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Questions remain on anniversary of Westgate attack

Carla de Souza, AFP / A woman holds a white rose during a memorial service marking the first anniversary of the Westgate attack.
Text by: Duncan WOODSIDE
5 min

One year after a branch of al Qaeda laid siege to a shopping mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, an astonishing number of crucial questions remain unanswered.


correspondent in Nairobi

What is known is that at least four armed men perpetrated an attack that began shortly after noon on Saturday September 21, when the up-market Westgate mall was heaving with weekend shoppers and families.

Men, women, and children were brutally mown down, but not entirely indiscriminately. Those able to prove that they were Muslims were spared and allowed to go free.

Ahmed Abdi Godane, the then-leader of al Shabaab – a Somali militant group that formally merged with al Qaeda in February 2012 – claimed responsibility for the attack. He justified the massacre on the grounds of Kenya’s invasion (and ongoing occupation) of southern Somalia, which began in October 2011.

“Take your troops out or prepare for a long-lasting war; blood, destruction and evacuation,” Godane warned at the time.

Scant details

But beyond al Shabaab’s claim of responsibility and the knowledge of at least four attackers, details on the massacre – and the response of Kenya’s security forces – remain limited.

Kenya’s Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku initially said that there were between 10 and 15 attackers, but CCTV footage only shows four. The results of an FBI forensic examination of four bodies, believed by Kenya’s military to be the gunmen, are yet to be disclosed. However, the mall’s rooftop car park collapsed and the fire have made it difficult to identify the remains. And although four men are facing jail for alleged complicity in the preparation and planning of the massacre, no direct perpetrators have been caught.

Therefore, speculation persists that some of the attackers may have escaped from the mall. All the more so since the CCTV footage of the four identified men – Hassan Abdi Mohamed Dhuhulow, a Norwegian national of Somali origin, and Somali nationals Mohamed Abdi Nur Said, Ahmed Hassan Abukar and Yahye Osman Ahmed – reportedly ends when one of them tampered with a security camera in the basement of the mall on day two of the siege.

Blunders on the side of the security forces

The security forces’ handling of the four-day crisis has also been widely faulted. Armed civilians stepped in to confront the militants during the early stages of the massacre, including Abdul Haji, a businessman. “A lot of people would think that the response at that time was poor … the fact that Kenya had not prepared to respond to such a situation,” he pointed out to FRANCE 24.

But are the security forces now better prepared for an al-Shabaab attack?

One of the most damaging allegations to emerge on this tragic day was that late-arriving military units engaged in sustained ‘friendly fire’ with elite police officers already on the scene at Westgate, leading to the death of a commanding officer, the police’s withdrawal from the building, and a power vacuum which gave the militants the time and space they needed to regroup.

Police spokesman Masoud Mwinyi ambiguously described this reported episode as “speculative” when questioned by FRANCE 24. But he did acknowledge that there were “lessons” to be learnt from the Westgate tragedy, including “overlaps and duplicity of functions,” which were being addressed by a policy review.

That policy review is still ongoing, according to Mwinyi, indicating that command and control responsibilities are not yet set in stone and that another big attack could see yet another inter-agency turf war.

One year on, security on alert

A significant blow was dealt to al Shabaab when Godane was killed in a US airstrike in Somalia earlier this month, but the group has moved quickly to replace him – appointing an equally hard-line lieutenant, Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah – and vowing to avenge his death. This has put the security forces in Kenya and Uganda, which both contribute thousands of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia, on even higher alert.

Godane commanded huge loyalty and oversaw the evolution of al Shabaab from a largely urban fighting force to one specialising in targeted suicide attacks. Kenya’s police chief David Kimaiyo this weekend warned security personnel and citizens to be “extra vigilant” against the possibility of a fresh attack by the group, while Uganda’s government last week claimed to have foiled an al Shabaab plot, arresting 19 people and allegedly recovering ‘substantial’ explosives and suicide vests.

Since Kenya invaded Somalia three years ago, radical preachers have increasingly been able to rally young Muslim men to the cause, framing the conflict across the border as one orchestrated by Christian invaders against Islamic lands.

Evidence of extreme radicalisation is not hard to find. As witnessed by FRANCE 24 outside the Masjid Shuhadaa mosque – or Martyrs’ mosque, so-called because of a string of alleged extra-judicial murders of clerics – in Mombasa in early April, the public address system relayed a call for the faithful to prepare to slaughter non-believing neighbours.

An end to inter-communal tensions, radicalisation and the threat of further large-scale attacks by al Shabaab beyond Somalia’s borders appears remote, at least for now. Writing in a Sunday newspaper, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta yesterday vowed to continue to take the fight to the militants on Somali soil until East Africa and the Horn of Africa “enjoy peace and stability.”

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