Mysteries linger over Westgate Mall attack

Kenyan government has failed to provide conclusive answers over what really happened in last year’s

To date, there has been no definitive official account of what transpired in the mall [AFP]

A year ago, Kenya experienced one of the worst terrorist atrocities ever perpetrated on its soil. The gunmen who attacked the Westgate mall on that awful Saturday morning may have killed at least 67 people and wounded many more but the real impact of their actions has been in challenging the country’s commitment to protect its people.

As local and international news media mark the anniversary, much of the coverage highlights the horror as well as the undeniable heroism and courage many displayed during the ordeal. That is all good and proper. But we must not gloss over the many failures witnessed then and since.

The national unity and camaraderie that was expressed at the start of the attack has long since abated. As Kenyans were lining up in record numbers to donate blood for the victims and to cement their commitment to the idea of Kenya, it was revealed that many of those who went into the mall and supposedly risked their lives to confront the terrorists, were actually there for less altruistic motives.

“We Are One” turned to “We Are Wondering” as the photos of looted shops and CCTV footage of soldiers from the Kenya Defence Forces carrying paper bags out of the destroyed mall were etched into national memory. The confused and contradictory statements made by government spokespersons throughout the four-day ordeal continue to reverberate.

No official account

In fact, to date, there has been no definitive official account of what transpired in the mall. The Commission of Inquiry promised by President Uhuru Kenyatta in the days following the attack failed to materialise. A report into the attack tabled by a Joint Parliamentary Committee was rejected by the National Assembly. The KDF was said to have prepared a report on its actions during the siege but this is yet to be published.

Conflicting press reports have added to the confusion about the details of the incident and mirrored the gaps and contradictions in the narrative provided by government officials. A recent documentary by British film-maker Dan Reed has cast doubt on the timeline of events presented in a special investigative report by KTN which now appears to have relied on heavily embellished accounts of the effectiveness of an elite Kenya police anti-terror unit.

The rub of all this is that on the first anniversary of the attacks, we are probably no closer to understanding what happened inside that mall. As a consequence, Kenya has not learnt any lessons that might be useful in preventing further attacks.

Initially, the government said there were up to 15 gunmen in the mall. The attack was said to have been planned over a long period in the Dadaab refugee camp and that ammunition and machine guns had been secretly stashed in the mall in preparation for the attack.

The Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Amina Mohammed, claimed that a British woman “who has done this many times before” was among the attackers, as were “two or three” Americans. All this was later contradicted.

The belt-fed machine gun claimed to be used by the terrorists has never been produced. According to the Daily Nation, “two of the attackers are believed to have flown from Somalia to Entebbe and travelled by road to Nairobi”, which contradicts government assertions that they came in via Dadaab.

In fact, all four attackers were in November reported to have trained in Somalia and in Nairobi, not in the refugee camp.

On the looting of the mall, the government first denied the reports, then accepted that some looting had taken place. A parliamentary committee first rubbished the reports of looting (after supposedly reviewing all available CCTV footage in record time).

“KDF soldiers and all the officers who participated in that operation, never, and I want to use the word, never, participated in looting,” declared Asman Kamama, chair of the parliamentary committee on National Security and Administration. Following public howls of outrage, and the airing of CCTV footage showing the extent of the looting and soldiers carrying shopping bags out of the mall, the MPs backtracked, saying they had not been given access to all the evidence.

On whether the terrorists were killed or escaped, there is still some confusion. The government, now having ascertained that there were only four attackers – despite Kenyatta’s earlier declaration that five terrorists been killed – claims all are dead and their remains have been handed over to the FBI for identification.

A January report in the Toronto Star, quoting an intelligence source, claimed that in the midst of the confused response “the attackers are believed to have fled”, adding that one of them “is being pursued in southern Somalia”. The Daily Nation has also speculated on a “theory that most of the attackers had Kenyan IDs and passports and could have simply disappeared into the crowds as the rescue got under way”.

The total number of casualties is also in doubt. A month after the attack, Kenya Red Cross Society secretary-general Abbas Gullet said 23 people were still reported as missing. At one point, according to the Society’s annual report, nearly 119 people were reported as missing. The rejected parliamentary committee quoted a “forensic report” that is yet to be made public saying 67 people died and over 200 were injured.

The rub of all this is that on the first anniversary of the attacks, we are probably no closer to understanding what happened inside that mall. As a consequence, Kenya has not learnt any lessons that might be useful in preventing further attacks.

When terrorists attacked the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Kenyan police were quick to misidentify it as an exploding light bulb, reminiscent of the burning mattresses that supposedly brought the Westgate mall down. To date, al-Shabab members seem to have no problem passing through the same airport. Just last week, the Daily Nation reported that three of them had flown out of Kenya only to be arrested in Germany. Perhaps the most outrageous of these were the Mpeketoni attacks in June which further exposed the unpreparedness of our security agencies to utilise the tragedies for political gain.

The truth is, the government has primarily sought to deal with terrorism as a public relations – not a security – problem. The dominant political elite has viewed security challenges not only as an opportunity to loot the national treasury through dubious contracting, but also to intimidate the opposition. It has been reluctant to address the root causes of disaffection and corruption, which groups like al-Shabab have exploited.

If Kenya is serious about protecting its population from terrorists, then we must dispense with the government spokesperson‘s meaningless declarations of victory in the wake of attacks. We must stop the scapegoating of Somalis. Rather, we should work to deconstruct the narratives that have kept us blind to our vulnerabilities and that have allowed us to pursue red herrings instead of addressing real historic and systemic failures.

To do this, we must begin with an honest account of how we got here. As Ndungu Gethenji put it, with reference to Westgate: “People need to know the exact lapses in the security system that possibly allowed this event to take place.”

Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.