Nairobi — As renewed threats and mockery from al-Shabaab have emerged in the past few days, the Kenyan people are still looking for answers as to how the bloody siege at Nairobi's Westgate mall happened -- and whether it could have been prevented.
By now, many of the details of the siege are understood: Last Saturday a group of al-Shabaab gunmen stormed the upscale shopping centre, indiscriminately shooting shoppers and tossing grenades into crowds of innocent civilians. In a standoff that lasted four days, the gunmen killed at least 67 people and held an unknown number of others as hostages until Kenyan security forces gained control of the situation Tuesday.
But in the aftermath of the attack, many questions remain unanswered: What happened to the remaining hostages? How were the attackers able to gain access to the shopping centre and hold it for so long? Who was the mastermind behind the attack and where is he or she now?
Did Kenyan security and intelligence forces receive prior warnings about the attack, and could they have prevented it?
"Terrorist attacks do not happen out of blue," said security analyst Raymond Kipkorir Cheruiyot, a retired Kenyan armed forces colonel and co-owner of Multi Security Consultants Limited in Nairobi.
"Terrorists execute an attack when security agencies are complacent," he told Sabahi. "Westgate shopping mall was a high profile complex, which should have been under intense 24-hour security surveillance and armed police guard. That way, the planning of this attack would have been detected and thwarted."
Cheruiyot criticised the Kenyan government's "disjointed" response to what he described as a sophisticated attack that "a crack team of terrorists" carefully planned and executed.
The authorities should place such high value targets under constant surveillance, review existing security arrangements and procedures, and monitor locals who sympathise with or support terrorists, he said.
"Yes, our security team response time was good, but their performance would have been more clinical had they acted on external intelligence warnings that Westgate mall was a soft target of high value to terrorists," Cheruiyot said.
A prior terror alert
In August, security officials issued a terror alert for Kenya, saying they had received intelligence reports that at least five al-Shabaab operatives had entered Mombasa from Somalia and may have been plotting an attack to coincide with the first anniversary of radical cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammed's killing.
"A security alert in Mombasa or Kisumu should be a concern for the entire country," said retired army Major Bishar Hajji Abdullahi. "It is evident that someone was lax."
"In the aftermath of this incident, those who know they are culpable should just resign, or the president [should] sack them," Abdullahi told Sabahi.
The Kenyan Defence Forces and allied troops have done a good job dispersing al-Shabaab inside Somalia, but Kenya's security services should have launched a manhunt for suspected militants on the home soil once they got those intelligence reports, he said.
David Ochami, a Mombasa-based journalist who covers Middle East and Horn of Africa militant groups, said there were signs of a potential attack in the weeks leading up to the Westgate siege.
Al-Shabaab and its sympathizers had been very active on social media in the weeks before the attack, for example, and their messages could have provided clues to prevent the attack, he said.
"Some of the postings may turn out to be a hoax to instil fear or posturing, but they should be deciphered and taken very seriously," Ochami told Sabahi.
Even during the siege at the mall, al-Shabaab frequently posted messages about it on Twitter, Ochami said, underscoring the importance of paying attention to how terrorists use social media as they mount and execute such attacks.
Despite having at least five Twitter handles shut down this year, including three in the aftermath of the Westgate attack, al-Shabaab is still using the social media site to threaten and mock its enemies.
In a series of tweets Thursday, al-Shabaab criticised the Kenyan government for the apparent conflicting information it provided following the attack.
"The Kenyan government is still in disarray & it won't be until several months when it fully comprehends exactly what took place at Westgate," al-Shabaab said. "Their contradictory version of events is a sure sign that the Kenyan govt is beginning to suffer from severe constipation of ideas."
The militants went on to boast of their "mesmeric performance" at Westgate, keeping Kenyans "completely enthralled for more than 100 hours".
Al-Shabaab renewed its threats to Kenyans saying, "... despair not folks, that was just the première of Act 1".
A tipoff Westgate attack was coming
Meanwhile, Kenyan lawmaker Mike Sonko made headlines this week by claiming that well before the attack he had received information that terrorists were planning to strike Westgate mall and other Nairobi landmarks.
He said he had relayed this information to the authorities, but they did not take it seriously enough.
According to Sonko, who represents the Westlands constituency where Westgate is located, two women approached him about three months ago with information that al-Shabaab militants had rented a house in the Parklands neighbourhood of Nairobi and were plotting such attacks.
"They told me the attacks were targeting Westgate, Village Market, the Kenyatta International Conference Centre and parliament," he told Sabahi. "I assisted them in recording a statement with the police and intelligence officers so a further probe could be carried out."
The National Security Intelligence Service and other security organs failed to act on the tip, Sonko said. He shared this information with the Senate on September 24th, the day the standoff at Westgate ended.
Fellow lawmaker Asman Kamama, who chairs the National Assembly's Administration and National Security Committee, said the mall attack exposed lapses in intelligence gathering.
"The way the attacks were carried out, it was well co-ordinated, meaning it was something that was well planned and executed," Kamama, a United Republican Party member who represents Baringo County, told Sabahi.
"And for our intelligence to have had no clue on the impending attacks, means there [were] huge security failures that we must audit and [for which we must] hold individuals culpable," he said.
The attack on Westgate not only stunned the nation but appeared to catch defenders of the homeland off guard, officials told Sabahi.
"In all honesty, this was the first time Kenya has witnessed such an audacious terrorist attack on a mall using guns," said Director of Police Reforms Jonathan Kosgei. "We knew of bombs, [but] this new style was hard to predict. However, the security forces did their best to contain the situation in the prevailing disadvantaged circumstances."
"This attack will probably precipitate a national debate [about] whether to arm security guards or not," he told Sabahi. "With only a wooden baton and a whistle, guards are so vulnerable and totally unable to stop an armed assault."
Another factor to consider is how Westgate revealed al-Shabaab's dramatic change in military tactics to commando-like operations, according to Western region Commissioner James ole Seriani.
"They want to inflict maximum damage which the roadside improvised explosive devices were not achieving," he told Sabahi. "It is the same tactic they used in Garissa last year when they stormed and opened fire in two churches and hotels leaving more than 20 dead."
The Westgate massacre is a wakeup call, Seriani said, and the public should be alert so that terrorists can be neutralised before they cross into Kenya.
The Kenyan government was blamed, too, for issuing conflicting information to the press as the terror at Westgate unfolded.
But Principal Secretary for Internal Security Mutea Iringo defended the government, saying it was deliberate tactic aimed at throwing the terrorists off balance.
"Silence is also a tactical weapon," he told Sabahi. "You do not want to engage in a public shouting match with a terrorist organisation."
While it was an unfortunate incident, Iringo said he hoped the Westgate attack would encourage world leaders to take action against al-Shabaab.
"Al-Shabaab is now not only a Somali headache but part and parcel of a global terrorist network that needs the world governments to dismantle," he said.
Top security officers are expected to appear before parliament next week as part of the investigation into the terrorist attack.
"The time for responsibility and accountability has come," defence committee chairman Ndung'u Gethenji said, according to Kenya's Daily Nation.
"We shall conduct a thorough, in-depth, incisive and unforgiving investigation into the events and the failures that led to the attack," he said at parliament shortly after his committee held a closed door meeting Thursday.
Gethenji said the joint committee, comprising members of the defence and national security committees, will call Kenya's intelligence chief, the Interior Cabinet Secretary, the Inspector General of Police and other top security officials to shed light on the attack.