By Mwaura Samora
News came through the radio: heavily armed gangsters have attacked a high-end mall in the Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi.
Since I don’t usually work on Saturdays, I got this information while at home and dismissed it casually. After all, violent robberies are not an oddity in the city. But I soon realized this particular incident was more than a normal heist when one of the local television stations abruptly interrupted its live broadcast of Safaricom Sevens, a hugely popular international rugby tournament, to televise the attack.
Soon all the major channels were beaming live video of frightened, terrified, and bloodied shoppers running from the Westgate Mall complex under the guide of security guards and armed police. Some of those fleeing were carrying babies; others were crouching to avoid being hit by bullets. Westgate is a high-end mall frequented by affluent Kenyans, diplomats, expatriates, and other foreigners. Thus, there were many Europeans and Asians among those running for their dear lives. Simply stated, there was pandemonium everywhere.
Special policemen from the General Service Unit (GSU) were soon arriving at the scene armed with weapons rarely carried by regular patrolmen. Realizing that broadcasting the police activity live could jeopardize the operation, since the terrorists might be watching on screens inside the mall or through their outside contacts, media officials began instructing their cameramen to avoid directing their lenses to police activities.
By 2 pm, about three hours after the attack at the mall began, special units from the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) began arriving in armored cars, taking over control from the regular and special police teams that had been dealing with the situation. (News reports now indicate that there were supremacy scuffles during this transition of leadership that led to the fatal shooting of a GSU commander, allegedly by a KDF official.)
High ranking government officials led by the Inspector General of Police (who caused a moment of anxiety when, donning protective gear and grabbing an AK-47 rifle, he attempted to join the action only to be restrained by his juniors) and Internal Security Cabinet Secretary Julius ole Lenku visited the scene but did not talk to journalists. By that time, international channels had broken the news to the world that hostages had been taken inside an Israeli-owned mall by terrorists suspected to be members of the Somali militant group Al-Shabab.
Users on Kenyan social networks, some of the most active in Africa, were having a field day with the news, speculating and spinning myriad conspiracy theories about the nature of the attack. The government, through its own social network pages, responded swiftly, warning people against posting alarming messages and asking them to instead wait for official communications.
It wasn’t until an hour before midnight of the first day that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the nation to officially inform the world that terrorists had hit the country where it mattered most; a shopping complex frequented by affluent locals and foreigners. He also mentioned that he had lost close relatives in the attack and gave the official number of dead as 39.
By that time the news vans had been pushed more than 300 meters away from the mall complex and the journalists on location could only speculate what was transpiring inside, as police and military vehicles went in and out of ground zero, and gunshots and explosions continued to be heard.
With no major developments, news stations resorted to inviting security experts to discuss the situation and the general state of security in the country. There was speculation over whether Al-Shabab, assumed to have been crushed by the KDF in Operation Linda Nchi two years ago, was capable of carrying out such a daring attack or whether this was the work Al-Qaeda or a similar international terrorist group.
By this time an emergency center had been established by the Red Cross in the nearby Oshwal Religious Center, where volunteers were offering first aid and helping relatives locate their loved ones, and where local and internationals news crews were being housed.
The number of fatalities was rising. The Red Cross was saying more than 50 people were dead or missing. Ironically, the tragic events seemed to be uniting the country, recently divided by the March General Election. Kenyan people were speaking out with one voice against the violence. The president had visited hospitalized victims in the company of his archrival Raila Odinga. They were to issue a joint address to the nation and for the first time opposition alliance had pledged to work with the government to help the victims and help improve security. The media started WeAreOne, a Kenyan solidarity campaign that was trending online. A public appeal by the Red Cross for blood donation for the victims was so overwhelming that in the donation centers in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, and other urban areas, staffers were struggling to keep pace with the thousands of people that had turned up. The blood-drives collected more than 6000 units of blood by the time they finished, the biggest single donation of blood in the country’s history.
“By standing in long lines all over the city to give blood, donating money through our mobile devices, buying and distributing food, blankets and beverages to the affected, we have ashamed and defeated our attackers,” the President said. “Let us continue to wage a relentless moral war as our forces conduct the physical battle”.
Kenyan leaders pleaded with the Western countries not to issue travel advisories to their citizens since this would hurt the country’s economy. However, Britain, the United States, and Australia have already warned their citizens against traveling to Kenya.
At this point there were growing mummers about how such a detailed and well-coordinated attack could have happened without the knowledge of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). This whispering was to change when leaked intelligence reports indicated that the NIS had briefed major security services about an imminent terror attack as far back as April 2011.
The third day witnessed the most action, as videos of gunshots and military personnel with guns at the ready played across television screens around the world. Clouds of jet-black smoke were seen billowing from the mall’s basement parking lot, which Secretary Lenku claimed was from a fire started by terrorists using mattresses.
The bloody fiasco came to an end on the fourth day when the KDF reportedly used a bazooka against the remaining terrorists who were holed up in a supermarket’s strong room.
The final presidential address put the number of dead at 67 civilians, including several foreigners and six soldiers. According to the Red Cross, 61 people were still missing and suspected to be buried in the rubble of the building whose inner walls collapsed after the bazooka explosions.
On Monday, two bodies of KDF personnel were recovered from the ruined building. Officials are expecting to uncover more bodies in the coming days, as the wreckage is cleared. For now, the building and its surroundings remain a highly guarded area.
And while the wreckage may soon be cleared, the emotional impact will undoubtedly remain. Kenyans will be unable to resume their weekend coffee dates without glancing over their shoulders.
Mwaura Samora is a Nairobi-based journalist and media consultant. He writes for the Kenyan weekly, The Nairobian. His most recent article: Kenya and the Somali Question appeard in the Fall 2013 issue of World Policy Journal.