Kenya: Fallout from the Westgate horror

The ramifications of the horrific, four-day terrorist siege at the Westgate shopping mall, which gripped news audiences around the world, continue to reverberate to this day. While President Kenyatta’s conduct has been universally praised, uncomfortable questions are being raised. Wanjohi Kabukuru reports Reuters photojournalist Noor Khamis was in his office in Nairobi’s central business district […]


The ramifications of the horrific, four-day terrorist siege at the Westgate shopping mall, which gripped news audiences around the world, continue to reverberate to this day. While President Kenyatta’s conduct has been universally praised, uncomfortable questions are being raised. Wanjohi Kabukuru reports

Reuters photojournalist Noor Khamis was in his office in Nairobi’s central business district on that fateful afternoon of Saturday 21st September when his colleague Thomas Mukoya called him.

“Thomas told me to rush to Westgate Mall as fast as I could as the situation there was now a war zone as terrorists had taken over Westgate,” Khamis recalls. “He also told me not to forget to bring our flak jackets and helmets.”

That is when it dawned on Khamis that this was not going to be any other ‘dry’ day in the newsroom. On a normal day and with less road traffic, it takes 15 minutes to reach Westgate Mall from the Reuters office. This time around as he drove to the Westgate vicinity in the Westlands area of Nairobi, Khamis was forced to leave his car near the MP Shah Hospital in Parklands area which neighbours Westlands and hitch a motorbike ride. All vehicular traffic going towards Westgate was being redirected and the easier methods to reach Westgate faster were by either a motorbike or on foot. He chose the former.

There was chaos all over the mall when Khamis arrived. At the time, many people had not realised that Kenya’s long bloody weekend had begun. It ended four days later, having hogged all the press coverage it could all over the world, and claimed no less than 67 lives drawn from several nationalities. As Khamis made his cautious way with his camera, entering the shopping precinct from the parking bay, a scene of horror opened up for him. There were screams and gunshots. He saw pools of blood and people running for dear life. He saw dead bodies.

For several hours before security forces organised themselves and cordoned the area from all civilians, Khamis recorded the sheer horror of terrorism surrounded by the smell of gunpowder, destruction and bereavement. On Sunday 22ⁿd September, the full extent of what Khamis had witnessed and recorded by his camera was splashed all over the streets and encapsulated by a single image: Khamis’ picture on the front page of Kenya’s mass selling weekly the Sunday Nation. It was the unforgettable image of a woman writhing in pain, torment and agony all over her bloodied face and screaming for help. Her photo was one of the many he had taken a day earlier as terrorists laid siege at one of Kenya’s towering symbols of the booming economy, the Westgate Mall. Kenyans, horrified by the picture, resorted to social media sites on Facebook and the vibrant KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) communities to vent their anger on the Sunday Nation. Khamis’ picture became an instant online discussion item for Sunday and the better part of Monday.

The anger was directed at the paper for preferring to use Khamis’ picture instead of other images which, according to the public in the social media postings, were “heroic”, “patriotic” and “denied the terrorists mileage”. Joseph Ole Lenku, the Interior Secretary, also criticised the paper for using Khamis’ picture.

Considered to be a family weekend paper, Sunday Nation published by the Nation Media Group (NMG) was forced to apologise. Ironically, Khamis was never mentioned in the online fury. A veteran of conflict zones around the Horn of Africa region, the multiple award-winning photojournalist went on with his work unperturbed by the interest his image had generated.

“All I did was to record history. The decision to publish was for the editor,” Khamis recalls. “That picture can be interpreted in many ways. It embodies our vulnerabilities and it can also be translated to show the savagery of terrorism and at the same time depict the ugly fruits of corruption by public officials and complacency by authorities. To me it is a picture to remind us of eternal vigilance.”

Indeed, at the centre of the condemnation of the security response of the Westgate attack, Kenya’s security services and immigration department have been blamed for aiding and abetting sleaze in their ranks.

Who is to blame?
The criticism of Kenyan security forces has been swift and unforgiving. Serious lapses in Kenya’s security structure, poor intelligence-sharing channels among security agencies and uncoordinated responses were all laid bare by the infamy at Westgate.

To this day the real identity of the terrorists remains a mystery. Were US and British citizens among the terrorists as initially claimed? Was it Al Shabaab or a new mutation of Al Qaeda? Was the attack aimed at Kenya or was it targeting Israel? These questions have never been fully answered.

“Corruption at our borders is the hand that let loose a Pandora’s box of evils on us,” Betty Maina, the chief executive of the umbrella investors’ forum, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), says. “How else did the terrorists get in through our borders undetected and set up shop at the Mall?”
Immediately the Westgate Mall attacks began, the Somali extremist group Al Shabaab through their now-suspended Twitter account claimed full responsibility and gloated over the horror that it had unleashed on Kenyan soil as revenge.

To Al Shabaab, the Westgate siege was prophetic as its verbal warnings were now being enacted in Nairobi. At the same time, they used the opportunity to restate their earlier position that Kenya must withdraw its troops from Somalia.

So what inspired this daring attack when Nairobi is considered an ‘intelligence hub’ crawling with security agents from all major nations?

The attack on Westgate had been anticipated right from 16th October 2011 when the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) set foot in neighbouring Somalia. The Somali radical group, Al Shabaab affiliated to Al Qaeda, had warned Kenya of reprisals if it did not withdraw its troops. One of the key targets mentioned by Al Shabaab was the Westgate Mall in the leafy upmarket suburb of Westlands.

Kenya’s incursion into Somalia had been sparked by several kidnappings and murder of tourists and aid workers by attackers said to be Somali militants at its coastal resorts and Daadab refugee camp in northern Kenya.

Yusuf Haji, then Kenya’s Defence Minister had said that KDF had been deployed into Somalia to secure Kenya’s tourism industry, safeguard its borders and create an area that could absorb the 474,602 Somali refugees in Kenya. While these seemingly isolated attacks had appeared to be the real reason for Kenya’s invasion of Somalia, the true intentions later emerged that, since 2008, Kenya had been planning to create a security buffer zone inside Somalia.

Kenya and Somalia share a porous 600 km border and this is what Nairobi wanted to secure, as Somalia had no capacity to police its borders owing to the 20 years of civil strife and a fledgling and weak government in Mogadishu. Nairobi had discussed what it had dubbed the ‘Jubaland Initiative’ covering Gedo, the lower and middle Juba districts in southern Somalia, as a buffer and lobbied Washington, Kampala and Addis Ababa to support the idea.

The idea behind Jubaland was principally to make it semi-autonomous and fashion it along the same lines as Somaliland and Puntland. Former Somalia President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was opposed to the idea as he saw it as a threat to the unitary ambitions of Mogadishu, but was helpless. Current Somali leader President Hassan Mohamud is also walking the same tightrope as President Sharif.

Before the ‘Jubaland Initiative’ had been implemented, serious reservations had been expressed by Uganda and Ethiopia, who doubted Kenya’s military capabilities. The plan had been shelved for a while but when the kidnappings and murders escalated, Kenya decided to carry out its Jubaland Plan and ended up displacing Al Shabaab from southern Somalia.

Angry at being routed from their key revenue source of Kismayu Port, Al Shabaab vowed revenge on Kenya and particularly singled out the gleaming glass-coated skyscrapers and fashionable shopping malls.

Why Westgate?
There was a reason Westgate Mall was chosen. While it is owned by an Israeli national, Westgate represents the best of Kenya’s blossoming economy and global commerce. The plush, high-end mall was a favourite venue for well-to-do Kenyans, regional celebrities, throngs of diplomats posted in Nairobi and the large expatriate community at the Gigiri based United Nations Office in Nairobi (UNON).

Westgate Mall is a neat illustration of Kenya’s commercial and private sector success. With world-class chintzy cafes, jewellery shops, casinos, luxury goods and lifestyle outlets, banks, forex bureaus and a high-end supermarket, Westgate had it all under one roof. An attack on this shopping arcade, the terrorists calculated, would be seen as an affront to Kenya’s robust business culture and also global commerce; it would attract international attention. It worked.

Incidentally, on that critical day, several members of Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta had been shopping at Westgate. President Kenyatta’s elder sister Christina Pratt and her nephew, accompanied by his fiancée, were inside the mall when the terrorists struck. Christina was lucky, but the nephew and his fiancée were killed by the terrorists’ random shootings.

With the attack continuing, the full impact of the siege was difficult to explain as conflicting reports filtered. The number of terrorist was never confirmed as authorities quibbled, saying they numbered between five and 15.

The response of Kenya’s security agencies was slow, uncoordinated and dragged on for four agonising days. An inquiry has already been established to identify why there were gaping security lapses.

The initial operation to reclaim Westgate had started as a normal police procedure led by the elite Recce company of the General Service Unit (GSU), which is the paramilitary wing of the Kenya Police. It ended as a KDF Special Forces affair. It is not clear what happened to the Israeli-trained Recce Company, who are specialised in anti-terrorism and hostage rescue missions. Survivors and leaked CCTV footage of the siege say and show that Recce had pushed the terrorists to one portion of the mall two hours after their assault began. However, conflicting command structures which arose when three Special Forces detachments from KDF were called in saw Recce withdrawing and this confusion gave the terrorists time to reorganise themselves whilst continuing in their deadly mission.

The impact on business
As it became a complex military cordon operation, the ripple effect on Kenyans frayed nerves began to tell. Major neighbouring malls were shut down, lavish business events and exhibitions were also cancelled. Suddenly the risk matrix of Nairobi jumped up. Travel advisories were issued by the US and UK. The credit rating agency Moody’s has already warned that Kenya’s economic fortunes are likely to be downgraded from the current B1 status.

“The Westgate attack will immensely affect our economy as investors are likely to shy away due to our inability to deal with terrorists,” Senator Joy Gwendo says. A combination of factors has led to this. In August, a puzzling fire had razed the arrivals lounge of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). Although terrorism was ruled out as the cause of the JKIA fire, taken together with Westgate, the two incidents have serious economic ramifications. Security threats and political stability remain Kenya’s top priorities in securing its economy and fostering a continuous growth platform.

“If Kenya continues to be a soft target for this sort of attacks, we just might start getting a reputation for being Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda’s punchbag,” Maina says. “This is not good for our credibility as an investment location.”

“Those terrorists were well armed and highly trained with several snipers in their ranks,” Khamis says. “They were also very smart. They never shot at any journalist but they executed several police officers who were shielding journalists. This was clearly aimed at ensuring their message gets out to the world.” This was not the first time Khamis had been involved. In 1998, while working for The People Weekly, Khamis covered Kenya’s first major terrorist attack at the then US embassy in Nairobi’s central business district. In 2002, he covered the bombing at the Paradise Hotel Resort in Kikambala, Kilifi. In the 1998 attack 200 people, mostly Kenyans, died.

For Khamis, significant differences emerged from the three experiences. The 1998 and 2002 attacks were suicide bombing missions with no hostages taken and there was no prior warning. The 2013 event was different. For close to four years it has been open knowledge that the Westgate Mall had been identified as a soft target by extremists groups, notably Al Shabaab. This time around the attackers used high-calibre assault rifles and grenades to unleash mayhem on weekend shoppers.

Kenyatta rallies nation
Judging by comments made by key leaders on the country’s security establishment, it will no longer be business as usual as an imminent overhaul and purge now looms. In Kenya’s parliament and senate, legislators and senators used only agonised, harsh words to describe the intelligence services. KDF was also not spared. Previously KDF enjoyed the public’s confidence and trust for the gallant Somalia mission. After Westgate all this confidence dissipated after shop owners, jewellers and banks found out that their premises had been ransacked and vandalised with valuable items and cash pilfered. The business sector, on the other hand, has remained bullish, openly calling for more investment and reforms to be undertaken in the nation’s security architecture. Surprisingly, while Kenya’s economic and diplomatic fortunes were expected to dip in light of the attack, the exact opposite has happened and President Kenyatta stole the thunder from the terrorists.

A visibly pained Kenyatta turned the tragedy into a unifying force and in the process, elevated his own stature. The terrorists’ demands were rejected outright with the declaration that the KDF will be in Somalia for an unspecified period of time.

“If their desire is for us to withdraw our forces, let them do what they should have done 20 years ago,” President Kenyatta said as he addressed an interdenominational prayer service held for the Westgate victims. “We will remain there until they bring order in their nation.”

In defiance and sending a strong warning to Al Shabaab, he has since said Kenya will not be bullied into leave Somalia. “Let me remind them that we are not the ones who first went there. They first came here. We sent troops there to help them bring order in their region.”

President Kenyatta rose beyond personal hurt and the travails of his impending trial at The Hague and galvanised the nation with his oratorical skills and scooped sympathy dividends. Shortly afterwards, the International Criminal Court (ICC) adjourned to allow Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto time to return to Nairobi and mourn with the nation.

According to Gwendo, Westgate was a painful lesson never to be forgotten. “The lessons learnt from the painful deaths and injuries will strengthen us and make us ready for anything that comes our way.”

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