Westgate Terror Attack: what is the nature of our Intelligence System?

Monday September 23 2013

More by this Author

First things first; my heartfelt condolences to the victims and prayers for the security agents battling terrorists that have dared to strike at Kenya. And by targeting a high-end, better secured facility like the Westgate Mall, they seem to suggest that they can indeed hit us anytime, anywhere they deem fit.

It may sound too early and if not too insensitive to begin asking the hard questions.

But the earlier we confront the question of how effective our intelligence system is, the better our chances of avoiding the next terrorist attack. And I speak as a parent who cheated death by walking out of the Westgate Mall with my daughter - just barely fifteen minutes before the terror started unfolding.

Kenya has supposedly one of the most elaborate intelligence systems in the region. The National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS) was established early in 1998 as a more professional outfit from the discredited and defunct Special Branch.

Whereas the Special Branch focused on harassing perceived political opponents, the first Director of NSIS, Boinet is credited for laying a firm foundation for a professional, non-partisan national intelligence system that aimed at collecting, preserving and disseminating intelligence information for the protection and advancement of Kenya's socio-economic interests.

And with an almost unlimited budget at its disposal, NSIS, renamed National Intelligence Service (NIS) must by now have acquired elaborate information intelligence systems that should be able to pick up signals of impending terrorist attack.

We have been told that on several occasions this has happened and Kenyans have been spared the scenes that are developing at Westgate. So what could have gone horribly wrong this time around?

There is no way terrorists can come directly from Kismayu and attack us right in the heart of Nairobi without someone in the intelligence community being aware.

These terrorists may have had stop-overs at our porous border posts, or as they brought in their sophisticated weapons, or at the time and place when they assembled to review and execute the heinous attack.

Our security organs that include NIS, CID and the Military should have picked up the signals and acted at any one of the above stages of development. The fact that they did not, leads us to believe one of the following: that the intelligence system was compromised or it is not properly tailored to our national threat profile or simply that some folks slept on job.

Time has come for ensuring that our intelligence gathering systems factor in the Kenyan realities of corruption, tribalism and the manual nature of our criminals. In other words, our security systems must be designed to anticipate and address the ailments that haunt our national way of doing things.

Buying and installing security systems that work well in the US or Israel -without the above customization - will not address our unique national security threat profile.

Indeed most of these foreign based intelligence systems track criminals based on their email, credit card, passport, fingerprint or other modern day electronic profiles.

All of these will however not apply to some folks who can cross on foot from a neighboring country, pay some bribes along the way and be safely delivered and hosted in Nairobi.

This is indeed our 9/11 moment. How we restructure and reform our security sector will determine whether we shall continue to live our lives normally and safely every other day.