31 October 2013

12 Years in Kenya; Westgate Terrorist Attack and Other Security Issues

Yesterday, I attended a Town Hall Meeting for US citizens. These are held periodically by the staff at the US Embassy to keep us informed of significant current events. They’re always well attended and I consider them to be very much worth my time. I would estimate 500 people participated in this one, held on the lovely grounds of the residence of the US Deputy Chief of Mission, Isiah Parnell. Numerous Embassy staff were present and introduced.

The entire grounds and surrounding area was under tight security. We were required to RSVP at least a day in advance and had to carry our passports to gain entry. We were treated to a quite nice selection of snacks and beverages.

I attended the meeting with my friend, Denise. 

The US Ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, was the keynote speaker and fielded about an hour of questions after he gave his talk. The following are highlights from the copious notes I took. Most of these words were spoken by the ambassador, but all of the content was also reiterated by the other key staff members who spoke and fielded questions (the Consul General, the Regional Security Officer, and the Political Counselor).

US Ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec

General comments
It’s estimated there are between 15,000 - 20,000 Americans living in Kenya. Approximately 100,000 American tourists visit the country on an annual basis. [Brief comment of my own: This figure would include short-term missions teams that enter the country on tourist visas.] 350,000 Kenyans live in the US.

The two countries have enjoyed a healthy relationship for 50 years. Over one billion US dollars have been invested in Kenya by the US government. The country hosts the largest US mission on the continent of Africa. And, of course, we all know that President Obama’s paternal roots are from Kenya.

The number one priority of the US Embassy is to ensure the safety and security of American citizens in Kenya. [This comment was emphatically stated several times.]

Westgate shopping mall during the siege

Terrorist attack on Westgate shopping mall
It is difficult to make sense of such evil as this monstrous attack.

Although originally thought to be more, this crime was likely committed by four well-armed terrorists, all members of al-Shabaab (the Somalia-based cell of the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda). We can’t be certain, as the CCTV video coverage was not constant, but this is what we believe based on what we currently know. All four most likely died inside the mall at some point during the four-day siege. Investigations are ongoing, but we at the US Embassy believe there were no hostages. The rubble of the now-destroyed shopping mall is still being sifted through and DNA samples are still being analyzed. The figure of 67 deaths remains as the final count at this stage. No American citizens died, but five Americans were among the 200 injured.

Great bravery was displayed by many police officers and average citizens. They have my deep admiration. Many of them lost their lives as they assisted others. However, because of their actions, hundreds more were saved and to them we owe a great debt.

The objects of terrorism are two-fold:
1)      To kill and maim
2)      To divide

Kenya remained strong and resolved, as did Americans living here. After the bombing of the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi in 1998, we pledged ‘never to forget’. Just as then, we will get through this. Courage, resilience, and our values bind us together. We can and we will get through this.

Americans showed strong solidarity by donating blood and giving money for the victims’ fund. There was an overwhelming outpouring of support worldwide.

The US Embassy took immediate action and maintained it 24-hours a day for the entire siege. Our staff visited the injured in hospitals and assisted with logistics of insurance, etc. Other staff made daily visits to the morgues to check on any American casualties. We also responded to over 50 inquiries from abroad, regarding the whereabouts of various Americans. We were able to track them down and report back to the inquiring family members. To this day, we are still responding to and assisting victims.

The US government has offered all assistance we have available to the Kenya government. Much of it has been received and utilized, including helping the local Red Cross unit and assistance from highly trained members of the FBI, as two concrete examples. We brought in our best experts in the full range of challenges that are experienced as a result of terrorist attacks. We also provided disaster management assistance.

As ambassador, I have been in close personal contact with senior government authorities, both during the attack and in the days since. We continue to dialogue with the government of Kenya regarding improvements in security. But ultimately, Kenyans are in charge. This is their country.

The Kenyan government gave much misinformation and there was also much media speculation that was misleading or wrong. Please, at all times, be wary of text messages from so-called security groups. Please confirm any rumors on our website. Whatever communication we send you from the embassy is as accurate as we can determine; we take our time and do our best to first verify it. We maintain a ‘no double-standard’ rule. In other words, what information we have as embassy staff also goes out to you American citizens here in Kenya.

We immediately sent out a text message when the attack began alerting you to stay away from the Westgate area. We sent text messages on the second day of the attack as well as the day after it ended. Additionally we kept you informed via emails. We received feedback from Americans that were inside, informing us that they had escaped. We appreciate such communication very much.

Please encourage any American citizen residing in or visiting Kenya, if they haven’t already, to enroll in our STEP program so they will also receive our communications and travel advisories.

We also must remember that we at the embassy, as well as all of you, are guests of the government of Kenya. In many regards, we are limited in what we can do. But be assured, we will inform you of any threats that may affect you. Always remember that we are here for you.

Much need for improvement in disaster response
The government of Kenya recognizes their need to improve in the area of disaster response. Sadly there are many serious problems; the recent fire at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is another grave example of this. The US government has provided training and equipment. We have given advice regarding both effective ‘control and command’ and emergency response.

Kenya is no stranger to terrorism
Besides the very tragic 1998 bombing of the US embassy, there were also two simultaneous attacks in 2002 near Mombasa on the coast. A hotel was bombed and an airplane was fired upon. In the past two years, numerous terrorist attacks have happened throughout the country of Kenya. There have been 14 such incidences in Nairobi alone, resulting in many deaths, injuries, and destruction of property. The Kenya diplomatic post has had ‘robust’ travel warnings for years. This is our new reality.

The two maps show all the zones in Kenya and give the names of wardens for each zone.

  • Always be aware and alert
  • Vigilance is of utmost importance
  • Evaluate your environment
  • Vary your routes and times of day whenever possible
  • Don’t be loud or attract attention to yourself
  • Have an emergency communication plan and a back-up plan
  • Always carry your phone
  • Make sure you have the numbers for the US Embassy in your phone
  • Know who your warden is [Note: these are US citizens that voluntarily act as zone representatives throughout all of Kenya.]
  • Let someone know where you are
  • Take care of yourself and others
  • Report suspicious activity to your local police station
  • Get to know your local policemen. Yes, there is the issue of corruption, but the vast majority are professional and courageous.

Thought-provoking questions we all need to ask ourselves:
  • How can I reduce my risks?
  • What is my personal risk tolerance?
  • Realize that resilience is an amazing human attribute, but it varies from person to person. Am I comfortable with Kenya’s ability to adequately respond to emergencies? 

If caught in an emergency situation:
  • Remain calm
  • Look for an exit and move toward it
  • Do not stay in one location
  • Have a plan
  • Ask yourself - What would I do if something happens in this scenario?
  • What are my capabilities?
  • Think through your options.

Issue of crime and general insecurity in Kenya
There is a huge threat of crime in this country. The chances of being a victim of crime are much higher than being caught in a terrorist attack. Statistically, the level of crime is down in Kenya. However, the incidences of violent crime are on the increase.

We are aware that in many of the neighborhoods where expats reside, there is a recent increase in armed robberies and muggings even in daytime hours. [Note: this also includes my neighborhood.] 

Crime in Kenya is a serious, serious problem. For years, it has been rated as ‘critical’ on our scale. One of the problems is that countering it is difficult. Even in this area, we provide much advice and support to the government of Kenya and to the police. But we are limited in what we can do; as diplomatic guests in foreign countries, we have no authority to do any policing. We will always do our best to keep you informed of whatever we know.

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[Final note: Ambassador Godec also touched on two other issues:

1)      The huge refugee population in this country and the policy change Kenya is considering on the matter
2)      The two current cases at the International Criminal Court, with Kenya’s president and deputy president

Godec assured us he has been deeply engaged with the relevant Kenyan authorities regarding both of these issues and that we will be informed if any developments raise concern for American citizens.]

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Be sure to see related post below, God Engineers the Goings.


Anonymous said...

Great recap Deb! You should be a journalist. Denise

Naomi Hattaway said...

Great recap. I have always loved the concept of the Town Hall Meetings at the embassies. So important, I think!

Anonymous said...

Good coverage, Deb. Thanks for the information. Glad you were able to attend.

deb said...

Marge, I hope you found the information encouraging... as far as how involved the US embassy is with we Americans living here in Kenya.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea that this took place or that you had gone to it... fantastic summary. i've got this bookmarked and will likely refer to it in the months and years ahead.

that cool that robert godec organized such an event. thanks for reporting.

stay safe-- praying for it.


deb said...

Ryan, these US Embassy Town Hall meetings are common throughout the world, especially if there's a large contingent of US citizens living in a particular country.

This was the 3rd or 4th such meeting I've attended in Kenya. I went to one at Johnnie Carson's house (2003), one or two held at the US Embassy when Ranneberger spoke on the post-election violence (2008), and now this one with Godec speaking on Westgate.

There have been several others held, as well, but I'm not always in Nairobi at the right time for them. I enjoy them. They're quite well done and a very welcome source of information.