NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan troops will keep fighting Islamist militants in Somalia until peace and stability is restored to the region, President Uhuru Kenyatta said, one year after gunmen stormed a shopping mall in his country’s capital.
Militants belonging to Somalia’s al Qaeda-allied al Shabaab attacked Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate shopping mall on Sept. 21, 2013, killing at least 67 people in an attack that evolved into a four-day siege.
Al Shabaab, which is fighting Kenyan and other African soldiers who are part of a U.N.-mandated African Union force in Somalia, has repeatedly threatened more attacks on Kenyan soil if the country does not withdraw its troops.
“We have all seen the gains made from our defense forces’ assignment in Somalia. We must not betray Kenyans by suggesting that the work be abandoned uncompleted,” Kenyatta wrote in an article published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper.
“We owe it to our country as well as our brothers and sisters in Somalia to stay the course until the mission is completed so that East Africa and the Horn of Africa enjoy peace and stability.”
Memorials for those who died at Westgate are being held in various parts of the country, including the site of the attack.
The opposition CORD coalition — which stood by President Uhuru Kenyatta during the Westgate assault but has since blamed the government for security failings — called in July for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia.
A poll by Ipsos Kenya published on Saturday showed most Kenyans also want the soldiers to leave the neighboring Horn of African nation. Just 19 percent of those surveyed thought Kenyan troops should stay in Somalia as they are.
The rest were, however, divided as to whether the Kenyan soldiers should come home unconditionally, move back just to protect the Kenyan border or only leave Somalia when other African troops can replace them.
Kenyan troops first launched an incursion against al Shabaab in October 2011, accusing them of raids inside Kenya, and eventually seized control of the southern port of Kismayu.
Experts say Kenya’s security forces, which receive support and training from the United States, Britain, Israel and other nations, are hampered by a failure to share intelligence and poor command structures.
“One year after Westgate Kenya’s security preparedness seems to have stagnated and key reforms within the security and intelligence apparatus have yet to be implemented,” Ahmed Salim, a senior associate at Teneo Intelligence consultancy in Dubai.
“The lack of coordination and sharing of intelligence was on full display during the attack and the days after. This is still a challenge,” he said, pointing to June attacks in and around the coastal town of Mpeketoni which killed about 65 people.
The Ipsos poll underlined general concerns about security in Kenya. Only three percent of Kenyans surveyed thought there was no risk “at all” from al Shabaab and 68 percent believed the threat from the group was extremely high.
Kenyatta said in his article that the government had increased resources available to security agencies.
“My government is doing everything it can, and succeeding. A great deal of commendable effort has been expended by our security institutions to prevent terrorist attacks,” he said.
Salim said the appointment of Major-General Philip Kameru, whom the government praised for intelligence work in Somalia, to head Kenya’s National Intelligence Service could improve coordination. But said critics were still surprised no senior figures were fired over the handling of Westgate.
Traders who returned to the damaged mall after the attack said their stores were looted. The army later admitted at least two soldiers stole some property.
To mark the anniversary of the attack, al Shabaab said it would publish a series of articles titled “The Westgate attack and the Wicked Position of Evil Scholars” to show the significance of the strike.
The attack was followed by a string of gun and grenade attacks at the Kenyan coast and in the capital that prompted some Western nations to warn citizens against travel to parts of the country, hitting the tourist industry.
“This is a very bad year for us, it actually might be the worst since 2007-2008. Hotels in North Coast are closing at such a time when ordinarily they would be bursting at the seams with tourists,” Sam Ikwaye, head of the Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and caterers, Coast region, told Reuters.
Writing by George Obulutsa; additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo in Nairobi, Joseph Akwiri in Mombasa, Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; editing by David Clarke