Nairobi's Westgate mall attack: six months later, troubling questions weigh heavily

The absence of significant security reforms, major prosecutions, or investigations into intelligence lapses has not helped Kenyans or foreigners feel safer.

By , Correspondent

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    Heavy black smoke rises from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Sept. 23, 2013, after multiple large blasts rocked the mall.
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When gunfire first rang out at Nairobi’s most upscale mall on a Saturday morning six months ago, many people assumed it was an especially violent robbery.

As the hours and days of the mall attack unfolded amid columns of black smoke and gunfire, the information coming from government spokesmen, security analysts, witnesses and Al Shabab's Twitter account painted the event to seem like one of the world’s most sophisticated Al Qaeda strikes.

The early reports had as many as 15 gunmen armed with belt-fed machine guns and strapped with explosives, with dozens of hostages held at gunpoint night after night. Kenya’s security forces were allegedly cowed by the sheer ferocity and professionalism of the terror cell that had penetrated the four-story mall.

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But now, six months later, the limited investigations that have actually happened show that very little of the early reporting was accurate.

It is now widely accepted that there was never more than four gunmen, sent by Al Qaeda’s proxy in Somalia, Al Shabab. They carried only hand grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, and ordinary ammunition. Instead of escaping, as initially reported, all four likely perished when the rear of the shopping center collapsed on day three of the four-day siege (if not before). When remains unclear is when the four stopped returning gunfire.

The majority of the 67 people who died were likely killed within the first hours of the 80-hour siege. Few, if any, were held hostage – unlike, again, the story told at the time.

'No justice'

Promised commissions of official inquiry and stern warnings that those responsible would be brought to justice have now petered out into near silence, say survivors and relatives of those who died.

“Everything has gone quiet, we don’t hear anything about it at all,” says one man who was inside Westgate when the assault began. “In the days after it, we were promised so much. In fact, there seems to have been a complete failure by the government to follow up in any way.”

The majority of those who agreed to speak to the Monitor about their recollections of last year's Sept. 21- 24 siege refused to be named for fear of antagonizing authorities in Nairobi.

“It took about two weeks for the ICC to replace Westgate on the front pages,” another survivor said, referring to stories about International Criminal Court trials of Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy, William Ruto.

“Very quickly Westgate has been forgotten by these elite people. But there are relatives of mine who died, their parents are still mourning every day. They are resigned to know they will see no justice.”

Answers come slowly

In the days after the siege ended, Kenya’s crime scene investigators were joined by dozens of foreign specialists, including a team of more than 80 from the FBI, and others from Israel and Britain. The evidence they collected in those early weeks began changing the impression of the sophistication of the attack.

Now, some suggest that it was little more than “four chancers with AK-47s and a little bit of planning,” in the words of one diplomatic security officer in Nairobi. Kenya’s presidential director of communications, Munyori Buku, refutes this, insisting that this was a “major terror attack” prepared for “many months or even years.”

He tells the Monitor, “It is for this reason that things are taking time now. ...It is a matter of gathering forensics, and then analyzing forensics, and our investigations involve agencies from various countries.” 

Four men are currently on trial in Nairobi, accused of hosting the Westgate attackers, obtaining false documents for them, and supporting their preparations. All deny the charges.

The absence of significant security reforms, major prosecutions, or investigations into intelligence lapses ahead of the attack has not helped Kenyans or foreigners who live here feel safer.

Preventing another attack

And the threat of new terrorist attacks remains. On March 17, police in the port of Mombasa found an SUV packed with more than 350 pounds of explosives welded into its rear seats. Two other vehicles similarly readied with primed bombs may still be at large, security sources said today.

“There are fundamental issues that need to be resolved here and everyone seems to want to bash the Kenyan security forces,” says Conrad Thorpe, head of Salama Fikira, a Kenyan private security company that works in Somalia and other African nations.

“The fact is I know there are a great many people daily working extremely hard to bring these people [involved in the Westgate attack] to book," Mr. Thorpe says.

Most of Westgate mall's main structure was undamaged in the siege. It still stands in the middle of one of Nairobi’s busiest areas, its walls colored creamy-yellow, and with billboards still advertising its high-class outlets.

"They are rebuilding it, I think the shopkeepers want it to open up again so they can start to recoup their losses,” says Bushan Vidyarthi, a Kenyan commercial printer caught up in the assault who escaped unharmed.

“Will I go back when it’s finished? No, definitely not. We are all too scared to go to any mall any more.” 

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