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Security agencies worry about new terrorist threats in Kenya

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Kenyan and Western security services are racing against time to foil new planned terror attacks in Kenya barely three weeks after the Westgate attack.

Much of the investigations are now focused on the underground activities of a shadowy militant organisation called Al-Hijra, led by Sheikh Iman Ali, a Kenyan preacher now hosted by al-Shabaab in Somalia.

And at the centre of the Westgate attack and potential future plots is a Kenyan militant jihadist leader who goes by the name Ikrima.

Reports on the new plots are scanty and generic in nature, but information obtained by the Sunday Nation from credible security sources suggests that Mombasa, Wilson Airport and schools – especially those with a large foreign student population – are potential targets.

It is believed the reports are being treated with seriousness by the Kenyan security services and their foreign partners, but there is concern not to create panic and a determination to work in concert to disrupt the alleged plots.

“We in the EU are aware of the threats posed by Al-Hijra and its affiliates. The new plots are grave and warrant a lot of attention, but we have no intention at this stage to elevate them into a full-blown travel alert. We are sensitive to Kenya and its economic needs and we are all working together to foil possible future attacks,” a senior European diplomat told the Sunday Nation.


The new terror threats are putting additional strains on Kenya’s security services, now reeling from the unprecedented public criticism of their handling of Westgate and the widely-perceived systemic failures and lapses that allowed the attack to take place.

That al-Shabaab and its local associates could be planning a Westgate “follow-up” attack comes as no surprise to analysts.

They suggest the Westgate model may now be the preferred modus operandi of the terrorist groups, but more disconcerting, it is easy to replicate.

They say Westgate was not a fluke – it is a demonstration of “tactical versatility” and determination to use “low-tech” means to pull off “complex operations”.

“Westgate was a complex operation that was carried out with low-tech means and certainly much more difficult to detect or disrupt than the iconic suicide bomber. It is also much easier to replicate,” Matt Bryden, a regional analyst and director of Sahan Research, told the Sunday Nation.

The warnings of potential new attacks in Kenya coincide with reports this week of a major security alert in Mogadishu and claims al-Shabaab is in the final stages of carrying out a major attack on the Mogadishu International Airport using Westgate-style tactics.

Al-Shabaab’s target is believed to be a new facility within the airport compound that belongs to the European Training Mission (EUTM) – a European initiative to train Somali army and security forces.

Earlier this year, al-Shabaab carried out a deadly attack on the UN compound located at the airport, killing and wounding scores.

A source says the new airport attack warning has triggered a row within the UN and EU systems over how to designate the threat level, with security teams favouring a code-red alert designation, but senior political officials disinclined to approve this – in part because that would necessitate mass evacuation and run counter to the new “Somalia recovery narrative”.

Beyond this specific alert, however, there is little doubt that the security situation in Mogadishu has dramatically deteriorated in the last nine months, and the number of bomb attacks and targeted killings by al-Shabaab have escalated to unprecedented levels.

The resurgence of attacks in Mogadishu and the Westgate killings are fuelling speculation that al-Shabaab and its al-Qaeda associates in the region may have received a new injection of resources and expertise from al-Qaeda and its foreign jihadist backers.

“The new attacks are not “acts of desperation” as our politicians love saying. They are indications of a new lease of life – a fresh input of supplies, men and resources,” a former Somali security official said in a telephone interview from Mogadishu.

Westgate and the new terror threat ought to illustrate the region-wide dimension and the need for close border co-operation among security services, the source emphasised.

“Let us not delude ourselves. The terror threat in Somalia and East Africa is huge and mounting. It is now cross-border and transnational.”

Kenyan security analyst Captain (rtd) Simiyu Werunga echoes the sentiments and says the security forces are making “good progress” in arresting members of the terror cells now active in much of East Africa.

“There have been extensive arrests in Kenya, on the border with Somalia, and even as far as Uganda and Tanzania. I believe good progress is being made. But we must complement these measures by strengthening our capacity; improving our intelligence gathering and law enforcement systems and improving co-operation with the public.”


Meanwhile, the security services are believed to be brainstorming on the lessons learnt from Westgate and the way forward.

Mr Bryden, the regional analyst, says the biggest lesson ought to be the recognition of the home-grown jihadi threat posed by militant groups such as Al-Hijra, adding that effective prosecution of members is the best means to contain them.

“Al-Hijra has been under surveillance for a number of years and the Kenyan state has accumulated enough intelligence on its ideological leaders to disrupt the movement. For some reasons, there is reluctance to provide classified intelligence to the law enforcement agencies for effective prosecutions. And this ought to change.”

There is now consensus among security experts that Al-Hijra and its growing linkages with al-Shabaab and the foreign jihadist network is the top-most single national security threat facing Kenya. The onus is now on the authorities to move effectively against the group using legal means, they say.


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