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Kenya's shambolic response to Westgate siege

Footage seen a month after the deadly mall siege suggests al-Shabab achieved a lot more than what it had aimed for.
Last modified: 21 Oct 2013 21:09

It is hard to imagine al-Shabab doing anything other than celebrating their attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall as an unqualified success.

Initially at least, the armed Somali group's publicly-stated aim was to punish Kenya for sending troops into Somalia two years ago. It wanted to make Kenyans feel the pain and the shock of military action, and in that they succeeded spectacularly.

It now seems likely that they also managed to drag the siege out far longer than they could have hoped for. Security camera footage shows just four al-Shabaab gunmen armed only with AK-47 rifles and moving through the mall during the first hours of the attack on the afternoon of Saturday September 21st. They are shooting and killing at random, only occasionally firing at security services trying to contain them.

Later on that evening, the pictures show the men relatively relaxed, praying in a loading area of the Nakumatt Supermarket, at times with their weapons by their sides. Although it is possible that there were other attackers working in parts of the complex that the cameras couldn't see, the pictures suggest that a small, lightly armed group was responsible for most, if not all of the bloodshed. They also managed to hold off the most elite Kenyan army and police units for almost four days.

It isn't even clear if the men died in the gun battle, or somehow managed to slip out unnoticed as many people are starting to believe.

But either way, it is hard to imagine that al-Shabab anticipated and planned for an operation that would last as long as it did.

Friendly fire

It is also hard to imagine that the attackers expected the well-meaning but tragically shambolic response from the security services. In the hours after the shooting began, local police and civilians armed only with pistols heroically charged in to try to contain the gunmen. Then, elite General Services Unit officers replaced them, followed by the army. The two official security service forces encountered one another and exchanged fire. It isn't clear if it was a case of mistaken identity, or a brief but angry battle over who was to take charge of the operation, but one GSU officer was killed.

The incident has exposed a lack of co-ordination between the security services; and perhaps more troubling, a lack of any kind of serious planning for an attack that many had anticipated in the wake of the original military invasion of Somalia.

And then there is the government's handling of the crisis.

In the days immediately following the start of the attack, there was a stream of inconsistent and contradictory information. The man appointed as the government’s spokesman, interior minister Joseph Ole Lenku, first said between 10 and 15 gunmen were involved. The government later revised that number down to “between four and six”. Ole Lenku spoke of hostages, though the security camera pictures suggest that the attackers were more interested in killing and not at all bothered about taking anyone captive.

Looting in the mall

And then there were the allegations of looting by the military at atime when they had complete control of the building. The two men who led committees investigating the charges last week categorically said they had no evidence that the troops stole anything. A day later, CCTV pictures emerged appearing to show soldiers leaving the Nakumatt Supermarket carrying shopping bags. It isn’t clear what was in the bags, but most Kenyans believe that it was evidence of looting in a devastating betrayal of trust by the men charged with protecting the nation.

In the days immediately following the bloodshed, the government and the military emerged as bruised heroes. At the time, most Kenyans rallied behind them, believing that at a time of crisis, solidarity is more important than criticism. They also wanted heroes to be proud of; they wanted to praise police and soldiers who stood up to the attackers with courage and honour.

One month on, that narrative seems to have crumbled, and so much good will has gone with it.

The government seems to have lost so much credibility that few people have any confidence in its ability to either get to the bottom of what really took place at Westgate, or be honest about its handling of the crisis.

And al-Shabab must be celebrating.