Did Kenyan soldiers have their way at Westgate?

Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Sept. 30, 2013.
James Quest

NAIROBI, Kenya — For more than three days a well-armed and trained squad of up to 15 terrorist gunmen kept Kenyan security at bay during a siege that followed the surprise attack on Westgate shopping mall during a busy Saturday lunch hour.

The Nairobi mall’s multiple levels, numerous shops, offices, corridors, ventilation shafts and fire exits made finding and eliminating the attackers no easy task. Cold-blooded, the terrorists executed children as well as women and men during the siege. At least 61 civilians were killed.

Under pressure from Kenya’s army and police the terrorists set a fire as a distraction, which burned for hours and eventually caused part of the building to collapse, crushing the gunmen. Thankfully there were few, if any, civilian hostages left in the mall at the time.

That’s the official version of what happened at Westgate. Here’s the other one:

Repeated intelligence warnings were overlooked in the weeks and months ahead of an attack by an unknown number of terrorists, perhaps as few as four, who stormed a Nairobi shopping mall during a busy Saturday lunch hour.

For hours there was no official security response, leaving off-duty cops to team up with reservists and vigilantes to rescue people. An elite police unit eventually cornered the gunmen but pulled back when Kenyan soldiers mistakenly shot the unit’s commander allowing the terrorists to disperse. Cold-blooded, the terrorists executed children as well as women and men during the siege. At least 61 civilians were killed.

While occupying the mall Kenyan soldiers looted shops and emptied bars of their beer. To end the siege the army fired rockets at the building’s supports causing part of the mall to collapse. Thirty-nine people are still missing and may be buried beneath the rubble. No terrorists have so far been identified and they may even have escaped through a wide tunnel leading out of the mall.

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The only thing both versions agree on is that horrors were perpetrated, innocents died and many more were left shocked and bereaved.

The two opposing narratives – a difficult job in difficult circumstances vs. appalling ineptitude and callous avarice – exist at either end of a spectrum of uncertainty that has filled the information void surrounding events at Westgate more than a week after the siege ended.

Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku has repeatedly said there were almost no hostages left inside the building when it collapsed, an assertion challenged by a Red Cross tally of those still missing.

A fire that began Sept. 23 was an attempt by the terrorists to “distract our activities,” said Kenya’s defense chief, Gen. Julius Karangi, at the time. “The building is solid,” he added. Then a large chunk of the mall collapsed.

The thick plume of dark smoke that billowed out of the mall was preceded by a series of large explosions, far larger than the sporadic gunfire and bangs that punctuated the days of the siege. Lenku said the fire was started by terrorists burning mattresses in the downstairs supermarket, but in the days since soldiers have told reporters that they were ordered to fire rockets to collapse the mall.

The government has said there were 10-15 attackers and insists five of them were killed, yet no one has seen the bodies — including forensic experts from the US, Britain and elsewhere who are trying to assist in the investigation. The deaths of the five were announced before the building collapse yet officials say the bodies are likely buried beneath the rubble.

For now, the whereabouts of the attack’s perpetrators remains unclear, along with much else.

Fortunate civilians who escaped during the early hours of the assault reported seeing gunmen donning civilian clothes and hiding themselves among the fleeing crowds. Days after the siege ended a sewage tunnel was discovered leading from the basement car park to a nearby river raising fears that some of the terrorists may have escaped.

The bungling of the operation would be bad enough, but then came the reports of wholesale looting of the mall during a time when the government insisted the army was “in full control.”

Shopkeepers who were allowed to return to the mall this week found their shops broken into and ransacked, safes busted open, cash tills smashed, shelves and display cases empty and mannequins bare. Laptops, mobile phones, watches, cameras, jewelry, cash and booze were all gone.

“Between around 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, when the last of the police and photographers were bundled out and yesterday, when shop owners returned, businesses appear to have been systematically ransacked and looted,” Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper reported this week.

A shopkeeper told Reuters that, “the whole place has been done over.” According to a report by the Associated Press a soldier even took cigarettes from a dead man.

A short video clip widely shared by Kenyans on social media showed tables in a ground-floor restaurant stacked with empty beer bottles.

Neither Islamic militants nor terrified civilians are thought to be responsible for guzzling the bar’s alcohol stocks.

Kenyan MPs are quizzing security chiefs on what intelligence they had ahead of the attack and what went wrong during the siege while President Kenyatta has also announced a commission of inquiry to look into Westgate — though such commissions in the past have often come to nothing.