three other injured. The militants also set 11 vehicles ablaze before fleeing, police sources said.

“They have caused much destruction and deaths, but we are after them,” said police chief Charlton Muriethi, contacted near Mandera.

The day before in Wajir, dozens of armed men lobbed grenades and opened fire at a local vegetable market as residents were buying fruits and vegetables in the evening. The attack left one person dead and five injured, and shattered months of relative peace.

"When we heard [Al Shabab] had successfully attacked Nairobi, we knew from our experiences they would attack towns here,” said Hussein Adan Mohammed, who heads the Wajir Peace and Development Agency, an NGO that works for peace in and around the Wajir area.

Mr. Mohammed claims that Kenyan customs agents and border police are corrupt and allow weapons and undesirables from Somalia into the north of Kenya for a small price. “Al Shabab has attacked the towns before and we believe they have gained courage after the attack at Westgate. The major problem here is Kenya's border is not well policed and the militants can avoid the few check points to enter the country,” he said by phone from Wajir. 

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