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A year after Nairobi's Westgate Mall attack, dearth of information rankles

Does Kenya needs its own 9/11-style commission to clarify the details of Al Shabab's four-day siege of Nairobi's most upscale mall – and the government's response?

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    At the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya on Tuesday, members of the Kenyan Red Cross, standing to the right of a display of newspaper cartoons on the subject, attended the opening of an exhibition of video portraits of some of those closely affected by last year's terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall.
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A year ago today, four members of Al Shabab went on a shooting rampage in an upscale Nairobi mall. Shoppers huddled behind display tables and grocery counters, waiting for help.

The police, followed by the Army, only entered hours later. By then, many shoppers had escaped themselves or been helped by a handful of plainclothes police officers and civilians.

As the siege neared its end, the rear of the shopping mall collapsed – reportedly as a result of the military’s use of explosives – burying the four gunmen in the rubble and quashing hopes for answers from the perpetrators. By the end, 67 people had been killed, in addition to the four gunmen.

Today reconstruction of the mall is under way, but bullet holes remain in the outer windows. Other malls have filled the need among moneyed expatriates and well-off Kenyans for luxury shopping and high-end cafes. And Kenyans have stopped asking questions about the spectacular security failure – not that many answers about the event have ever been forthcoming. 

“Much of what went wrong in Westgate – and a lot went wrong – has kind of been papered over,” says Patrick Gathara, a prominent Kenyan political commentator and cartoonist. “For an event of its magnitude, it’s amazing to me that we know next to nothing about what actually happened inside that mall for four days."

A 9/11 commission?

Given that, what Kenya needs is its own 9/11 commission, says a former top police official now working as a security analyst, referring to the two-year US investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks, which found that the CIA and FBI may have been able to prevent it.

A number of well-placed Kenyans would welcome a serious Westgate attack reckoning. Concern is widespread that another large terror event is possible, especially because the Sept. 1 US airstrike that killed Al Shabab leader Ahmed Godane has yielded a weaker successor, Ahmed Omar Abu Ubaidah, who experts think may be eager to show his terror credentials. 

Yet the government has not shown much enthusiasm for a fuller investigation, and many Kenyans – with the exception of the families of victims – are not pushing hard for specific details of the attack. 

“[The security lapses have] kind of been forgotten, if you will. If you look at what’s happening now in the run-up to the anniversary, a lot of what is being expressed is how horrible the attack was and how much courage people showed,” Mr. Gathara says. “Nobody is raising the issues of what went wrong and what actually happened. The bungled response is not really being looked at fresh.”

Not forgotten, even amid drumbeat of violence

Nairobians are somewhat inured to violence. Survivors of Westgate interviewed for the just released HBO documentary “Terror at the Mall” comment that when the siege first began, they thought it was “just a drive-by grenade attack” or a bunch of “thugs” robbing shoppers.

And over the past year, there have been attacks of equivalent brutality to Westgate, with even more serious security breaches. In June, more than 50 members of Al Shabab rampaged through towns in coastal Kenya, killing at least 60 people over the course of two days. The attack made headlines, but disappeared amid confusing charges and countercharges.

But Westgate has not been forgotten, with people holding several ceremonies in memory of the victims and creating an exhibition at the national museum. It also generated two documentaries. 

The fact that the attack took place in Nairobi and included foreigners, as well as a relative of President Uhura Kenyatta, has helped keep it in people's sights. It also stood out as Al Shabab’s first prominent “soft” target, and a warning that there could be more coming, says Emmanual Kisiangari, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.

Winning hearts and minds

In the immediate wake of the attack, anger at the lack of reliable information on nearly all aspects of the attack was fierce. The president announced he would launch an inquiry, but the parliament took it over. The outcome was too “shallow” to be useful, says the security analyst.

Some steps appear to have been taken in response. The head of the National Intelligence Service and the chief of immigration have been replaced. Both agencies are seen as the root of the security breach.

The security analyst, however, argues that shake-ups can only accomplish so much.

“There will always be intelligence failures," he says, but adds: "For intelligence to work, [authorities] must win the hearts and minds of the Muslim community” so that the community is willing to work with the government.

But the months since Westgate have instead featured a punishing crackdown on Somalis in Kenya, putting that community “between a rock and a hard place,” he says. They don’t want to go to Al Shabab, but they also aren’t willing to volunteer information to the government, which has alienated them with its sweeps of the predominantly Somali Eastleigh community. 

One of the only aspects of the attack on which there appeared to be public consensus was that the police outshone the military in their response. But the HBO documentary calls even that into question.

Different versions of events

Footage of the General Service Unit, the police's elite paramilitary wing, outside the mall that day contradicts the narrative that it responded early and with decisiveness. Instead it shows them still equivocating about a plan of action hours after the grenade attack that marked the beginning of the siege.

Gathara hopes that the new version of events will prompt renewed public pressure for a reliable record of the attack and hard thinking about what needs to change.

“We didn’t learn any lessons from Westgate. We didn’t investigate it, try to figure out what went wrong so we can solve it and prepare for whatever next attack might come,” he says. “Right now an attack can happen any time … and we still don’t know what our vulnerabilities are or how to resolve them.”

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