Lessons From Al-Qaida: What Israel Can Learn From the Kenya Terror Attack

Global jihad organizations, some of which have bases on Israel's northern and southern borders, aim not to take hostages and make demands but to carry out horrific showcase attacks like the assault on the Westgate Mall.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel would prefer to keep mum about the scope of the assistance that, according to foreign reports, it gave the Kenyan government last week during the terror attack in the Nairobi mall that killed at least 67 people. According to the reports, Israel sent a relatively large team to Kenya that included intelligence, negotiating, rescue and sabotage experts.

The attack had been preceded by a host of intelligence warnings; one report even claimed that Israeli intelligence had warned the Kenyans of an attack against a Western or Israeli target during the High Holy Days, but that the authorities did not heed the warnings. (The Westgate Mall targeted by the Islamic terrorists is Israeli-owned.)

The reported Israeli aid to Kenya served strategic goals related to cooperation with friendly African countries. The presence of Israeli experts at the scene certainly benefited the Israeli security establishment as well, which was able to learn tactical lessons from the way the Kenyans confronted a death squad of 10 to 15 terrorists that raided the mall and murdered dozens of civilians almost indiscriminately.

But the attack in Nairobi might also reflect an important change that could have future implications for Israel. The mall terrorists were carrying out a showcase attack, not one staged for bargaining purposes. Presumably most of the terrorists knew they wouldn’t come out alive, although authorities still suspect that some of them slipped away during the siege. Typically, in an attack where hostages are taken, the kidnappers have a pre-formulated demand, such as the release of prisoners, or they announce a political objective like demanding that the state under attack stop fighting the organization, or withdraw its troops from somewhere.

According to the reports from Nairobi, the Al-Shabab group made no such demands. The mall attack had two aims: to punish Kenya for battling the Shabab and other Al-Qaida influenced extremist groups in East Africa, and to murder Western citizens. The terrorists never sought talks with the security forces. Hostages were taken for a different reason – to keep the attack on international TV screens for as long as possible. Drawing out the drama for the three or four days, as the Kenyan forces maintained their siege on the mall, served to intensify the psychological effect and struck fear in the civilian population. The shocking abuse and mutilation of the victims served the same purpose.

Radical Islamist groups behaved similarly - conducting an extended standoff without seeking negotiations – during the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, and one can also detect similarities to the Chechen terrorist attack on the school in Beslan, Russia in 2004, though some believe that the large number of dead in the latter incident, 344, derived mainly from a poorly executed onslaught by Russian rescue forces.

While the Israeli military has acquired extensive experience in hostage negotiations, in cases like the Nairobi attack the role of the negotiating team becomes relatively marginal, with most of the security effort focused on planning an assault on the terrorists and rescuing hostages, certainly once it is clear that the kidnappers plan to execute them to prolong the drama. Under such a scenario the negotiators aim for specific achievements, such as the release of women and children, and help gather intelligence information that could help the rescue force.

Relevance to Israel

Why is all this relevant to Israel? Because these global jihad organizations tend to learn from each other, and because during the last two years the unrest in the Arab world has created concentrations of thousands of the most extreme terrorists on Israel’s borders, especially on the Syrian Golan Heights and in the Sinai.

Israel is very concerned about the rising power of these organizations and about the possibility that along with their main struggles - to overthrow the Syrian and Egyptian regimes – they will aim more intensely at Israeli targets. The assumption is that these Al-Qaida-affiliated groups are aiming to carry out more ambitious and stunning attacks than those that Palestinian terrorist organizations have attempted to date.

In June the IDF General Staff carried out its first exercise dealing with a terrorist attack by a global jihad group at the border. The scenario involved a simultaneous attack on several Israeli targets, where hundreds of civilians were present. The forces had to deal with attacks carried out by dozens of terrorist cells, in marked contrast to most Palestinian attacks of the last decade, which generally involved a single suicide bomber or a small group of armed terrorists.

Compared to Kenya, Israel still has some obvious advantages in confronting a large-scale terrorist attack. The first is the quality of its intelligence. The second is the level of security in places where crowds gather, while the third relates to the skill of the special units in rescuing hostages. None of this, of course, gives Israel any immunity from attacks similar to what occurred in Nairobi.

A woman who had been hiding during the gun battle running for cover after armed police enter the Westgate Mall in Kenya.Credit: AP

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