JERUSALEM – Scarred by memories of a pair of attacks on Israeli targets in Africa a decade ago, Israel has dispatched a team of experts to its close ally Kenya to advise authorities on the bloody standoff at a Nairobi shopping mall.
While officials refuse to discuss the precise nature of the assistance, Israeli leaders have made it clear they believe the defeat of the al-Qaida militants behind the mall attack will have great meaning around the world.
"Israel is always ready to help other countries, other friendly countries, in combating terrorism. I think that terrorism has become a threat to the entire world and therefore countries — United States, Israel and other Western countries — should cooperate," Yuval Steinitz, Israel's cabinet minister for strategic affairs, told The Associated Press.
Israel has had strong commercial interests across Africa for decades. But only in recent years has it begun to view Africa, particularly eastern Africa, as being of vital strategic interest in the battle against Islamic extremists. One of those groups, Al-Shabab, has claimed responsibility for the Nairobi attack, which has left dozens dead.
Kenya has been a leading player in this Israeli effort, although it is certainly not alone. The two countries exchange intelligence, and Israel has provided security training to the eastern African country, according to experts and officials.
In all, more than 40 senior African dignitaries have visited Israel in the past two years, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Among them were the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda, Togo and South Sudan, as well as the prime minister of Kenya. The president of Nigeria is expected soon.
An Israeli diplomat who has participated in these meetings said the changes in the region unleashed by the Arab Spring were a key catalyst for these visits. The changes have led to increased activity by Islamic extremists and unleashed a flood of weapons across the region following the downfall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a confidential diplomatic issue, said the threat of Islamic fundamentalism has been a major topic of discussion.
Specifically, he said, the African leaders have been interested in Israel's firsthand experience battling Islamic militants.
Although the groups in Africa are not believed to have direct links to those fighting Israel, they have similar ideologies and international sponsors. Israel says that its foe Iran ships weapons to militants in the Gaza Strip through Africa. The Horn of Africa is also a strategic shipping route for Israel.
"What they would want is basically to share understanding and information more than anything else," the official said, adding it is "no secret" that Israel exports some weapons to Africa.
Israeli officials refuse to say what type of military assistance is sent to African allies or who is being armed, saying only that any sales must be aboveboard and approved by the Defense Ministry. The ministry declined to comment.
Dani Arditi, a former chairman of Israel's Counter-Terrorism Bureau and National Security Council, said a pair of attacks on Israeli targets near the Kenyan resort city of Mombasa in 2002 marked an important turning point. In those attacks, militants bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel, killing 13 people, and fired two missiles at an Israeli airliner as it took off, narrowly missing the aircraft.
"Since then, the cooperation, intelligence cooperation mainly ... is a high priority in Kenya," he said. He said cooperation also included "training, exercising together" but refused to elaborate.
Israeli interests in Kenya run deep. According to the website of Israel's embassy in Nairobi, Israel has provided technical assistance in areas such as agriculture and medicine for decades, in some cases going back to the days before Kenyan independence in 1963.
This cooperation continued even after Kenya and other African states cut diplomatic ties with Israel following the 1973 Mideast war. During the 1976 commando operation in which Israel rescued dozens of hostages from Entebbe Airport in Uganda, Israeli aircraft were permitted to refuel in Kenya. Diplomatic ties resumed in 1988.
More recently, Israel and Kenya signed a treaty to cooperate in the fight against terrorism, money laundering and other crime in 2011.
Today, Israelis are a visible part of Nairobi's large expatriate community. They run businesses in a number of fields, and they have opened several cafes and restaurants — including at least four in the Westgate mall. No Israelis are known to be among the dead.
Israeli defense officials confirmed a team of experts was dispatched to Nairobi within hours of the hostage crisis.
The officials, who declined to be identified because they were discussing a confidential security matter, would not say what types of services were being provided, but said armed fighting units were not part of the delegation.
Nitzan Nuriel, another former head of the Counter-Terrrorism Bureau, said Kenya was among three African countries, along with Tanzania and Ethiopia, to receive security training from Israel about two years ago. At the time, Israeli police, military and counterterrorism officials trained counterparts in the three countries, he said.
Nuriel said the training is part of a broader effort that began in earnest with a trip to five African countries by then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in 2009.
Nuriel, who accompanied Lieberman, said at every stop the message was clear. "Everything having to do with the war on terror, we have a common enemy. Let's cooperate," he quoted African officials as saying.
In addition to Kenya, he said Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania have strong intelligence cooperation with Israel, providing information on some 10 Islamist groups, including Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, a similar group in Nigeria.
In addition, West African countries provide intelligence on Hezbollah operatives involved in drug-running and money laundering, Nuriel said.
Hagai Katz of Magal Security Systems Ltd., an Israeli security company, said his firm this year completed a $25 million project securing Kenya's port in Mombasa. In 2012, it was responsible for stadium security at the African Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, he said.
Nir Shaul, founder of Israeli security company Nirtal, said his firm has provided training and equipment — including night-vision technology and helmets — to anti-terror police forces and presidential guards across Africa in recent years.
"An untrained soldier is very dangerous," Shaul said. "A trained soldier can target the terror cell without doing surrounding damage that turns the citizens against the ruling power."
Daniel Estrin contributed to this report.