Westgate Revisted

It’s been six months since the Westgate Mall in Nairobi was attacked by four gunmen affiliated with Al Shabaab. We still have as many questions as we had when the attack happened. The government’s handling of the matter does little to help.

From the get go it was clear that we, as a country, are ill-equipped and completely unprepared for such attacks. Initially there was a lot of misinformation both from the government and the media. The government claimed that there were about 15 gunmen in the mall. It turns out there were only four. The siege lasted four days. In those days, the Kenyan forces oscillated between cornering the gunmen and not cornering them. Senior security officials tweeted that they had control of all the floors in the mall. However, the operation was only officially declared over more than 30 hours later. Post-attack reports shed light on the infighting that was going on between the police and the army. There was no clear chain of command, a lack of communication and ego clashes between the two groups. This level of disorganization could only have worsened the situation. Here is one of the more comprehensive day by day accounts of the attack.

A more recent news article based on interviews with some Al Shabaab members shows that the attack had been carefully planned for three years. One of the members had this to say, “One thing that the media does not tell is some of the weapons had to be sneaked inside Westgate before the attack. Everyone has to be searched by security. There was a connection that helped get the weapons in.” He added that the reason the attack was so successful and lasted so long is that other members of al Shabaab were already positioned inside, having infiltrated the Westgate as vendors, bribing police and mall security to look the other way. He further claimed that bribes were paid to both private security guards at the mall and Kenyan police — “no less than 100,000” Kenyan shillings (about $1,156) all together — to get the weapons through.

People, security forces at that, were bribed to look the other way. Bribed to collaborate with Al Shabaab. Bribed to get the weapons through. Makes you wonder what they were thinking. Did they imagine the mall was simply being used as a weapons storage facility? Did it not occur to them that something more sinister was being planned? Did they simply not care? Were they just desperate for money? We know how our security forces are severely underpaid. Bribes are usually a side income generating hustle for a good number of them. Whatever their logic and reasoning was it is scary and disturbing. Where else are they going to accept a bribe and look the other way? Which other terror group are they going to work with?

Perhaps this helps explain the level of looting by Kenyan security forces that took place in Westgate Mall during the siege. This footage shows empty alcohol bottles on tables and the bar at Artcaffe, one of the restaurants in the mall. According to reports, the only people who had access to it were security forces. So, as Kenyans were anxiously waiting both inside and outside the mall, the security forces were sampling beer and liquor? Clearly they had time to kick back and relax. Why then did it take them four days to end the operation? Why didn’t they arrest the four gunmen? Shopkeepers and store owners reported that laptops and money had been taken from their properties. Of course the security forces took the deny, deny, deny approach. However, just recently, a police officer was charged with possession of goods suspected to be stolen from victims of the Westgate Mall attack. Read more here.

An investigative piece by a Kenyan journalist showed members of the Kenyan army walking out of a supermarket with healthy shopping bags. In other scenes they are seen rummaging through drawers in stores. After being exposed, they claimed that the shopping bags contained water. Really!? After many a Kenyans had been continuously donating water and other beverages to be given to the security forces as they carried out the operation? People came out in their numbers to give and support them. They were really trying to tell us that it wasn’t enough and they had to get more from the supermarket? If that was the case why didn’t they send two or three of their members to ferry the water in a shopping cart to the rest of them? Wouldn’t that have been easier than many of them going to do the same thing? Hmmm…they really must think we are some kind of dumb. Oh and they were rummaging through drawers looking for hidden threats, apparently. Huh? That’s how people look for threats? OK…yeah…sure.

The government promised an official inquiry into the handling of the attack. Not holding my breath for this one. We all know how official inquiries work in Kenya. Investigations will be conducted, people will shed light on happenings, a report will be written and we will be given the highly sanitized version. Finally, nothing will happen…well…the wrongdoers will probably be rewarded. Just look at Goldenberg and Pattni.

One would hope that our security forces would have learnt from the Westgate attack. But that hope dwindles when you see such – “Kenyan police failed to realise that a car that they impounded from a Somali man and stored outside their anti-terror unit offices for a week was packed full of explosives already attached to a Nokia detonator.” …sigh…no comment.

Of all the questions many of us still have the key one is…where are the missing people? What happened to them? Authorities had initially said 61 people were missing and then revised the number to 39. Is there a search operation for them?

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