Home WESTGATE: The Incisive and Factual Report of Events From Day One

WESTGATE: The Incisive and Factual Report of Events From Day One


The siege begins
Shooting continues
Massive explosion
Operation is over
Anger grows

At 12.30pm on Saturday 21 September, Frank Musungu, a sergeant major in the Kenyan navy, was sitting out on the balcony of the Artcaffe in Nairobi’s Westgate mall, next to its main pedestrian entrance. Military personnel had been advised against visiting the Kenyan capital’s high-profile shopping malls, in case they were targeted by terrorists. He went anyway but took his handgun as a precaution. Like many in the country’s poorly paid armed services he had hopes of a job at the nearby UN headquarters and was meeting a friend in the diplomatic police to look over his CV. Their discussion was abruptly interrupted by rapid bursts of automatic fire only a few metres away.
Musungu looked down and saw four men striding towards the entrance to the mall, firing at the cars around them as they went. Before he could stand up the first grenade detonated. About 150 metres away at the vehicle entrance a second group of attackers had driven their car through one of the barriers, scattering the unarmed security guards. They jumped out of the vehicle and began firing and throwing grenades at passers-by.
Footage filmed by a shopper in the Westgate mall as gunshots are heard
As Musungu and the policeman took cover, a bullet ripped through a woman dressed in black jeans and a T-shirt standing next to them. She had tried to run away and been shot through the back.
The woman in black was one of the first victims of a co-ordinated slaughter that had been planned for months; a small band of jihadi fighters, perhaps as few as eight, killed at least 67 people in what became an 80-hour siege.
Building on detailed interviews with survivors, their relatives and members of the security forces, as well as insights from officials involved in the operation, it is now possible to give the most complete account so far of what happened at Westgate.
The picture that emerges is of a woefully disorganised response from authorities, where infighting and a clash of egos left a handful of Kenyan officers, an off-duty British soldier and an Israeli security agent, backed by Kenyan- Indian vigilantes, to fight heavily armed militants in a bid to rescue hundreds of shoppers. A friendly-fire killing in the early hours of the siege led to the withdrawal of security services, allowing the attackers to regroup, rearm from a weapons cache inside the mall, and hunt down desperate people hiding inside. Ruhila Adatia-Sood
Five minutes after the assault began in the rooftop car park at the rear of Westgate, radio DJ Sadia Ahmed was getting ready to judge a children’s cooking competition. When she heard the first blast she thought it was a gas cylinder. Two more blasts followed and people started to run from the food court through the second floor entrance/exit.
They ran straight into the firing line of two militants who came up the vehicle ramp into the parking area. As Ahmed ran for cover, her fellow judge and radio presenter Ruhila Adatia-Sood, left, was shot dead. She was six months pregnant.

Karani Nyamu, a software engineer who was shopping with his two daughters, emerged into the gunmen’s line of fire, but miraculously survived. As he ran towards his car he saw two men throwing grenades “like maize to chickens” and shooting indiscriminately. After 20 minutes, with bodies everywhere, they went inside the mall.
Inside the shopping centre after the start of the siege.


Photograph: Kabir Dhanji/EPA

Meanwhile, in a section of the basement car park underneath the mall, the attackers set up what an intelligence source described as a “command and control centre” in an unidentified vehicle. The vehicle is thought to have been driven to the car park some time in advance of the attack.
One or more of the militants is believed to have been in mobile phone contact with the others from here, while intelligence intercepts suggest that some of the Twitter statements that al-Shabaab started to release later in the day originated from here. The death of Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor , who was shot in his car as he was preparing to leave, confirms the presence of armed gunmen in the basement from the beginning of the assault.

Joshua Hakim, an accounts clerk, had stopped at the mall on his way to a rugby match. He left his three American friends at the second-floor Java coffee shop and headed to the giant Nakumatt supermarket that took up a third of Westgate’s floor space to buy some beer. He was on the interior balcony of the first floor when he heard shots from below. As he took cover on the floor under a table, repeating the mantra “Jesus is lord”, he heard shots from above as well. Then two armed men appeared on his level.
After firing several rounds they called out in English:
“Muslims, get out of here!”
Summoning his courage, Hakim approached one of the men, who was wielding an assault rifle in each hand.
Hakim believes they were M-16s. Hakim showed the man his voter card, holding a thumb over his Christian name.
The gunman, who was wearing a black bandana embellished with Arabic script, shouted at him to leave. An older man, of Indian origin, approached and was asked to name the mother of the prophet. When he hesitated, he was shot. Hakim dived to the floor again and lay there watching a woman remove her niqab. She tore it into strips and, in one of many small instances of bravery during the siege, handed it to the women around her to wear as Islamic-style headscarves.

Musungu had run out through the vehicle exit from the basement on the far side of Westgate from the attackers.
He found armed guards from a bank’s private security firm, who had abandoned an armoured car used for money collections, cowering in a corner. He shouted at them:
“Why don’t you return fire?”

Officers from Nairobi police’s flying squad arrived at the scene but initially refused to enter. Meanwhile, armed volunteers from a neighbourhood watch scheme run by Kenyan-Indians in the nearby district of Parklands arrived.
Together with at least two uniformed police, Musungu and his colleague, they numbered roughly 30 and split into two groups. One team was detailed to take the ground floor, the other, led by Kenya Red Cross secretary-general Abbas Gullet, climbed the ramp to the roof-top parking.
Other armed “samaritans” including Somali-Kenyan Abdul Hajji, the son of a former defence minister,
Mohamed Yussuf Hajji, who had been texting his brother who was trapped inside, reached the scene soon afterwards.
Abdul Hajji rescues a youg girl, later paying tribute to her bravery.


Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The ground floor team said they saw at least two gunmen who were “walking not running”, picking their targets.
Terrified shoppers ran into the cavernous supermarket pursued by the attackers who exchanged fire with Musungu’s irregular band. His friend from the diplomatic police was hit in the thigh and Musungu helped him outside. Several people were injured and Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic , who had entered the mall after the attacks began, helped to get them outside.
In some places the gunmen stopped to separate Muslims from non-Muslims. In one case, shocked by the audacity of four-year-old British boy Elliot Prior, who scolded a gunman for shooting and injuring his mother , the militant showed mercy and spared his life. In others cases, such as at the Urban Gourmet Burger restaurant – where Australian-Briton Ross Langdon and his Dutch partner Elif Yavuz died– people were slaughtered en masse.
On the roof, a British man with close-cropped hair and a background in the SAS ushered the survivors through a side entrance to the third floor Java Coffee shop, from where a fire escape led to the ground floor and safety.
The off-duty SAS soldier, his face blurred for security reasons, helps two women.

Photograph: Jennifer Huxta/

At the same time, a shaven-headed man who two witnesses said was Israeli had reached Hakim and others on the second floor. The man asked Hakim if he knew how to use a weapon and offered him a handgun. “I’d never fired a gun, so I had to say no,” he said. Along with at least a dozen others, the clerk was led up one floor and out through the fire escape.

Almost an hour after the assault had begun, authorities were still trying to work out what was going on. A spokesman for the Kenyan military, Major

E K Chirchir,
Anyone on twitter who is at Westgate and in
position to update?
— Major E K Chirchir (@MajorEChirchir)

September 21, 2013
Witnesses on the car park roof saw at least two men, who they believe to have been attackers, changing into casual clothes near the tent where the cooking competition was judged. At this point there was no police cordon and no screening process for survivors coming out of the mall.
Intelligence officials believe that at least two attackers were able to escape in the confusion.

Three-and-a-half hours after the first shots were fired, Kenya’s equivalent of a Swat team, the police reconnaissance unit known as the “recce group”, arrived at the mall. Wearing black body armour and helmets, armed with machine guns and trained for hostage and siege situations, they were the best-equipped to deal with the attackers, and were able to pin them down inside Nakumatt.
The first army units also arrived, including infantry from the Embakasi base outside Nairobi and US-trained Kenyan rangers from their base in the Rift Valley. Behind the scenes a power struggle was emerging between the police chief David Kimaiyo and the army head, Julius Karangi, over whose forces would take the lead. First to move in was the recce group, followed shortly afterwards by Kenyan army (KDF) soldiers.
Police and security workers search for the attackers as distressed and injured shoppers are rescued from inside

Now with substantial numbers of military or paramilitary personnel on site, the authorities had not yet established a clear command and control structure. With no radio communications between army and police units, KDF soldiers opened fire on what they thought was an armed suspect – but who was in fact one of the commanders of the recce group. The man died, and three police officers and one soldier were wounded in the exchange. After this all units were pulled out of the mall and for the next two hours the operation came to a standstill as heated arguments raged that went all the way to the State House and the office of Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president.
“There was a lot of politics going on,” said one soldier close to the makeshift command centre. As night fell and no nightvision equipment was available, it was decided that the police chief, Kimaiyo, would be in overall charge of the operation.
An armed police officer takes cover during a bout of gunfire outside the Westgate mall.

Photograph: Ben

Sunday 22 September

Under the command of the police chief, a joint unit comprised of police and army made a first attempt to enter and take control of the ground floor of Nakumatt, where they believed the bulk of the militants were. They came under fire from a sniper on one of the upper floors and were forced to withdraw after at least two of their men were shot, one of them fatally. “They have an arsenal in there,” said one of the soldiers involved in the operation.
Hand-drawn map of the Westgate shopping mall, sketched by a soldier attending the scene.

Photograph: Daniel

It was a Sunday morning in Nairobi, and by now hundreds of onlookers had gathered on the high ground overlooking the Westgate mall. The police also had to deal with a growing media presence as news crews set up live points in the roadside furniture market looking down Peponi Road towards the shopping centre. Regular bursts of gunfire punctuated the morning, with one official saying that the operations were aimed at depleting the militants’ ammunition store.

The Kenyan police and interior ministry announced 59 people had died and 175 more were injured. Officials estimated the number of attackers to be as many as 15, but no fewer than 10.

Relatives of the missing people gathered at the Oshwal Centre – a community centre and Hindu temple about 200 metres from Westgate. Volunteers brought food and medical supplies, and people camped overnight in the basement car park. Johnson Mungai, a young pilot whose two sisters and grandfather were still inside, said he had given his phone to police so that they could contact his relatives.
Johnson Mungai.

Photograph: Erik Esbjornsson

They received a text message in the morning from his grandfather who was hiding in the Planet Yogurt shop, that read: “How far have you got?” He doesn’t know if there was any further communication because the police ran down his battery and no one had a charger. The 23- year-old became increasingly angry with the way the authorities handled the crisis. “The government is letting the people down. The Kenyan police is saying they don’t need help and should be allowed to do their work. What work have they done?”

“White” military men, working in teams of three, were seen to enter the building carrying specialist rifles. They were later identified as Israeli commandos. The Kenyan recce group re-entered the mall, with some officers carrying rocket propelled grenade launchers. Over the next two hours two loud explosions were heard from inside.

The KDF Twitter account announced that the siege was nearly over. The last of Joshua Hakim’s three American friends inside the building – who asked not to be named –emerged. He had been hiding in the cold storage room of one of the restaurants on the second floor food court.
Most of the hostages have been rescued and
security forces have taken control of most parts of the building — Kenya Defence Forces (@kdfinfo) September
22, 2013

Monday 23 September
The KDF’s assurances that the siege was reaching a conclusion were shattered by a huge blast that shook the entire Westlands district, followed by bursts of gunfire.
Overnight, Kimaiyo had been forced to cede control of the operation to Julius Karangi, who had argued for a more aggressive approach throughout the crisis. By now a command centre had been set up in the Ukay shopping centre opposite the vehicle entrance to Westgate. A British team was present in the room, including officers from the Metropolitan police’s anti-terror unit along with Israeli officials.
Terrified shoppers flee the attack.

Photo: Kabir Dhanji

Four more large blasts – the loudest during the siege – were heard from inside Westgate and a column of black smoke climbed into the sky. The fire was still smouldering a week later. Helicopters that had been hovering just over the roof the previous day began to circle higher overhead.
Kenya’s interior minister, Joseph Ole Lenku, says most hostages have been evacuated

Inside the situation room at the State House, about two miles from the scene at Westgate, there was despair as a series of triumphalist and bizarre messages poured onto Twitter from senior officials – including this one from Kimaiyo, which has since been deleted:
#win “@IGkimaiyo : Taken control of all the floors. We’re not here to feed the attackers with pastries but to finish and punish them. IG”
— Kamakil (@Kamakil) September 23, 2013
A generation gap between the president’s mainly US-educated, younger staffers and the senior staff in the army and police emerged. “We had our heads in our hands when we saw the Kimaiyo tweet,” said a Kenyatta staffer.
“What was he thinking?”
A Kenyan TV presenter stands in front of smoke rising from Westgate mall.

Photograph: Carl De Souza/AFP/
Getty Images

Tuesday 24 September
The first shaky amateur footage of the rear of the shopping centre emerged, showing a vast crater in the rear third of the building. The rooftop car park area where much of the worst of the carnage took place had collapsed into the floors below. Officials first claimed that the militants had set off explosives and set fire to mattresses inside Nakumatt supermarket.
Vehicles in the rubble after a string of explosions during the stand-off between Kenyan security forces and gunmen.

Photograph: Handout/Reuters
That explanation was changed to say that a wire-guided anti-tank shell, an RPG-7, had been fired at one of the support pillars in an attempt to distract a sniper during an operation to rescue survivors from the mall. After the attack several Kenyan army soldiers corroborated this version of events. But a munitions expert cast doubt on it, saying that a weapon of this kind, capable of dislodging the central pillar of the building, would have seriously injured anyone standing up to 20 metres behind it, as well as wounding the person discharging it in a confined space.
The remains of the children’s cooking competition in the upper car park, next to the hole created when the floor collapsed.

Photograph: Rukmini Callimachi/AP)
Moreover, a private security contractor familiar with the operation said that directional explosives used in demolition jobs had likely been deployed to blast a square hole in the roof: “They decided that they were taking too many casualties and would drop the roof on them. There is no way that was an anti-tank munition,” he said.

Explosions and gunfire continued inside Westgate all day and was said to be coming from troops providing cover while bomb disposal teams removed booby traps. A soldier described the difficulty of the operation inside. “Every panel of glass is broken, there is debris everywhere. We found people alive and we found people dead. We don’t know what’s under the debris. We don’t know what’s behind closed doors.”
Briton Anita Sanghani says she assumed the invaders were robbers and locked herself in a shop for six hours

President Kenyatta declared “the operation is now over” in a live televised address. “The agents of terror, themselves craven wretches and lowly cowards, had the agenda of perpetrating grievous mayhem in our country, senselessly killing, maiming and traumatising harmless, innocent people,” he said.
“The criminals found us unafraid, as we ever shall be. We cannot be conquered. Our confrontation with the terrorists at Westgate mall left 240 casualties.” He concluded that 61 civilians died in the attack and that six security officers had died. A fuller account of what had happened and what had become of the reported hostages –said by Kenyan officials the previous day to number 30 –was expected to follow.
Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta says the nation has experienced ‘immense’ losses and praised the solidarity of Kenyans in response to the attack

Wednesday 25 September
Shopkeepers and store owners returned to find their properties looted. A clothes-shop owner said even his mannequins had been stripped: “They’ve broken everything. All my money is lost over there. All the cash is lost. Everything is shattered over there, laptops gone, everything.”
A day later, footage emerged of the inside of Artcaffe showing scores of empty beer and spirit bottles littering the tables and lining the bar, where only Kenyan security forces had any access during the siege.
The owners of the second floor Millionaire’s Casino – who had emptied the safe while the siege was still officially underway – returned four days later to discover that while the premises were under government control someone had attempted to shoot their way into the safe.
Kenya’s celebrated satirical cartoonist Gado captured the mood when he portrayed Kenyan soldiers – who had been feted for their bravery days before – running away from the ruined shopping centre carrying looted goods and drinking beers.

After days of conflicting reports there was no longer any confidence in the authorities when they announced that the figure of 60 people missing had fallen to 39.
Two weeks later it remains unclear whether the militants ever held hostages in the conventional sense. Survivors who emerged from Westgate had been hiding from the attackers, not being held. There have been unconfirmed reports that some were tortured or mutilated during the siege, but doctors said it remains possible that the physical injuries could have been sustained by grenade fragments.
Despite the number of people missing, only three bodies have officially been recovered from the rubble of the mall.
Two of those belonged to Kenyan soldiers whose remains were so badly mutilated that families had to give DNA samples to identify them.
The Kenyan government continues to insist that five attackers were killed by its security forces, but has admitted that none of their bodies has been conclusively identified so far. Forensics teams, including agents from the FBI, have found remains they believe may have belonged to at least one of the attackers, but the person has not been named.
On 1 October, facing mounting criticism of his administration’s handling of the Westgate attack, Kenyatta promised an official inquiry

Text and images acquired from the Guardian

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