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After Westgate debacle, quick end to latest Kenyan attack shows progress

Serge Medic, the Swiss owner of a security company carries his pistol as he walks at the scene where explosions and gunshots were heard at the Dusit hotel complex in Nairobi, Kenya January 15, 2019. Picture Jan. 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
 The relatively swift end to an attack on a Nairobi hotel and office complex highlights improvements in Kenya's counterterrorism capabilities since Somali militants overran a shopping mall in the same neighborhood five years ago.

This time, the authorities flooded the area with elite units, including the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) and its crack Recce squad, along with a new force trained by the United States to respond to emergencies at American facilities.

Still, the death toll might have been higher had it not been for the rapid intervention of some quick-thinking private security personnel before the government teams arrived en masse, security sources who took part in the operation said.

Tuesday's two-pronged assault by a suicide bomber and at least four gunmen, claimed by the Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab, killed 21 people and sent hundreds fleeing from the 14 Riverside Drive complex in the Kenyan capital.

However, the attack was over in 20 hours - a far cry from the four-day-long incident at Westgate shopping mall in 2013, which ended with 67 dead, some from friendly fire, and the Kenyan army going on a massive looting spree among the bodies.

When the government teams arrived this time, they were better prepared and more methodical in their approach – even if communication was sometimes shaky and it wasn't initially clear who was in charge, according to six security professionals, most of whom did not want to be identified for operational reasons.

Unlike in 2013, when foreign security professionals were quickly barred from the scene, Kenyan units worked closely with British and American special forces and private security professionals who were among the first to arrive.

"Involvement of the private security operators was crucial," said a security source in contact with local and international personnel at the complex. "They delayed the attackers for just enough time to allow the government response to get into place."

At the heart of the Kenyan response was a newly formed unit trained under the U.S. Special Program for Embassy Augmentation and Response (SPEAR), set up in 2014 to improve the ability of local forces to respond to emergencies at American facilities after a U.S. ambassador was killed in Benghazi, Libya.

SPEAR units are funded by diplomatic security and are also active in Chad, Iraq, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, Tunisia and Mali, where they responded to an attack on a European Union office near the U.S. Embassy last year.

In Nairobi, SPEAR took charge as darkness fell, operating through the night with another team of five security professionals and medics until President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the next morning that all attackers had been killed.

"We took a lot of lessons from Westgate," said Joe Mucheru, Kenya's information minister. "This was a multi-agency approach and response."