Calls for reforms as Kenya marks 10 years since Westgate attack

Aftermath of the Westgate Shopping Mall terror act. [File, Standard]

Three guards manning the entrance of the Westgate Shopping Mall show no sign of strain as State functionaries and the press swarm their station.

Two of them, a woman and a man, frisk the visitors, by hand and with a metal sensor. They do this as dutifully as they would when the entrance is not as busy.

A journalist insists that his gadget will be damaged if passed through the x-ray baggage scanner, but the woman operating the machine would hear none of it. The guard insists it is standard procedure for everyone accessing the building.

Even amid the commotion that is drawing in crowds, the security guards stay alert enough to notice that a vehicle has lingered at the gate a bit too long.

One of them signals their colleague stationed at the scanner who radios a supervisor, only for a person with disability to emerge from the car, and the guards are satisfied there is no cause for alarm.

There is no room for error among those at the front-line in Kenya’s counter-terrorism effort. Not at Westgate, where 10 years ago 67 souls were lost in a terror attack by Al Shabaab.

Among the first people to be hit were the guards at the mall’s entrances. Many, if not all, the officers who survived the attack quit their jobs.

Most of the private guards from the International Reserve Group that man Westgate are new, but they are alive to the events of that fateful September. The guards were not authorised to speak to the press, but some unofficially told The Standard team that their training and their cooperation with the police have made the mall safer.

They also lauded their planned integration into the national security infrastructure and issuance of force service numbers, saying it would accord their profession more dignity.

The integration is part of the reforms by the Ministry of Interior, through the Private Security Regulatory Authority (PSRA), that aims to address gaps in the security infrastructure.

PSRA Director General Fazul Mahamed, who oversaw Thursday’s commemoration, announced measures, he said, would enhance intelligence gathering and help in fighting terrorism and violent extremis

The measures include radical reforms that will see National Youth Service (NYS) graduates absorbed into the private security sector. NYS personnel possess paramilitary skills.

“It costs the government over Sh250,000 to train one serviceman/servicewoman. Ironically, this massive investment, ends at the completion of the course,” Mahamed said.

Currently, guards are required to undergo training in accordance with a set curriculum. Graduates are in the end issued with force numbers, meant to be an identifier of those working in the sector.

To further bring private guards on board, the government is also keen on establishing a direct line of communication between their command and control centre and private security officers to timely flag terror threats.

“This broad and deep penetration of private security officers (PSOs) into society, coupled with their daily interaction with fellow citizens gives them unfettered access to a treasure trove of information. This creates a perfect human surveillance system whose intelligence is not only credible, but real-time,” said Mahamed.

He also announced a grading system that “would give more recognition to accomplished private guards”.

“Under this arrangement, Grade ‘A’ PSOs will be rated as the most qualified and will be given the most critical assignments. Grade ‘B’ officers will be assigned to unarmed cash-in-transit escort duties. Finally, Grade ‘C’ officers will be assigned to guard homes and compounds of private individuals requiring security services,” he added.

In a statement to newsrooms, Interior Principal Secretary Raymond Omollo hailed the reforms in the private security sector, noting they would help enhance vigilance.

“Our end goal is to sustain the highest level of surveillance along our borders and covert/overt security operations across the country and neutralize the enemy before he strikes,” Omollo stated.

Earlier, Mahamed toured three other malls - Thika Road Mall (TRM), Imaara and Junction - to assess their security situation, where he also issued force numbers to select guards.