JOHANNESBURG — A terrorist attack on an upscale mall in Nairobi highlighted the importance of police in fighting terrorism. Kenyan police - many of them without adequate protection such as flak jackets - were the first to rush to the scene of the four-day siege that left at least 67 people dead and 61 missing. Security analysts say African nations need to emphasize the role of police in fighting terrorism.
The first people to rush to the scene of the shooting in Nairobi’s upscale Westgate mall were regular policemen.
They bore little resemblance to the heavily armed soldiers and elite police units who moved in with assault rifles as the four-day siege unfolded and gunmen from Somalia’s al-Shabab militant group executed shoppers and seized hostages.
Most of that first line of police officers weren’t even wearing uniforms and lacked basic protections such as bulletproof jackets and helmets. Most carried handguns - a poor match for well-equipped, heavily armed militants.
Kenyans say they’re moved by these initial images broadcast around the world. Like the policeman who balanced a baby on the barrel of his rifle and carried the child outside. Or the cop who clutched his wounded stomach while covering the back of his colleague as he scanned for gunmen inside the mall. Or the young cop in the checked shirt who was photographed numerous times, escorting women and children to safety.
Bethuel Kiplagat, founder of the Africa Peace Forum, a Nairobi-based think tank that focuses on peace and security, said Kenya’s people appreciate their bravery.
“In the circumstances I think they did a marvellous [job], they risked their lives, we all salute them as the president did yesterday," Kiplagat said. "We have lost some of our gallant soldiers and policemen in this remarkable rescue operation which they undertook.”
Anneli Botha, a senior terrorism researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, recently returned from Nairobi, where she was helping train Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit. That’s the elite unit that was seen going in to the mall as the siege continued. She said the police response was initially “chaotic,” but that they overall did a good job.
Botha, a former South African police captain, said all police have a role to play in fighting terrorism. Police, she said, have the opportunity to gather intelligence on the ground and to investigate cases fully. Leaning on the military, as she noted Nigeria has done in the past, often leaves out an essential weapon in fighting terrorism: the justice process.
“Not a lot of countries appreciate that role. They often think of counterterrorism as a short-term initiative," Botha remarked, "it’s a question of you know what, you identify the bad guy, you catch him - or you eliminate him, in some countries. But we would prefer to [have] more of a situation where we start to use the law and to play according to the rules provided by the law. So you respect due process, you respect the rule of law, you respect human rights.”
J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and an advisor to United States Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, said although Kenya’s military has had success fighting al-Shabab in Somalia, soldiers have less of a place fighting terrorism at home.
"There's no way the attack on the Westgate shopping center could have occurred without al-Shabab spending weeks, if not months, doing reconnaissance, planning carefully, perhaps even doing dry runs of their plan," Pham said. "That doesn't happen without safe houses, without supporters, and you can't turn the military against that. You need policing, intelligence and those are capacities that are very, very different than the military's tool kit. And so just as much as the military needs to be reinforced, you also need to build up the civilian policing and law enforcement and intelligence capabilities."
And Botha said that even nations that are considered to be at little risk for terrorist attacks - such as South Africa - need to boost up their counterterrorism police efforts.
A spokesman for South Africa’s elite Hawks police unit said this week that they were looking into the possibility that al-Shabab used this country to raise funds and recruit fighters. He declined to give many details of that ongoing investigation.
VOA West Africa Correspondent Anne Look contributed to this report