Kenyan authorities had intelligence pointing to an attack in Nairobi a day before the Westgate mall attack. According to counter-terrorism documents, the government and military were warned that al-Shabaab was planning an attack on the capital where they would storm a building and hold hostages.
There are also reports that Kenyan intelligence agents were at Westgate a few hours before the shopping center was struck by armed terrorists on Sept. 21.
“We cannot say that this attack comes as a surprise,” said Farah Maalim, former deputy speaker of the Kenyan National Assembly. “The possibility of something like this happening, and of failures in the Kenyan intelligence community, has worried us for years.”
“We have an intelligence service that is more worried about internal party politics than about threats to national security,” Maalim said.
Kenya refuses to comment on reports of warnings prior to the attack, but officials say they are still investigating the relationship between the attackers and al-Shabaab’s local offshoot, al-Hijra.
In the past, Kenya’s large Somali-Kenyan population has borne the brunt of suspicion for involvement in terrorism, but sources say that authorities are now focusing investigations on ethnic Kenyans for suspected links in the Westgate attack.
Terrorist activity in cells in cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa have led to a spate of arrests and what are believed to be assassinations after senior figures such as Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a former leader of al-Hijra, have been killed in unexplained circumstances.
Experts say that, as al-Shabaab has been weakened in Somalia, it has increasingly focused on Kenya. In a report earlier this year, the UN group of experts which monitors the activities of al-Shabaab pointed to the appointment of a new leader for the group in Kenya last year as the impetus for a wave of attacks which have killed scores in recent months.
The report also warns that al-Hijra was planning large attacks like the one on the Westgate mall.
Yet despite widespread knowledge of the activities of al-Hijra and al-Shabaab, little has ostensibly been done to disrupt the groups and some have speculated that Kenya lacks any serious intent to do so.
“If we wanted to eliminate al-Shabaab in Somalia, we could do it in less than three months, but it seems we decided we didn’t want to eliminate them completely because then we would have no legitimacy for being in Somalia,” Maalim said.
“Somalia is a cash cow for all the countries in the region,” Maalim said. “It’s a free-for-all, and in Kenya terrorist attack seems a source of celebration for some — now we can challenge the International Criminal Court, we receive equipment and arms from the US and other allies, we can get the aid money flowing.”