Farmaajo: We Have No One Else to Blame
After a tense standoff, they had planned to storm the building and take control of a situation becoming more deadly by the hour. But the glass doors were blocked.
Only when the troops forced their way through did they realise that dead bodies, as many as 20, had been piled against the entry to slow the soldiers’ access.
Stumbling inside, they immediately came under sniper fire from high up on the second floor balcony. Two died. The rest were forced to pull back.
This was the moment, relayed to The Daily Telegraph by security staff and community workers helping the troops, that the professionalism and ferocity of those holding the shopping mall hostages began to become clear.
By last night, the gang – a unit of up to 15 Islamists, including men and women, and claimed to have been sent by al-Shabaab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda proxy – had held off the best of Kenya’s armed forces for more than 30 hours.
They were said to be in control of dozens of hostages, holed up in a lavatory block close to a supermarket on the ground floor. The Kenyan president refused to deny the suggestion that some of the captives had explosives strapped to them.
As darkness fell last night, there were signs that the Kenyan military, backed by Israeli agents, was attempting to bring the standoff to a conclusion.
The sound of a large explosion and brief volleys of gunfire interrupted hours of stalemate. Witnesses at the scene saw security personnel on the move and, as dusk closed, two helicopters swooped low over the shopping centre, which has several Israeli-owned outlets and is frequented by prosperous Kenyans and foreigners. Mobile phone signals also began to fail in the area.
“Godspeed to our guys in the Westgate building,” Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre said in a message on its Twitter site. “Major engagement ongoing.”
Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president said the chances of the siege ending well were “as good … as we can hope for”, before pledging to “punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully”.
A Twitter account, purported to be from al-Shabaab, gloated about the “Westgate Warriors” and described the terrorised Kenyans as “like rabbits caught in the headlights, still shell-shocked.”
As the Kenyan troops attempted to end the siege, the group tweeted: “Kenyan forces who’ve just attempted a roof landing must know that they are jeopardising the lives of all the hostages.”
The reason the Islamists targeted the Westgate shopping centre was clear from the moment they stormed inside brandishing AK-47s and grenades. Anyone who was not a Muslim, or could not prove that they were, was immediately targeted. Reports from separate floors of the building in the first hours of the assault told how the attackers, speaking rough Swahili and English, shouted at Muslims to identify themselves.
Many people came forward. They were ordered to speak in Arabic, or to recite a verse from the Koran, or to name the Prophet Mohammed’s mother. Those who passed this test were allowed to flee. Those that did not were executed, including children.
“People soon realised not to try to cheat,” said Charles Karani, an IT engineer who watched from beneath a 4x4 in the rooftop car park where he was hiding with his daughters aged eight and four.
Saadia Ahmed, a Kenyan radio presenter who was caught in the assault, said she saw people “say something in Arabic and the gunmen let them go”.
“A colleague of mine said he was Muslim and recited something in Arabic and they let him go as well,” she said. “I saw a lot of children and elderly people being shot dead. I don’t understand why you would shoot a five-year-old child.”
There had been no suggestion of the attack earlier on Saturday morning at the Westgate Mall, which was expecting 10,000 people to pass through its doors over the weekend.
On the terrace of the upmarket Art Caffe , shaded from the noonday sun beneath wide white umbrellas, Bushan Vidyarthi, a commercial printer, was sitting drinking a cappuccino with his brother and a supplier.
A Somali man in a smart suit walked past on the pavement below, his phone to his ear. For months there had been warnings that Westgate could be a target for Islamists. When will it happen, Mr Vidyarthi remembers thinking to himself.
Within 15 minutes, it happened. “There was a sudden very heavy burst of gunfire, and simultaneously three explosions, grenades I think, just below us on the pavement,” Mr Vidyarthi said.
“Everybody jumped to the ground. The gunmen walked along and then up the stairs. They just started spraying gunfire left and right. Bullets came through to the terrace, there was a European gentleman on the table next to us with his wife, and he was hit in the stomach.
“We were there on the ground, not moving, not putting up our heads, for 30 minutes. The whole time that man was in such terrible pain. We helped him stuff napkins into the wound. It was horrific.”
Three floors above Mr Vidyarthi, in the car park on the rear roof of the building, an Asian radio station was hosting the Junior Super Chef Competition, a cookery show for children.
Next to the yellow-and-blue bouncy castle and the trampolines, counters had been set up for 20 teams of three children each, aged eight to 16. A little before 12.30pm, the scene was of a typical sunny family day out.
Within half an hour, it would resemble “an abattoir”, in the words of one hardened security officer and former soldier who went later to try to help.
Errol Fernandes, a businessman, was sitting in the Westgate’s other smart café, Java House, on the mall’s top floor, with a view straight out to the car park.
“I just watched one kid turn, then I heard gunfire, so many shots, really loud, and the kid was gone, I hope he just fell down under the table but I don’t know,” he said. “There was no time to think. There was just gunfire, then these two guys walked in from the car park, they had guns, big guns, more than an AK. I just ran, back through the kitchen, back into the cold room there, and we slammed the door closed.”
Later they were able to flee, out to the roof, past the carnage and down a fire escape to safety. Further into the building, on the second floor, the two groups of attackers met, some coming up from the ground, some down from the roof.
Store managers dragged men, women and children into their shops and hurriedly pulled down flimsy metal shutters that looked like they would provide little protection from the heavy bullets of the attackers’ rifles. Some places were safer. The thick-doored vaults of the several banks with branches at Westgate were best. The four theatres at the multi-screen cinema were also a good option, with their lockable doors and darkness.
Downstairs in the Nakumatt supermarket, which was full of Saturday shoppers, was not a good place to be. Open-plan and with tall aisles stocked with imported foods, it was one of the first places that the gunmen moved into.
Rohini Bij, 37, a Briton, and her daughter Tanisha, 11, were on their way to the cookery event but hid in the stitching room in the supermarket’s upholstery section, jamming the door with tables, as gunfire rang out again and again outside. “All we could hear were people screaming, more grenades, tear gas bangs and the helicopters overhead,” she said. “And shooting, we heard a lot of shooting.
“I had put a lot of pressure on my daughter to go to the cookery competition and I kept apologising for bringing her. She took my hand and told me, I am just glad that I am here so that you have company. That gave me such strength.”
Peter Churchman, his wife and their young niece had been in the Art Caffe on the ground floor when the attack began. The first he knew of it was when a plate-glass window shattered. More gunshots followed and a loud blast. “I think it was a grenade, it made a lot of sound. We ran to the entrance.”
With people running in all directions, Mr Churchman, an executive at Standard Chartered Bank, was separated from his Filipina wife, Eva, for several hours.
Some inside the mall spent Saturday tweeting or texting friends on the outside. By nightfall, batteries were dead. They would have no way of knowing that hundreds of people were working through the night to prepare to help them whenever the siege finally ends.
By Mike Pflanz, Nairobi
I read your article on Foreign Policy with keen eyes and interest. While whining from public officials does not deserve response from any sensible citizen of the Republic of Somalia, I felt compelled to counter false narrative with more objective analysis.