Last month’s siege of an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi is very much on the mind of New York’s outgoing police commissioner, Ray Kelly.
On Friday, New York’s top law-enforcement official will host a special training session for senior managers—known as a tabletop exercise—to prepare for what would happen if a small team of active shooters seized a large shopping area in New York City as terrorists from al Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate did last month at the Westgate mall outside Nairobi.
Speaking at The Daily Beast’s Hero Summit on Thursday, Kelly said New York had a plan if terrorists attacked Macy’s or another big department store in Manhattan. “We practice what we call active shooter response,” he said. “This has been since the aftermath of Columbine, really,” he said, referring to the 1999 shooting at a Colorado high school by a group of disaffected loners who called themselves the “trench-coat mafia.” “We deploy about 100 police cars every day to malls,” Kelly said.
Kelly—who appeared on stage with Robert Griffin, vice president of Industry Solutions IBM; Jane Harman, director, president, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center; Gen. Michael V. Hayden, principal of The Chertoff Group; and moderator Catherine Herridge of Fox News—was also very critical of the Kenyan response to the Westgate siege. The Kenyan authorities, in Kelly’s view, did a poor job of managing public perceptions. He said there was a lot of misinformation in those first hours and days of the hostage crisis that brought the world’s attention to al Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate, al-Shabaab.
“They did not handle witnesses well who were trying to get out,” Kelly said. “They were not able to interrogate them to get information.” He pointed out, for example, that the team of shooters was much smaller than initially reported, noting there may have been as few as four of them and they were armed with AK-47s and Chinese hand grenades and not the more advanced weaponry that was first reported.
Kelly also said that some of the Kenyan troops in the hostage rescue operation looted the stores during the operation and that it was excessive for the rescue team to use rocket-propelled grenades, a decision Kelly said was responsible for the collapse of one of the shopping mall’s floors.
Counterterrorism officials regard Kelly’s tenure as police commissioner for New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks with awe. At the same time, Kelly has come under fire from civil liberties advocates for what they perceive as blanket surveillance of the city’s Muslims.
When asked if he would consider staying on as commissioner for the next likely mayor of New York, Bill De Blasio, Kelly said, “It’s time to move on.” He also said he was not in discussions with the Obama administration about becoming the next secretary of homeland security, a job vacated earlier this year with the retirement of Janet Napolitano.
One of Kelly’s likely last major assignments will be to provide security for the New York Marathon coming up on November 3. After the Boston Marathon attacks this spring, Kelly said his police officers are now taking extra precautions. These include installing 100 more portable cameras along the race’s route through New York in areas that are not already covered by video surveillance in the city. He also said the police will deploy a van with a camera affixed atop of it capable of recording the same kind of 360-degree panoramic field of view that are used on the small disco ball like cameras attached to the bottom of U.S. military drones.
While Kelly prepares New York for al Qaeda-style raids and homegrown bombers, he also thinks the city can handle a civil trial for terrorists when asked about whether New York was prepared for the high profile trial of Abu-Anas al-Liby, an al Qaeda operative who was captured this weekend in Tripoli by U.S. special forces. Al-Liby was indicted in 2000 for his role in planning the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Today after his capture, al-Liby is on a U.S. Navy Ship where he is likely being interrogated for his intelligence value. But eventually he is expected to be delivered to the FBI in New York where he will stand trial.
“We’ve had other high profile individuals tried in federal court in Manhattan,” Kelly said. “We will have to look at this as it moves forward whether it will create any problems, but it’s standard for us.”