Israel warned Kenya about terror attack, officials say

Local newspapers report that intelligence indicating dates and locations at risk was given to high-ranking Nairobi officials

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Illustrative photo of Kenyan soldiers (photo credit: AP/Ben Curtis)
Illustrative photo of Kenyan soldiers (photo credit: AP/Ben Curtis)

Kenya was reportedly given specific warnings by foreign countries, including Israel, that there was a high risk of a major terrorist attack in the country before last week’s violent takeover of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall.

Israel told the Kenyan government specifically that Iran and Hezbollah would try to hit Israeli-owned targets during the September Jewish holidays, one report said.

The Westgate Mall, partly owned by Israelis, was reportedly cited in at least one warning.

Kenyan newspapers reported that, according to intelligence sources, Kenya’s chief of staff and four key cabinet ministers — treasury, interior, foreign affairs, and defense — received the various warnings but failed to take action.

Kenyan government officials later confirmed the reports to the AFP news agency.

Warnings began in January and increased in September, with information about planned attacks in Nairobi or Mombasa between September 13 and 20, Kenya’s Daily Nation reported.

Intelligence reports seen by the Daily Nation indicated that Israel told the Kenyan government that Iran and Hezbollah were looking to attack Israeli-owned targets this month.

“The Israeli Embassy in Nairobi has raised concern with the Foreign Affairs Ministry that Iran and Hezbollah from Lebanon have been collecting ‘operational intelligence and open interests in Israeli and Jewish targets around the world including Kenya,’” read one of the reports.

The reports even identified the Westgate as one of the targets, along with Nairobi’s Holy Family Basilica. It also named individual terrorists behind the attack. Sheikh Abdiwelli Mohammed,Sheikh Hussein Hassan and al-Shabab terror group leader Abdi Godane were identified as masterminds.

Godane is al-Shabab’s new emir.

Though Westgate, a Western-style luxury shopping center, was often named as a possible terrorist target, Kenyan government sources told AFP that the warnings were not given due attention.

“Israel had warned of attacks on their business interests,” said an official, “but apart from just being tossed from one office to another, nothing was taken out of the intelligence reports.”

“There is no way one can say there was no intelligence on this attack because those reports started trickling in from late last year,” said another. “And they were specific with targets, including Westgate.”

Michael Gichangi, head of Kenya’s National Intelligence Service, is scheduled to appear before lawmakers on Monday to answer questions about the country’s preparedness for terrorist attacks.

Israeli assets were targeted in 2002 in the Kenyan city of Mombasa. An Israeli-owned hotel in the city was bombed, killing 13 people, and a rocket was fired at an Israeli plane taking off at the same time in an unsuccesful attempt to bring it down.

Israel enjoys a close security relationship with Kenya, and has helped Nairobi during the crisis. Israeli forensics experts helped the Kenyan government comb the site of the terrorist takeover of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya’s cabinet secretary said on Twitter last week.

Earlier in the week, Israeli defense officials confirmed a team was dispatched to Nairobi within hours of the hostage crisis. The officials said the team was sent to advise authorities on the bloody standoff at the Nairobi shopping mall, and did not include combat units.

Last Tuesday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta mentioned Israel among the friendly nations who offered crucial assistance.

At least 18 foreigners were among those killed when the militants entered the Westgate mall on Saturday firing assault rifles and throwing grenades, including six Britons and citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China.

Another 175 people were injured, including more than 60 who remain hospitalized.

Authorities have said at least five al-Shabab attackers were killed and another 11 suspects have been taken into custody.

In a statement, Godane said only that “some” of his fighters had been killed, possibly suggesting that others escaped.

During the four-day fight at the mall, the building’s roof collapsed, causing massive destruction. The collapse came last Monday, shortly after four large explosions rang out followed by billows of black smoke. A government minister said the terrorists had set mattresses on fire, causing the roof to collapse, but it seemed unlikely the fire would have caused the massive destruction.

Al-Shabab, whose name means “The Youth” in Arabic, first began threatening Kenya with a major terror attack in late 2011, after Kenya sent troops into Somalia following a spate of kidnappings of Westerners inside Kenya.

The mall attack was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 al-Qaeda truck bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, which killed more than 200 people.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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