OTIENO: Vital security lessons from the Westgate terror attack

Wednesday October 2 2013



The Westgate catastrophe is a challenge to the conscience of Kenyans. Never before has it been to anguishing to live through a four-day ordeal, knowing that fellow Kenyans were not only being held hostage, but were also being butchered.

Terrorists struck the Kenyan dream, which is the ability to live and shop anywhere in the country without fear.

The attack was a blatant affront to our way of life, which has become the envy of enemies of freedom in the region. 

While there’s no question that Al-Shabaab proved their mettle in their execution of the heinous act, my bet is that they will be defeated. A debate is going on right from the biggest world capitals to the smallest rural towns in countries that love freedom. 


The world coalition of the lovers of freedom has never been more united by such a catastrophe. And ways will soon be found to once more neutralise these purveyors of evil.

Kenya now has more legitimacy in its counter-insurgency efforts, than any other time in recent history. It was period of deep reflection.

The sad thing is that for the insurgents to succeed, they needed the cooperation of some unpatriotic Kenyans. These are folks who are willing to sell their souls rather than uphold the sanctity of life. Someone was probably either negligent, lazy or corrupt, and allowed this evil to occur. 

This attack was the culmination of the manifestation of the rot in our society. Ours is a society that has given up fighting for or defending its country. It is a society willing to sacrifice the ideals upon which its founders yearned for, and for which they earned, not just with sweat, but with blood.

It is a society whose members are willing to sacrifice the lives of their compatriots for a few pieces of silver. If you are that person, the blood of innocent souls is on your hands.


It is time to reflect on everything, from our education system, to our corruption based economy, and our military training. Everything needs to change. We have to move away from forest-based unidirectional conventional-cum-guerrilla warfare to the method practised by US Gen David Petraeus – the 360 degrees style of military warfare and counter-insurgency.

And while my hat is off for those who put their lives in harm’s way to save the hostages, taking artillery into the mall was a strategic blunder. This could be because we are still holed up in that “forest war mentality” of the 1980s.

Reportedly, four floors of the mall collapsed, and with it probably more “self-inflicted” casualties than killed by the terrorists. That was poor judgment.

But all in all, President Uhuru Kenyatta should accord these gallant men who died in defence of freedom the highest medal of honour within his power.

It’s time for Kenya to be born anew. The Westgate attack is the lowest point in our military history and a key lesson on how not to counter a terrorist attack.

It appears to me that the attack was a refinement of the Mumbai attack. (On November 26, 2008, terrorists executed an intricate attack on India’s financial and entertainment capital, Mumbai, using synchronised and strategically placed bombs. Some 173 people were killed and 308 wounded.) It looks like the Westgate attackers also borrowed heavily from the planning that preceded the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout.

That raid, it has been reported, was preceded by months of planning by the CIA, and when the Seals attacked, they had rehearsed in a model Osama compound.

All the Westgate-related information flowing in point to this strategy by the terrorists. They knew their target, and they were focused. That’s a huge challenge to conventional warfare. 

Terrorists, it appears, are blending their suicide bombing prowess with the sophistication of mainstream military assaults. And they seem to be laying emphasis on a special operations force which requires a leaner but more skilled and efficient firepower.


The suicide bomber is willing to punish for longer, before eventually blowing himself up.

And just like the US learned key lessons from the Iraq War, Kenya too will rise from the ashes of this four-day domination by a 13-man army, more educated on the importance of military evolution to deal with modern-day challenges of warfare.

Never before has the Kenyan security system required more analytical support. 

Mr Otieno is a security analyst ([email protected])