Kenya’s Westgate attack: Unanswered questions one year on

Civilians who had been hiding inside during gun battles manage to flee  from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya Saturday, 21 September 2013
Source BBC

A year on from the assault by Islamist militants on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenyans still have questions about the four-day siege and its aftermath.

It was the worst attack on Kenyan soil since the 1998 US embassy bombing by al-Qaeda – leaving 67 people dead and more than 200 wounded.

The military, police and spy agency have been battling to save face over the handling of the rescue operation.

Here are five key issues that remain unresolved:

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1) Was the rescue bungled?

Kenyan troops taking position on 21 September 2013 inside the Westgate mall in Nairobi

Initially, the police and members of the public tried to repel the attack.

As hours went by, the government sent in the military.

Rivalry between the two forces started when a commander of the police elite squad was killed in friendly fire by the military.

The changeover angered the police and they left in protest as the army took control of the building.

A military commander involved in the operation, who spoke to the BBC on condition of anonymity, said that is when things started to go wrong.

“We entered the mall blindly with no guide, with no concept of anything. Command and control was not there,” he said. “The police felt they were undermined. The military thought the police didn’t want to give them enough information so everything went wrong.”

The Westgate attack in 60 seconds

Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku maintains the operation was handled well.

“I am happy with the way police responded. However, it was necessary for the military to bring protective gear and armoured carriers and their skill. As a country we are happy how they worked together.”

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2) Attackers – who were they and did they die?

Attackers inside the Westgate mall

Somalia’s al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, said it had attacked the mall because Kenya sent troops to Somalia to bolster the UN-backed government.

Kenya’s military spokesman named four of the gunmen as Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and Umayr.

“I confirm those are the names of the terrorists,” Major Emmanuel Chirchir tweeted at the time.

All four were said to have crossed over the border from Somalia before the attack.

It is thought the names given by the military may be noms de guerre as one of the gunmen was subsequently identified as Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow, a 23-year-old Norwegian citizen of Somali origin.


Who died?

A man reads a newspaper with portraits of Westgate mall victims on 19 September  2014
  • 62 civilians from 13 countries
  • Five security officers
  • Four attackers

Voices from the mall


Recovered remains of the alleged attackers are still undergoing forensic tests by the FBI.

Kenya’s chief pathologist Johannes Oduor, who was part of the team initially examining them, says he was unable to confirm if the bodies were those of the attackers.

“I am still waiting for the report,” he says.

Mr Ole Lenku says the report on forensic analysis samples may be able to answer these questions.

“Until we get it we can’t give any concrete information on their identities to establish their names and nationalities.”

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3) What happened to the inquiry?

A police officer tries to secure an area inside the Westgate Shopping Centre where gunmen went on a shooting spree in Nairobi, 21 September 2013

President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to form a commission of inquiry to investigate the attack and any failings by security agencies. But to date nothing has happened.

“We did promise, but parliament took up the process and did their best and came up with a report that actually necessitated a number of actions towards improving the country’s security,” Mr Ole Lenku says.

But no-one was sacked or held responsible as a result of the MPs’ report, released in March.


Recommendations of MPs’ report:

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya
  • Declare war on al-Shabab
  • Establish an inter-agency co-ordination centre for intelligence gathering
  • Review immigration service to stop fake ID papers being issued
  • Repeal 2006 refugee act as inadequate to deal with terrorism issues
  • Close refugee camps
  • Fast-track policy to organise central rapid response to disasters

Security analysts say a public inquiry into Westgate could have been embarrassing.

The parliamentary investigation was a way of protecting the military, which had been criticised following allegations that soldiers looted shops in Westgate, they say.