The military lost the plot in Westgate siege, says retired general

Friday October 4 2013

Lieutenant-General (rtd) Humphrey Njoroge. For a career soldier who spent a great deal of his time in service, what happened on the unforgettable noonday of Saturday, September 21, when  Al-Shabaab attackers stormed a shopping mall in Nairobi, was an unfortunate display of planning and execution lapses by security forces that almost turned tragi-comic.

Lieutenant-General (rtd) Humphrey Njoroge. For a career soldier who spent a great deal of his time in service, what happened on the unforgettable noonday of Saturday, September 21, when Al-Shabaab attackers stormed a shopping mall in Nairobi, was an unfortunate display of planning and execution lapses by security forces that almost turned tragi-comic.  

Lieutenant-General (rtd) Humphrey Njoroge, once Commandant of Kenya’s National Defence College, is a worried man.

For a career soldier who spent a great deal of his time in service, what happened on the unforgettable noonday of Saturday, September 21, when Al-Shabaab attackers stormed a shopping mall in Nairobi, was an unfortunate display of planning and execution lapses by security forces that almost turned tragi-comic.

The terrorists’ objective was to seize Westgate Shopping Mall, and they did it, he says, by employing the age-old tactic of surprise.

Once this happened, a succession of lapses ensued. Those who arrived first were police on patrol, who thought they were dealing with an armed robbery.

When the magnitude of the problem dawned on them, reinforcements were brought in the form of the General Service Unit’s Recce Company, the para-military police’s most elite squad.

It is unclear how smooth the change-over from the patrol police to the GSU was, but even the Recce Company would not finish the job and was relieved by the Kenya Defence Forces.

The first hard question: What was the chain of command during all these change-overs? In a military operation, when you pin down an enemy, you do not break the fire-fight, says Lt-Gen Njoroge. You must continually reinforce it no matter what else you do until you completely subdue the enemy. If you break it, you give your enemy a chance to recover.

“This kind of thing requires a rehearsal,” he says. “It won’t happen as if by accident. Training in peace-time is done so that in war you react automatically. There is no time or space to argue about ‘how do we pull out’ or whatever. If this doesn’t happen, that is not a military operation as far as I am concerned.”

But the biggest lapse of the operation, for which the country could yet pay another bloody price in future, was the handling of people coming out of the building. Even Kenyans not schooled in security matters were aghast at testimonies of terrified survivors, lamenting how they pointed out attackers who had changed clothes to police and were now mingling with them — only for the officers to order them: “Get out! Get out!”

It sounded incredible, but that is actually what happened, which begs the question: Did some of the security personnel know exactly what they were doing there?

The real possibility of catching a terrorist alive should have made them drop everything else. The horrific reality is that we now have terrorists among us, probably planning another atrocity.

“The military in peace-time is always training,” says Lt-Gen Njoroge. “We simulate a multiplicity of scenarios... I will be surprised if they did not train in a basement area, on a building with three storeys or more where there are civilians. And, of course, if they did, they certainly should have known how to handle people coming out of the building.

“Quite simply, those people should not have been allowed to go home just like that. In any military operation where you have prisoners, there are procedures to release them. You take them to a safe area, you separate officers and civilians, and then you do a thorough, unhurried screening.

“Quite obviously, the biggest failure at Westgate was not securing all people emerging from the building, including those who were taken to hospitals. They all had a story of interest to security personnel. Everybody at Westgate — if not all of Nairobi — should have been regarded as a suspect. All exits and entrances to the city, all airports and border points should have been sealed for as long it was needed to screen people.”

A recent example of this kind of ruthless police efficiency was the aftermath of the bombing that took place at the end of the Boston City Marathon in the US. Immediately after the explosions, the entire city was put on a virtual lockdown, and police arrested suspects who were far from the scene of crime.

“To do this kind of thing,” says the retired officer, “you must have drills during peace-time. Regrettably, some people committed mass murder here and then ran away with the survivors, past security personnel.”

He points out that the National Security Intelligence Service as presently constituted legally does not have arresting powers.

Unlike other intelligence services, such as Israel’s Mossad, Russia’s KGB or America’s CIA, which are mandated to act on the intelligence they gather, Kenya’s spying body can only pass on that information to another authority. Whether that authority chooses to act on it or not is beyond the NSIS.

As far as he is concerned, this is an anomaly that must be corrected as soon as possible, for it is fodder for a frustrating blame game. The NSIS, therefore, should have arresting powers.

This, though, would require a great shift in the psyche of Kenyans, more so those old enough to remember the Kanu era.

The NSIS, in those days called the Special Branch, was the most notorious security arm of the government in making dissidents disappear — to their graves or to exile. Mindful of that, framers of Kenya’s current Constitution went out of their way to make the NSIS as unthreatening as they possibly could.

But, in light of Westgate, it may become necessary to make a U-turn.

Lt-Gen Njoroge, an alumnus of Army War College in the US, among, other institutions, was a long-standing military theorist and trainer in the KDF. His career stretched from 1969 to 2004, most of it as a trainer, save for a few command postings.

He taught weapons and tactics to lower-cadre soldiers, operational art to middle-level officers and strategy and policy to colonels and generals. In 1981, he penned a detailed paper on urban warfare while at the Defence Staff College, and reading it today must make any Westgate witness wince.

In the paper, he strongly advocated joint training of the Army and the Police since in situations such as Westgate, they would be required to work together. It still does not happen, and this is thought to have resulted in a friendly fire incident during the siege.

“At the moment,” he wrote in 1981, “there is no joint training that is carried out between the GSU and the Army in dealing with urban violence, and since we shall come to aid them in case of failure, we must train together for the sake of command and control. This will make us know their capabilities and limitations. The Joint Headquarters would also practise the aspect of command control, and I feel this aspect is very necessary.

“The Army must also be trained to be able to live and fight under urban conditions to avoid undue harassment of children, women and the aged and the looting, which comes about when an inexperienced Army is exposed to these things.”

The paper delves into the concept of Fighting in Built up Areas — known as FIBUA in military jargon — and describes the scenarios as the most complex and most challenging any soldier could face.

Every room and every corner, every corridor and stairway, is a front. These fronts keep changing because your enemy keeps moving; one moment the front is in front of you, the next moment it is behind. The streets outside are fronts as well. All this requires intelligence gathering, training and equipment altogether different from standard military training, where the front is manned by another army.

Illusions are the truths

Writing two years after September 11, Nancy Gibbs, the noted TIME Magazine journalist, said: “Illusions are the truths we live by until we know better.

Americans certainly know what it feels like to watch them explode: this week, two years ago, the US lost for good the sunny sense that the world is safe, that the oceans protect it, that there are rules even among the hateful against mass slaughter of the innocent.”

Westgate, on September 21, is Kenya’s version of the destruction of America’s symbols of economic might and military power.

And our illusions that those bleeping metal detectors and mirrors under our cars operated by receptionists in uniform offer us security must be replaced by a new truth — that they are deterrents to just the most amateur of thugs amongst us.

Given the current status of our security, a determined terrorist will simply laugh them off and proceed to unleash mayhem on innocents.

Lt-Gen Njoroge is certain that the terrorists who authored the carnage at Westgate had been stationed in the building for quite a while, and that the ones who were seen coming in were just the triggers. It is impossible, he says, to hold the fire of the police, the GSU and the Army for four days with the handful of weapons that they were seen getting into the building with.

You needed a truck to carry that amount of weaponry, he says, and high grade explosives are carried in parts and then assembled on site. Somewhere inside the mall was the assembly point.

This took days or even months of planning and work. That it all went undetected represents a great indictment on the country’s security authorities.

As a result, Lt-Gen Njoroge worries deeply about two things regarding terrorism in Kenya. One is corruption, the other idle and highly trained former soldiers and policemen.

Corruption is at the heart of every Kenyan failure, and in this case it may emerge that the source was at the Immigration Department.

To resolve these, he urges rearmament of Kenya’s moral fabric, and re-engagement of retired military and police officers.