The Nairobi Westgate Siege and Lessons for Nigeria

Around midday on Saturday 21st September approximately 15 militants armed with rifles, grenades and explosives attacked Westgate Shopping Centre and began killing people within the mall with Al Shabaab claiming responsibility via Twitter. In a 4 day opRuins of Westgate mall, Nairobi 26/9/13eration the Kenyan Security Forces eventually retook the complex after sustained fighting and the use of explosives helicopters and armoured vehicles. At time of writing over there are over 70 dead, several dozen missing and approximately 175 injured.

This event holds key lessons for Nigeria in the following areas:

Target selection: the mall was part Israeli owned in an upscale part of town popular with foreigners and the elite. It was an extremely obvious target. A security force cannot prepare for every eventuality but it can identify the most likely targets and develop plans and counter measures for a variety of scenarios. Facilities as varied as cinemas, schools, tank farms, ports etc can be targets for a wide variety of attacks, all of which must be considered and planned for.

Prevention: once the enemy has identified a target, they will begin their preparations; this will involve surveillance, reconnaissance, trial runs, training, procuring weapons and transport, moving the weapons into place, moving personnel into place etc. There is obviously a huge role for intelligence services in detecting the terrorist attack cycle and disrupting it, however there is much a facility can do in itself. For example it has been reported that the terrorist rented a shop and stored weapons there. Obviously it would be highly irritating to business owners to have to submit goods to scrutiny every time they took a delivery however for a high profile or high threat facility this can be part of the lease conditions. CCTV should be examined periodically to look for strange patterns of behaviour. Facilities should be overtly hardened against attack to deter would be attackers.

The higher profile or more at risk a facility the more aggressive the counter surveillance measures should be.

For facilities that are naturally open to the public such as schools, shopping centre, motor parks, stadiums etc where the flow of people is constant, there are other benign methods of monitoring the situation, for example having janitors constantly roving about the open areas clearing up rubbish and security staff patrolling out of the way areas. These staff will quickly get to know their areas, patterns of life and spot something unusual.

Media: terrorist attacks such as 9/11, the Nairobi Mall attack and the Woolwich attack fall under the category of propaganda of the deed. Where the intent is less to cause damage to a facility or gain some sort of tactical or operational advantage rather to use the terrorist act to draw attention which nowadays means drawing the attention of the media. By this matrix the Westgate attack was an outstanding success holding the attention of the media from every continent for 4 days, with multiple follow up reports, articles, blogposts (yes, me included).

Most of the coverage is negative, emphasising the barbarity of the attackers who willingly killed innocent men, women, children, attempted to distinguish between Muslims and non Muslims (although going by the number of Muslim funerals not very successfully). However this is not an attempt to generate support from neutral parties, but to prove bonafides to foreign sponsors, boost morale with their members and influence the policy of the targeted state.

From the Kenyan point of view virtually all the coverage was positive and showed them in a good light, emphasising the importance of

  • Controlled message: there were times when the interior minister said one thing and the foreign minister another. a unified message is important
  • Control the media: The terrorists were said to initially said to be watching the security force response on TV, resulting in the KSF pushing the media back. It is important to control access to what is not just a crime scene but a war zone
  • Media Channels: the Kenyan authorities were broadcasting information through multiple streams including social media, TV, radio etc. This was fluid and professional. Very few Nigerian organisations have active social media sites much less websites. Not only is this an impediment to passing information, it prevents the receipt of information as well. The ubiquity of smart phones meant people were tweeting and sending information live from the scene. A dedicated open source information media team that not only controls the social media message but mines information being put out by members of the public and the enemy is crucial

Security Force response: the first responders to any incident will be the police thus it is imperative they should have a clear chain of command for all and any incidents. Although the initial police response to the Nairobi siege was disorganised, all the police men on the scene did their duty and went forward to rescue hostages until others arrived and took control of the situation.

  • Control: the security forces first need to control the incident, by way of a cordon, limiting access and exit from the scene, ensuring there is a dedicated route in and out for ambulances, fire engines, security forces etc. Keeping members of the public and the media away, preventing the attackers from escaping or being reinforced and securing casualties, escapees etc. It will be recalled during the Dana plane crash in Lagos, helpers, onlookers etc crowded the roads and prevented rescuers and fire engines from getting to the scene. Public education through posters, media broadcasts etc telling the public how to react during incidents is crucial
  • Clear:  a force element will be needed to actually go in and clear the area, neutralise the insurgents, rescue hostages and evacuate casualties. The latter specialism will have to reside within a specific force. It would be useful for each police command to have a dedicated team for this task as well as ensuring rank and file policemen are trained in the rudiments of incident response. Obviously for a large incident, outside assistance would be required most likely from the military, thus a dedicated counter terror response force should be designated with the ability to move itself around the country to respond to incidents as required.
  • Forensics: once the operation is complete an investigation must begin not only to ascertain how the event took place but to gather evidence for arrests and prosecutions. Thus security forces must be forensically aware. This is of course a fairly unimportant point during the actual fighting but needs to become a priority once the threat is neutralised and casualties evacuated.

Civilian training: all office buildings and public spaces should have an emergency response plan, not just for terrorist incidents, but for fires, robberies and other incidents. They should have fire and first aid trained personnel with regular drills to ensure staff members are comfortable and conversant with them. This should be a regulatory requirement, with regular inspections and tests. The victims and bystanders will be on scene long before the emergency and security services and can save many lives

Civil defence: has a huge role to play in preparing the public for events such as these as well as in the response. They can act as force multipliers for manning cordons, treating and evacuating casualties, guarding facilities, training and inspections.

Medical: mass casualty events need specialist skills in terms of handling, treating and care. Hospitals will need to be prepped for these with special training given, supplies prepared and plans worked out in advance

Logistic/ traffic: traffic management is key, the quicker the security forces can be on scene the sooner they can control the situation, the faster casualties can be evacuated the better their chances of survival. Thus certain routes leading to key infrastructure of facilities should be designated as high priority routes, with pre planned diversion routes planned into the situation so that in the event of emergencies, dedicated approaches can be left free for the security and emergency forces.


The overriding themes are the need for planning, training and coordination.

The planning involved might seem immense but generally follows a given template thus generic risk assessments and evacuation plans can be tweaked for specific sites and situations.

Training will evolve from the plans and will need to be constant and realistic. In order to ensure that standards are preserved testing and refreshers should be built into the plans.

Coordination is the final key, it is virtually pointless having an well trained hostage rescue team if the police don’t know how to work with them on a cordon, or the Fire Service cannot communicate with the police.

It is thus imperative that the Federal Government tasks the relevant agencies to form a National Disaster Coordination Centre, with each State following suit and having a State Disaster coordination centres. These centres will coordinate between the multiple agencies, lay down guidelines, regulate and enforce safety and disaster management programmes.

There are many moving parts to a response to terror attacks and other crisis and it is unclear if the Nigerian Government has given much thought to the issue.


About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
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